Criterion Sunday 210: Nattvardsgästerna (Winter Light, 1963)

The second of Bergman’s loosely-defined faith trilogy, I do much prefer Winter Light to Through a Glass Darkly, though obviously they share a number of threads — the idea of God as a spider, a questioning attitude to the divine presence, many of the same actors and Sven Nykvist’s extraordinary camera. This film has a lugubrious pace, but also, at times, touches of what seem like humour (much the way I find humour in Bresson too: utterly po-faced, but yet somehow not without mischief). Its central character, a priest (Gunnar Björnstrand), is unable to reach God, feels himself a failure, and watches as his congregation dwindles. The film’s title in Swedish is “The Communicants” and there’s a sense in which each character in the film is trying to somehow commune with God. If the previous film posits Love as the connecting force, this seems far more tenuous here, though perhaps there’s something there, like an empathy which Björnstrand’s character so abjectly fails to achieve. One of Bergman’s better works, I think.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Ingmar Bergman | Cinematographer Sven Nykvist | Starring Gunnar Björnstrand, Ingrid Thulin, Max von Sydow, Gunnel Lindblom | Length 81 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Thursday 5 April 2018

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Criterion Sunday 209: Såsom i en spegel (Through a Glass Darkly, 1961)

I’m willing to concede that Bergman was a great filmmaker, and I have no doubt that if I came to this with the willingness to engage with it that Bergman comes to his filmmaking, then I’d probably connect with it more. It looks beautiful, to be sure, with lots of full-face close-ups, and that windswept Fårö scenery. It’s intense in its psychodrama, dealing as it does (and as is not unusual for the director) with faith, the connection with God, so tenuous and so alluring. The woman has mental health issues from which she’s recovering, and this much feels a little bit rote: beautiful women suffering for the love of God is something of a worn trope. But, as I say, were I to revisit this again, perhaps I would connect with it better, or perhaps if I came from a certain type of family, I’d appreciate the dynamics more.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Ingmar Bergman | Cinematographer Sven Nykvist | Starring Harriet Andersson, Gunnar Björnstrand, Max von Sydow, Lars Passgård | Length 91 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 1 April 2018

Criterion Sunday 208: “A Film Trilogy by Ingmar Bergman”

You’re never far from a Bergman film in the Criterion collection — and indeed this “trilogy” includes four films, as one of them is a documentary about the making of Winter Light. As ever, themes of religious doubt and persecution come to the fore in all three, all of which have a cloistered setting and a rigorous technical mastery. There’s no doubt that Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light and The Silence present a unified vision on the world, it’s just a rather austere one.

September 2018 Film Roundup

My August round-up was late, so here I am back (more or less) on time with September. The start of the month I was in LA with family, but since then I’ve been back to the cinema. In fact, 63% of the films I saw last month were at the cinema, though I only scraped by with one film per day on average in any location including home (which is the lowest of the year so far and will certainly be surpassed in October, which is London Film Festival month). In fact, generally it was a poor month for women directors and directors of colour so I’ll be looking to redress that with my film festival picks. (As ever, daily write-ups are at Letterboxd.)

Top 5 New Films (on their first release in the UK)


Skate Kitchen (2018, dir. Crystal Moselle)
The Miseducation of Cameron Post (2018, dir. Desiree Akhavan)
A Simple Favor (aka A Simple Favour, 2018, dir. Paul Feig)
Lucky (2017, dir. John Carroll Lynch)
Visages villages (Faces Places, 2017, dir. Agnès Varda/JR)

All of these films were seen in the cinema, for a change, including the very belated UK release of Agnès Varda’s documentary (which premiered at Cannes last year). Lucky was also a slow road to UK cinemas — its star Harry Dean Stanton sadly passed away in the meantime — but it has that kind of Straight Story/Jarmusch vibe, so it holds up. The others are far more current and vibrant, and I was in particular surprised by A Simple Favor which was silly and genre-bending, but had comedy, thrills and some excellent acting from Blake Lively and Anna Kendrick.

As for the top two, I’ve definitely seen some far less sympathetic write-ups — and I do agree that Skate Kitchen‘s actual story is a little bit rote — but in both cases I love the style, that sort of quiet reflective almost accidental way of coming across a narrative. The first is also infused with documentary influences, which work really well.

Top 10 Old Films (but new to me)


The Spook Who Sat by the Door (1973, dir. Ivan Dixon)
Samson and Delilah (2009, dir. Warwick Thornton)
Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt (Berlin: A Symphony of a Great City, 1927, dir. Walther Ruttmann)
Onibaba (1964, dir. Kaneto Shindo)
Ukigusa Monogatari (A Story of Floating Weeds, 1934, dir. Yasujiro Ozu)
Chameleon Street (1989, dir. Wendell B. Harris Jr)
Salvatore Giuliano (1962, dir. Francesco Rosi)
Le Corbeau (1943, dir. Henri-Georges Clouzot)
Listen to Britain (1942, dir. Humphrey Jennings/Stewart McAllister)
People Power Bombshell: The Diary of Vietnam Rose (2016, dir. John Torres)

I saw three of these in the cinema, two of them in a “Black and Banned” retrospective at the BFI of under-seen filmmaking by Black filmmakers — though neither The Spook Who Sat by the Door (a wild satire which reminded me of last month’s Sorry to Bother You) nor Chameleon Street (another satire, and a Sundance favourite) were banned per se, they did de facto slip into that category by being shunned by distributors and then locked away in purgatory, meaning they never got proper distribution. The other film I saw in the cinema was a Filipino film about film history and representation, People Power Bombshell, a very thoughtful and multilayered film which probably should be in the top list (can’t imagine it’s had any other kind of release).

Mubi stepped up for Berlin and Listen to Britain, but otherwise I’ve mainly been watching short films there (the latter is a short), and somewhat more complex (and clearly unsatisfying) films this month. A very strong four films come from the regular Criterion Collection watching, so expect reviews of them in upcoming months. Finally, there’s Samson and Delilah, which I rented on DVD because I really liked the director’s recent Sweet Country, and it is indeed an excellent (if expectedly depressing) story about Aboriginal Australians.

Criterion Sunday 207: Erogotoshitachi Yori Jinruigaku Nyumon (The Pornographers, 1966)

This Japanese film about a small-time filth merchant doesn’t actually feature any of what the title suggests (probably for the best) but is instead a sort of odd, madcap series of incidents that hangs together really strangely — although I admit I was a little drowsy when I watched it, which hardly helped me keep it all straight, though I don’t really think it’s interested in straightforward narrative storytelling. It has enough oddity to make it more of a satire, and it probably helps if you know the society to pick up on what’s being skewered.

Criterion Extras: Nothing but a trailer.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Shohei Imamura | Writers Imamura and Koji Numata | Cinematographer Shinsaku Himeda | Starring Shoichi Ozawa | Length 128 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 8 April 2018

Criterion Sunday 206: Lola (1981)

I’d seen this before when I was younger, but perhaps I was an idiot, because I remember almost nothing about this film, and yet it is so very striking. It feels like finally, after years of flirting, Fassbinder completely nails the Sirkian aesthetic, in all its garish heady blend of colours and framing and little satirical nudges about Germany society in the 1970s. It’s a story of corrupt small town politicians and developers, and of course it’s also about sex and desire too. It’s a venal world, and apparently little is going to change that, but Armin Mueller-Stahl’s bureaucrat tries his best all the same. Every successive shot is a masterclass in lighting, all saturated colours and a strange blue highlight used for Mueller-Stahl’s eyes whenever he’s in his office. It’s a gorgeous film about — what else — but moral turpitude and the baseness of the human spirit.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Rainer Werner Fassbinder | Writers Fassbinder, Pea Fröhlich and Peter Märthesheimer | Cinematographer Xaver Schwarzenberger | Starring Barbara Sukowa, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Mario Adorf | Length 113 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 1 April 2018 (and before that on VHS in the university library in Wellington, March 2000)

August 2018 Film Roundup

I was on holiday at the start of the month, so I entirely neglected this at the time, hence the lateness. My July round-up was a bumper bonus crop, so I’m back to the usual five new and 10 old films this month, though you can rest assured I saw more of both, a total of 44 films including rewatches. (As ever, daily write-ups are at Letterboxd.)

Top 5 New Films (on their first release in the UK)


Madeline’s Madeline (2018, dir. Josephine Decker)
Sorry to Bother You (2018, dir. Boots Riley)
Las herederas (The Heiresses, 2018, dir. Marcelo Martinessi)
To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before (2018, dir. Susan Johnson)
Las Sandinistas (2018, dir. Jenny Murray)

First up, the most important point to make is that the first two films haven’t even been released in the UK (though they’re new films obviously, hence their inclusion). Madeline’s Madeline is about an experimental theatre troupe and deals with issues of performance, and socialisation in groups, and is being shown at the London Film Festival in October. I adored the same director’s previous films Butter on the Latch (2013) and Thou Wast Mild and Lovely (2014) — the latter, in particular, has imagery that still sticks in my mind, so I feel I should really revisit it.

The second film is a raucous satire about black people in modern America, and I can only presume distributors don’t think it will appeal to British audiences (which is just ridiculous). It fizzes with energy, even if it can seem a little madcap at times — though there’s no amount of comic stretching that could really compare to the reality of the situation — so I’m inclined to allow the film its wilder imagery. The performances are stellar too, not least Lakeith Stanfield in the central role, and Tessa Thompson as his nihilist artist girlfriend Detroit. I hope it gets a UK release before the year is out.

The other three are a mix of films in the cinema — The Heiresses a slow-burn Paraguayan drama about two an elderly lesbian couple, one of whom suddenly finds herself needing to express her independence, and Las Sandinistas a documentary about that Nicaraguan movement, especially during the 80s and 90s, which takes the form of an almost rock-and-roll assemblage and moves along nimbly.

Finally, there’s a rare triumph of a Netflix film (To All the Boys…) which may not be the most cinematically advanced film, and may rely on at least some hoary old genres, but manages to feel fresh and also, crucially, just utterly delightful and charming.

Top 10 Old Films (but new to me)


Pickup on South Street (1953, dir. Samuel Fuller)
Se, Jie (Lust, Caution, 2007, dir. Ang Lee)
Le Bonheur (1965, dir. Agnes Varda)
Public Housing (1997, dir. Frederick Wiseman)
Bei Xi Mo Shou (Behemoth, 2015, dir. Zhao Liang)
La Pointe-Courte (1955, dir. Agnes Varda)
Werewolf (2016, dir. Ashley Mackenzie)
Fruitvale Station (2013, dir. Ryan Coogler)
Blue Black Permanent (1992, dir. Margaret Tait)
Malgré la nuit (Despite the Night, 2015, dir. Philippe Grandrieux)

The Mubi streaming service again provides a number of these — an Ang Lee season allowed me to catch up with his Lust, Caution, which turns out to be an effective and lush film about espionage and relationships wartime China, while a season of new Canadian films yielded Werewolf, my favourite of the bunch I’ve seen, which despite the title deals with methadone addicts in small-town Canada, and has a striking style (also, it may technically count as a ‘new film’ I guess, given I daresay it hasn’t had any kind of screening before now in the UK). Finally, Blue Black Permanent was something they put up in collaboration with the wonderful Cinema Rediscovered festival at Bristol’s Watershed, and is a fine film made by a poet, and which has that sensibility to its imagery.

A couple of others come from a touring Agnès Varda season that’s been doing the rounds ahead of her upcoming Faces Places film (released in the UK on 21 September, finally). I’d seen neither Le Bonheur (a spiky relationship drama) nor her debut La Pointe-Courte (about a small fishing village), but both are excellent, though dare I say it perhaps Varda is getting a little overexposed now…

The top place goes to a film I saw as part of my regular Criterion watching, a film by Samuel Fuller that’s equal to his muckracking tabloid-style movies of the 60s, and has noirish style to spare, in its story of wartime espionage, Communist spies, and a wonderful Thelma Ritter as an embittered lady who’s not taking it anymore.

The rest are all films I rented over the month, a range of documentaries (Behemoth about strip-mining in China, and Public Housing about, er, well you can guess… in Chicago), a film torn from the headlines (Ryan Coogler’s fine debut Fruitvale Station, about a shooting on the San Francisco BART system), and Philippe Grandrieux’s bold expressive film about his usual dark subject matter: relationships gone bad.

Criterion Sunday 205: Die Sehnsucht der Veronika Voss (Veronika Voss, 1982)

One of Fassbinder’s final films (indeed, the last to be released in his lifetime), this is a dreamlike reverie of soft black-and-white, specifically an hommage to a presumed golden era of Hollywood (and Nazi-era) filmmaking, flashbacks to which are all starry-eyed lights and slinky fashion. The star of these films is the title character (Rosel Zech), who a decade after World War II is struggling to get work and struggling to keep her fragile sense of identity. She meets a sports reporter (Hilmar Thate) who doesn’t know who she is, and strikes up an affair, during which he discovers she’s being drugged by a rapacious doctor (Annemarie Düringer), and resolves to try and free her. These genre elements though are largely interwoven into a story that’s about the dangerous addiction not just to morphine but to fame itself, with a subtle through line of satire that is difficult to laugh at given the suffocating atmosphere of much of the film. It’s a more admirable piece than one I genuinely love, but thus is often the way with Fassbinder.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Rainer Werner Fassbinder | Writers Fassbinder, Pea Fröhlich and Peter Märthesheimer | Cinematographer Xaver Schwarzenberger | Starring Rosel Zech, Hilmar Thate, Cornelia Froboess, Annemarie Düringer | Length 104 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 25 March 2018 (and before that on VHS at the university library in Wellington, April 2000)

Criterion Sunday 204: Die Ehe der Maria Braun (The Marriage of Maria Braun, 1978)

She’s an attractive woman, Hanna Schygulla is (as the title character), and that’s only one of the things she uses to get ahead in the post-World War II mess of West Germany. Maria’s dogged pursuit of her goals, flirting with other men before returning to her pre-War husband (who returns unexpectedly even after she’d given up on him), makes her a potent symbol of Germany in the period, and this film thus functions as something of an allegory. Certainly those closing scenes, soundtracked by the insistent voice of a football commentator narrating a successful German game, drives that home. It may not be Fassbinder’s most flashy film, not the one perhaps with the greatest cult credentials, but it’s a wonderfully resonant piece, I think, underpinned by a great central performance by Schygulla.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Rainer Werner Fassbinder | Writers Peter Märthesheimer and Pea Fröhlich | Cinematographer Michael Ballhaus | Starring Hanna Schygulla, Klaus Löwitsch, Ivan Desny | Length 115 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 18 March 2018 (and before that on VHS in Wellington, November 1997, and at university in Wellington, March 2000)

Criterion Sunday 203: “The BRD Trilogy”

Not long after their first Fassbinder film, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974) comes this box set collecting Fassbinder’s late career films dealing with the history of post-war Germany using the stories of three women: Maria Braun, the wife of a soldier in The Marriage of Maria Braun; the actress Veronika Voss; and a nightclub singer called Lola.

As usual, it’s packed with extras, and there’s a full disc of bonus featurettes and documentaries, not least I Don’t Just Want You to Love Me (1993), a feature-length career overview, as well as plenty of video interviews and commentaries. One day I’ll get round to watching them, and update this page…