Criterion Sunday 280: 大菩薩峠 Daibosatsu Toge (The Sword of Doom, 1966)

There’s what feels like an almost unceasing parade of swordplay violence in this film, resulting in scores if not hundreds of piled-up casualties, largely of our antihero Ryunosuke (Tatsuya Nakadai), though Toshiro Mifune weighs in for one memorable scene that gives the otherwise unstoppably evil-doing Ryunosuke a moment of brief pause. It’s enough to make you think that maybe that’s what the film is doing: the title could be referring to Ryunosuke’s sword, after all, but perhaps by extension it’s all swords and “doom” is just the outcome of violent behaviour. The film is set near the end of the shogunate, so samurai are on the decline and this film enacts in a sense this final death rattle of lawless mercenary violence. It does this with some fantastically composed monochrome style, as Nakadai moves blankly (he has the unfeeling mien of a sociopath) towards both swords and doom, with nihilistic rigour.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Kihachi Okamoto 岡本喜八; Writer Shinobu Hashimoto 橋本忍 (based on the novel by Kaizan Nakazato 中里介山); Cinematographer Hiroshi Murai 村井博; Starring Tatsuya Nakadai 仲代達矢, Yuzo Kayama 加山雄三, Michiyo Aratama 新珠三千代, Toshiro Mifune 三船敏郎; Length 119 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Friday 29 November 2019.

Criterion Sunday 278: L’eclisse (1962)

Antonioni, I feel, made a lot of films about boredom, or about people being bored, and it’s easy to slip into imagining they are boring films (to some, they are of course), but I love the moods he creates. Monica Vitti and Alain Delon slip into and around the frame in an almost endlessly reconfigurable number of ways, stopping only to look disconsolately off screen (and that’s how Vitti ends her screen performance in this film, last of a loosely-themed trilogy by Antonioni). She doesn’t seem to want love, or finds it boring perhaps, and then falls into the orbit of Delon’s stockbroker, whom she is equally unpassionate towards until near the end. Like the character halfway through L’avventura (1960), here all the film’s characters seem to disappear just before the end, as the world they’ve created continues, silent and without passion, in the places they have lived their lives and plan to keep living them, the water ebbing away from a rusted barrel, while the architecture blankly comments on the streets below. It’s a rondo of sorts between these two characters, and a movement through dead space, beautiful but always ultimately suffused with a boredom that emanates not just from the characters but from those around them, as if it’s the state of the universe.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Michelangelo Antonioni; Writers Antonioni, Tonino Guerra, Elio Bartolini and Ottiero Ottieri; Cinematographer Gianni Di Venanzo; Starring Monica Vitti, Alain Delon, Francisco Rabal; Length 126 minutes.

Seen at National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 16 October 2002 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Saturday 23 November 2019).

Top Hat (1935)

Wrapping up my several weeks catching up on my favourite films I saw for the first time in 2019, is this Astaire-Rogers musical, generally considered to be their best collaboration and certainly the most famous of them all. It’s a delightful attempt to recreate some of the Lubitsch touch (with some uncredited inspiration taken from Hungarian plays of the era, which fits in with the European-ness of the whole undertaking), and it moves along with gay abandon.


I do not love a mistaken identity plot, and it was probably a tired device even in 1935, but somehow this film manages to make it almost acceptable, though it remains a source of great frustration every time someone fails to say their name and the film gets into some huge contortions trying to keep the whole thing going. And yet! Of course it is delightful, for there is dancing. Fred Astaire plays Jerry, a professional dancer, something of a big name who finds himself in (some weird cinematic form of) London to star in Horace (Edward Everett Horton)’s stage show, a dramatic conceit that’s quickly forgotten about when… Jerry falls in love with Ginger Rogers’s Dale (not playing a character who is a professional dancer, just a character who happens to be really good at dancing) and must fly off to (an even weirder cinematic soundstage recreation of) Venice to woo her. There are all kinds of misunderstandings wrapped up with this convoluted plot, among which one that leads to Horace being punched in the face by his wife Madge (Helen Broderick, who is, by the way, a comic highlight along with Erik Rhodes as the archly self-regarding Beddini) but the writing keeps it all tight and moving along swiftly. Ginger’s dresses are also particularly on point, and the whole thing is, to use a term which was then used rather more casually (but nonetheless aptly), a gay affair. Nice to see, too, that Eric Blore’s valet Bates uses they/them pronouns.

Top Hat film posterCREDITS
Director Mark Sandrich; Writer Dwight Taylor and Allan Scott; Cinematographer David Abel; Starring Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Edward Everett Horton, Helen Broderick, Erik Rhodes, Eric Blore; Length 101 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Tuesday 30 December 2019.

Маяк Mayak (The Lighthouse, 2006)

I’m still going to be covering some of my favourite films I saw during 2019 until at least the end of this week, as well as inevitable best-of lists. As it happens, the end of this month sees the UK release of another film called The Lighthouse, but not to be confused with that Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe psychodrama is this 2006 film by Armenian director Maria Saakyan, who died far too young in January 2018, from cancer. It’s expressionist and beautiful and weaves a poetic tableaux of rural Armenian life interrupted by war.


This poetic, beautiful film that touches on war and family in rural Armenia is very much my kind of thing, where the narrative almost takes a back seat to imagery that suggests via metaphor and allusion to inner states, as Lena (Anna Kapaleva) tries to get her family out of a war-strewn area. It feels very much like some Theo Angelopoulos films (but without the overweening self-importance) or the more elegiac films of Aleksandr Sokurov, and to be sure there’s a lot of beautiful and potent imagery that can feel almost abstract. And yet, focusing on the women of this village grounds it in customs and lived experienced in a successful way I think. It’s really very sad that the filmmaker didn’t live to make many more films, because as a debut feature this is extraordinary.

The Lighthouse film posterCREDITS
Director Maria Saakyan Мария Саакян; Writer Givi Shavgulidze Гиви Шавгулидзе; Cinematographer Maxim Drozdov Максим Дроздов; Starring Anna Kapaleva Анна Капалева; Length 80 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 9 March 2019.

Her Smell (2018)

Another late entry for possible inclusion on my ‘best-of-year’ lists, as I try to catch up with things I’d missed (in this case, largely because it was dumped straight to VOD platforms at some point this year without any festival or cinema screenings in the UK), is also surely a contender for worst title of the year. It’s the latest from Alex Ross Perry, the auteur behind the self-loathing men of Listen Up Philip (2014) and the Bergmanesque chamber drama Queen of Earth (2015), both also starring Elisabeth Moss in key roles. It deals with a certain brand of self-destructive rock star behaviour (seen also this year in Vox Lux, and a few years ago in Beyond the Lights), and channels a kind of 90s energy that suggests to me that it is, subtly, a period piece (I don’t think it anywhere makes it clear when it’s set, but I’m assuming in the 2000s). Anyway, it looks fab and it’s a lot funnier than you might expect. I’d have loved to have seen it on a big screen.


A messy psychodrama such as Alex Ross Perry now has form for making, but I think this may be my favourite of his. It’s certainly got a rawness to it, perhaps only sharpened by flirting with the danger that is inherent in trying to cinematically recreate music of the past (in this case sort of pseudo-Hole 90s woman-led rock music) in a way that doesn’t come across as embarrassingly off-key. For the most part, Moss and Perry pull it off rather well, but this is a story that focuses on Moss’s Becky Something as performer, pulled apart by the industry (personified by Eric Stoltz’s indie label boss; nice to see him on-screen for the second time after so many years), the demands of fame and performance, just barely holding it together. Becky’s problems run much deeper than drinking and drugs, of course, but those are catalysts to some epic disintegration in the first half of the film, which leads into reflective scenes towards the end. Still, even when it all seems to come together (beautifully, climactically so), it’s still always kinda falling apart, but in a way that feels earned by the ensemble. The title sits somewhat weirdly, but the loving recreation of 1990s and 2000s album art in the end credits is wondrous.

Her Smell film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Alex Ross Perry; Cinematographer Sean Price Williams; Starring Elisabeth Moss, Agyness Deyn, Eric Stoltz, Dan Stevens, Gayle Rankin, Virginia Madsen; Length 135 minutes.
Seen at home (Amazon streaming), London, Tuesday 30 December 2019.

Holiday (2018)

I couldn’t find a category in my themed weeks in which to house this Danish-Dutch-Swedish co-production (albeit set in Turkey). There’s been a lot of talk in the last few years about what a “#MeToo” film might look like, but there have always been filmmakers making dramas about the psychological violence of patriarchy, and this is very much a film about that, which may not make it the film you most want to watch when you’re winding down at the end of a year — this is absolutely not to be confused with the more seasonally-appropriate The Holiday (2006), a very different film entirely — but it’s a compelling and direct drama all the same.


It’s probably fair to say this isn’t an easy movie to watch. The exquisitely poised formal style of the film, people framed in bright open, modern spaces (it’s set at a beach house in Turkey being rented by criminals) and with a largely fixed camera, creates the impression of a languid atmosphere, but yet there is evident tension reverberating through every frame. This is created from the start by situating us with a young blonde woman, Sascha (Victoria Carmen Sonne), who is being picked up by an older man. It’s not clear what their relationship is, but it becomes evident that he is not happy with her and when he slaps her it immediately puts the whole audience on edge. This man turns out to be a minor side character who’s not seen for much of the rest of the film, and when the filmmaker, Swedish director Isabella Eklöf, moves the action on to Sascha with her boyfriend Michael (Lai Yde) at the beach house, she momentarily allows us to feel relaxed by their apparently loving interaction. However, it soon becomes clear that he’s keeping her (she refers to him as her boss at one point) and that he’s involved with shady business, so his behaviour towards her and around her slowly comes to seem a little more creepy and insidious, especially when she makes friends with some other tourists in their resort. Although the film follows Sascha, she never gets any monologues to explain how she feels, and much of the emotional journey is mapped out on her face and through her actions. What we’re left with is a film that seems to inscribe patriarchal violence into every frame, into the setting, the architecture, the vehicles, but that hardly lessens those scenes where it erupts into actual violence (even when it’s implied or just heard off-screen), and the transfigurative effect that it plays on the psyche of those like Sascha who are abused; her own turn towards the end of the film feels entirely within the scope of this story.

Holiday film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Isabella Eklöf; Cinematographer Nadim Carlsen; Starring Victoria Carmen Sonne, Lai Yde, Thijs Römer; Length 93 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Wednesday 7 August 2019.

Little Women (1994)

Well, I’ve done my due diligence now and have watched Gillian Armstrong’s 1990s adaptation of this perennial classic. It’s as white as the snow that adorns the Christmastime landscapes, but has many of the same delights as the most recent adaptation by Greta Gerwig.


Watching this for the first time after seeing the latest adaptation, and it feels in retrospect like that was a remix of this one (not least because the two adaptations share the same producers). Gerwig’s version cuts up the narrative, and reimagines what some of the leads might be like with different actors, but they have a certain fidelity in some respects. For my money, Christian Bale here has exactly the same dandyish energy as Timothée Chalamet in the new one and controversial as it may be, I like Saoirse Ronan more than Winona Ryder, although I don’t think it can be overestimated just how much Ryder embodied the 1990s in cinema. I feel sad that Trini Alvarado never had much of a (film) career after this, because she is every bit as good as everyone else in this ensemble cast. There’s a lush, almost nostalgic glow, but the film doesn’t dwell in this comfort, acknowledging the hardship and the sadness of life that surrounds the family. And then of course there’s Beth, who surely never had a better rendition than that by Claire Danes. Somehow director Gillian Armstrong’s choice to cut from her final bed scene to the nanny harshly ripping apart roses feels perfect, and in many ways this film may come to be viewed as one of the finest of the decade.

Little Women film posterCREDITS
Director Gillian Armstrong; Writer Robin Swicord (based on the novel by Louisa May Alcott); Cinematographer Geoffrey Simpson; Starring Winona Ryder, Christian Bale, Susan Sarandon, Trini Alvarado, Claire Danes, Kirsten Dunst, Gabriel Byrne; Length 118 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Friday 27 December 2019.

Little Women (2019)

Given this film has only just been released, it’s a late entry into my contenders for favourite of the year. To my shame, I’ve never seen a previous adaptation, and I’ve had the book unread on my shelf for half my life. I intend to remedy both points, as I’ve now ordered a copy of the much-beloved 1994 version by Gillian Armstrong; I was a teenager when it came out which may be why I didn’t see it then. Still, this latest film convinces me that it’ll be worthwhile.


I’ve seen some criticisms of this that mostly follow along the lines of the way it’s put together — not just the tricksy narrative conceit of bridging a seven year gap in the sisters’ storylines by constant cross-cutting, and the way that the death of [you all know which one right; we all know that surely by now, this story having been made so very many times?] becomes so emblematic of the death of their childhoods, as they move into a world of adult responsibilities… but also the way that the editing feels rather choppy, as if in a rush to move through this story. I can understand that some might suggest it would make a better miniseries, but honestly I think there’s little need to dwell too long on such a familiar story.

Despite not having read the original or seen any previous adaptation, the character arcs feel somehow very familiar, even as director Greta Gerwig brings something modern to the story. I imagine the older sister Meg has always felt a little bit underpowered (and requires someone of the iconic stature of Emma Watson to even bring a little bit of pathos to a very telegraphed storyline). Beth has humanity here, ironically a little bit more life to her than I had expected, but as presented it feels as if Little Women is canonically all about the conflict between Jo and Amy — and those more familiar with the story can put me right if this isn’t the case. Both Saoirse Ronan and Florence Pugh are wonderful actors, perhaps the best of anyone in the cast (and this is a cast with Laura Dern and Meryl Streep in it), but they capture the most attention, and there’s as much nuance in both performances as in any of recent memory (as much as in Streep’s, doing some of her finest work in years I think for the number of scenes she has). There are, for example, inflections to Ronan’s face in certain scenes that pull me back strongly to Cate Blanchett in Carol (if only because I’ve seen that film so often and so recently, not that I’m suggesting anything about Jo, though it certainly did cross my mind).

Aside from the acting, there’s a heavy emphasis on the monetary, proprietorial nature of marriage in this era, the sense of romantic partnership as transaction, which is what makes Amy’s storyline in particular so freighted with pathos. There’s this short scene where Streep’s elderly aunt calls Amy in from painting, something she loves and enjoys and wants to make a success out of (despite her self-awareness of her own limitations), to baldly inform her that the fate of the family basically rests on her making a good marriage and to forget about the frivolity of learning and artistic endeavour she’s currently engaged in. There are several scenes of this nature — in which women are confronted matter-of-factly with the reality of their world — that pass by almost subliminally, given the aforementioned speed of the film and its editing, but which resoundingly linger as these contrapuntal notes in what is otherwise a beautiful, warm and enriching film about life, with all the autumnal beauty and familial warmth you’d expect from a U-rated period drama. I suppose it could feel a little heavy-handed, but I think it all works enormously well within the context of a properly family film to make clear the constraints within which the characters live.

Little Women film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Greta Gerwig (based on the novel by Louisa May Alcott); Cinematographer Yorick Le Saux; Starring Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh, Emma Watson, Laura Dern, Timothée Chalamet, Eliza Scanlen, Meryl Streep; Length 135 minutes.
Seen at Odeon Holloway, London, Thursday 26 December 2019.

Eighth Grade (2018)

Released last year in the States, and garnering most of its awards attention at that time, this teen film was released earlier this year in the UK. It at times has the feel of a film about the kids made by a sympathetic older brother figure, but the key is that it is sympathetic and not too judgmental about what is, after all, a very emotionally turbulent time.


I don’t know anything about being an 8th grader (which is I believe age 13/14) in the United States, and I’m too old to really understand the kids now, but this film captures some what we might nowadays call “emotional truths” of being at that age, just before reaching high school, the awkwardness and the desperation, which feel very real and understandable. In a sense, it’s the base of just about every American coming of age high school movie, about the cliques and the fitting in, and the dealing with your parents, but this is done not so much as a boldly-coloured satirical comedy, but as something a little deeper and more complex. It has a lot of laughs (although some of them are laughs of anxiety in the face of potential humiliation), but it’s also pretty gruelling at times. When I think about it, nothing particularly awful really happens, but the way it’s framed, it’s all turmoil and heartbreak and so every detail feels a lot more life-threatening than any individual one might be, and that’s where I think the strength of the film is. Also, there are lots of canny shots and nicely-realised scenes that make it seem as if the director has a great sense of how to set up these moments.

Eighth Grade film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Bo Burnham; Cinematographer Andrew Wehde; Starring Elsie Fisher, Emily Robinson, Josh Hamilton; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Sunday 21 April 2019.

崖の上のポニョ Gake no Ue no Ponyo (Ponyo, 2008)

I’ve reviewed a few of Studio Ghibli co-founder Isao Takahata’s films on my blog (such as My Neighbours the Yamadas earlier today, and The Tale of the Princess Kaguya), but I’ve not yet touched on the most famous figure from that studio, Hayao Miyazaki. I’ve now seen a number of his films, though, and for all my sneering at the idea of them when I was younger, they are in fact all remarkably good. My favourite remains Spirited Away which perhaps one day I shall write about here, but in the meantime here’s the one with the catchiest theme song…


I’m not honestly sure how one reviews Miyazaki-san’s films. I resisted them for so long when I was younger, assuming them to be twee nonsense, but they have a genuine sense of wonder that is difficult to express in a critical discourse — something about the rush of colours, the transformative and magical that lurks in the everyday, and the blending of quotidian reality with supernatural undersea elements. The set-up is that Sosuke is a five-year-old boy living at home with his mum (who works at the local retirement community) while dad is out for long stretches on the high seas. This land-based reality is mirrored by an alternate underwater family structure: his absent father becomes Fujimoto, a grumpy sorcerer who hates humans and is trying to repopulate the oceans, the mother is now a mystical deity, and the magical fish-human of the title is like a reflected sister/partner for Sosuke. The themes of the environmental devastation (which Fujimoto is working to counter), and the way that this is reflected in the dangerous volitility of the ocean, are all expressed very gently, but even in the joy of the animation you get a sense of this threat underlying it all.

Ponyo film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Hayao Miyazaki 宮崎駿; Starring Yuria Nara ならゆりあ, Hiroki Doi 土井洋輝; Length 101 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 30 November 2019.