Criterion Sunday 613: Sommarlek (Summer Interlude, 1951)

One of Bergman’s earlier films, he’s finding his way to some of his most enduring themes here, via the story of a traumatic past haunting the present for a ballerina, Marie (Maj-Britt Nilsson). But it’s not just trauma: there are truly happy moments that seem to mock her from the past, as she labours in misery with a rather priggish and accusatory boyfriend (Alf Kjellin). Of course, her first love Hendrik (Birger Malmsten) had his faults too, but the past scenes, teenage years by a lake, lit brightly, with an effervescence to them, feel like a different film (despite the actors being the same). They pick wild strawberries, they go for a swim, there’s a joy that’s clearly lacking in the present day scenes. But light and darkness are intermingled, and the memories of the past can bring respite to us, though as ever in Bergman the solaces of religion are of variable quality.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Ingmar Bergman; Writers Bergman and Herbert Grevenius (based on a story by Bergman); Cinematographer Gunnar Fischer; Starring Maj-Britt Nilsson, Birger Malmsten, Alf Kjellin; Length 96 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Tuesday 17 January 2023.

Criterion Sunday 611: Being John Malkovich (1999)

I can’t really be considered part of the cult following of Charlie Kaufman. The tone of his work just doesn’t resonate with me so much, and there’s a lot here too, in what must surely be considered his foundational work, that leaves me a little cold (though it clearly works for a lot of people). That said, like plenty of classic comedies (albeit with an ironic 90s tone), this film throws so much at the screen that plenty of it does hit, and some of it really is quite affectingly off the wall. Specifically, the way that the film utilises Cameron Diaz is very much against type, and Catherine Keener too has never been more striking (usually those two actresses would be playing these roles the other way round, you feel), but together they create an emotional bond via the mediation of the titular figure that almost erases John Cusack’s puppeteer from the film entirely. By the final third, things have been put in motion that pull the film off in all kinds of weird directions, and the constant accrual of detail makes for a rather rich and perplexing series of thematic explosions that have a cinematic pyrotechnic value at the very least, though some even achieve emotional resonance. It remains a film I still admire more than fully love, but that’s on me; it’s a singular American achievement both coming out of the 1990s and drawing a line under it for a new decade.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Spike Jonze; Writer Charlie Kaufman; Cinematographer Lance Acord; Starring John Cusack, Catherine Keener, Cameron Diaz, John Malkovich, Orson Bean; Length 113 minutes.

Seen at the Penthouse, Wellington, Saturday 27 May 2000 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Sunday 29 January 2023).

Criterion Sunday 608: Harold and Maude (1971)

Having not been much of a commercial (or indeed, critical) success at the time of its release, like a lot of the New American cinema of the 1970s, this film has attained a certain cult status. It’s easy perhaps to see why, with its unconventional story of the odd, cherubic-faced, yet morbidly death-obsessed young Harold (Bud Cort) falling in love with the elderly Maude (Ruth Gordon) after meeting at funerals which they’ve been in the habit of crashing. As we see in the early part of the film, Harold has a flair for staging elaborate suicide scenes for the benefit (well, not ‘benefit’ exactly) of his status and image-obsessed mother (Vivian Pickles). Indeed their grand home is not unlike a mausoleum, with its rich mahogany surfaces and elaborate ornamentation. I can’t be entirely sure I like the resulting film, though it surely has its moments, and the romance (such as it is) is treated fairly obliquely. The two characters have contrasting, but complementary, personalities, as Maude seeks to teach Harold something about why life is worth living, and there’s a gratuitous shot of a fading tattoo on her forearm near the end just to drive that point home. But for the most part this is a pleasantly agreeable little black comedy about an odd couple, and made with assured directorial flair by Hal Ashby.

(Written on 30 December 2014.)


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Hal Ashby; Writer Colin Higgins; Cinematographer John Alonzo; Starring Ruth Gordon, Bud Cort, Vivian Pickles; Length 91 minutes.

Seen at ICA, London, Sunday 28 December 2014.

Turning Red (2022)

The full list of my favourite films of 2022 is here but I’m posting fuller reviews of my favourites. There aren’t too many animated films in there, because I don’t go to so many of those anymore, which it turns out is fine because Disney is barely making an effort to get them into cinemas, so most need to be watched via their streaming service. Hence this one, which I gave a shot to because it seemed to come from a more interesting perspective than fairytale princesses, and it is indeed very lovely.


It’s somewhat sad to me that Pixar films are so rarely nowadays shown in cinemas, because the attention to detail in the design and the animation that shows in films like this, or the previous year’s Soul, deserve the big screen but instead we have to subscribe to Disney+, which somehow lessens them. It also leads to factoids like it being the biggest money loser for a cinematic release (even though I’m fairly certain it was barely placed in any cinemas worldwide).

However, Turning Red still strikes me as one of the better recent crop of animated films, which both tells a discernable story from a specific perspective (a young girl from a Chinese background growing up in Toronto, voiced by Rosalie Chiang), but makes it both metaphorically rich and also cartoonishly cute at the same time. A lot of elements feel familiar from any coming of age/high school American movie, with its cliques of friends and confected schoolyard drama, but there’s a real strength to its focus on the setting, the details of the family temple such that even the supernatural plot twist (and I think the posters and marketing make it fairly clear that a large anthropomorphic red panda is involved) feels grounded in an authentic expression of familial ties and Chinese-Canadian culture.

Turning Red (2022) posterCREDITS
Director Domee Shi 石之予; Writers Julia Cho, Shi and Sarah Streicher; Cinematographers Mahyar Abousaeedi and Jonathan Pytko; Starring Rosalie Chiang, Sandra Oh 오미주, Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, Ava Morse, James Hong 吳漢章; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at home (Disney+ streaming), Wellington, 2 July 2022.

Nope (2022)

Continuing my round-up of my favourite films of 2022 (full list here) and there was no shortage of opinions in either direction about Jordan Peele’s third feature, after Get Out and Us. In a sense, that’s what it was made for, so it succeeded brilliantly well, in conjuring up all kinds of conversations, not all of them particularly positive, but in the end it worked for me.


I’ve seen some fairly underwhelmed reviews of this film, but I do wonder if that’s not just from elevated expectations. The pace is somewhat lugubrious, although I do think it consistently builds tension throughout, and there’s a subplot involving Steven Yeun as a child star in a sitcom which doesn’t quite sit very comfortably with the rest of the film to my mind. However, its central premise — of a family of Black horse trainers whose history is deeply tied into filmmaking, trying to figure out a mystery happening around their homestead high out above Hollywood. There are evidently (maybe) aliens involved, possibly hiding behind a cloud, and the way this unfolds is nicely grounded in comedy, as one might expect. Its central conceit is grounded in the idea of looking, about the terrors and dangers of the image, and thus is tied pretty strongly into filmmaking, but while it never truly horrifies, it looks gorgeous and holds together nicely.

Nope (2022) posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Jordan Peele; Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema; Starring Daniel Kaluuya, Keke Palmer, Steven Yeun 연상엽, Michael Wincott, Brandon Perea; Length 130 minutes.
Seen at Alamo Drafthouse Cinema New Mission, San Francisco, Wednesday 10 August 2022.

The Woman King (2022)

The full list of my favourite films of 2022 is here but I’m posting fuller reviews of my favourites. This big historical action epic comes from the very dependable Gina Prince-Bythewood, one of the better directors working in Hollywood, and it’s a powerful evocation of an era not much seen on screen.


Just to kick things off: I really enjoyed this movie, especially as a big screen cinematic experience. It has an old-fashioned sense of an historical epic, albeit about a little corner of African history that isn’t often represented on-screen (primarily because it doesn’t revolve around white heroes or saviours, and surely the time for patriotic stories of European conquests over tribal peoples has long since passed). But it’s curious that this African story is written by two white women; given the other talent involved I don’t think that meaningfully invalidates any positive representation the film can provide, but it might give a hint as to the way in which the film tends towards a platitudinous Hollywood liberal sense of injustice being righted, as Viola Davis leads her Agojie (the so-called “Dahomey Amazons”) as a righteous force dedicated to eradicating slavery.

Clearly there are experts in this history — of which I am not one, nor are many of the online commentators peddling the criticisms to be fair — who acknowledge that the situation was more complicated than it’s portrayed here. Just my cursory awareness of our modern online world leads me to the understanding that it’s perfectly possible for groups of women to come together to actively promote and defend patriarchal systems of oppression, fascism and hate speech. The film doesn’t deny that the Dahomeys were just as involved in slavery as their enemies, the Oyo Empire. So the feel-good roles of Davis as Nanisca, her second-in-command Izogie (the brilliant Lashana Lynch) and young recruit Nawi (an impressive Thuso Mbedu) may not quite reflect real history, but that’s fine by me because this is primarily a film and an entertainment that hopefully leads people to learn more about this historical time and context.

However, whatever your caveats, it’s undeniably a well put-together epic with the appropriate levels of heart-tugging sentiment and brutal warfare action scenes. Gina Prince-Bythewood has come a long way from Love & Basketball and that sweetly saccharine film The Secret Life of Bees with one of the Fannings in it. She made the fantastic Beyond the Lights and her recent foray into action with The Old Guard was the rare superhero film I actively enjoyed, and so she is not short of directing skill, nor is her team lacking in their ability to both capture the location and people (cinematographer Polly Morgan), or the nuances of the acting — and this in particular seems like quite a departure in the type of role Viola Davis is usually seen in, and she surely deserves some awards love for it. There may be all kinds of ways to criticise it, but I admire any film that tries to tell a bit of history we’ve not seen played out before.

The Woman King (2022) posterCREDITS
Director Gina Prince-Bythewood; Writers Dana Stevens and Maria Bello; Cinematographer Polly Morgan; Starring Viola Davis, Thuso Mbedu, Lashana Lynch, Sheila Atim, John Boyega; Length 135 minutes.
Seen at Light House Cuba, Wellington, Thursday 3 November 2022.

تحت الشجرة Taht el Karmouss (aka Sous les figues) (Under the Fig Trees, 2022)

I’m working through fuller reviews from my list of favourite films of 2022 (here) but among them are a few that I wasn’t expecting, like this gentle, lilting Kiarostami riff in the fig orchards (rather than olives), structured as a series of two-handers between various characters over the course of a couple of working days (or maybe it’s just one, I can’t quite recall). In any case, a fine film with a predominantly woman-centric cast and crew.


This is a rather gentle film with some darker undertones as a group of (primarily) young women come together picking figs in an orchard, or at least I’d say that was the focus of the film, whose single setting means this functions as a sort of chamber drama. Indeed, the group of pickers includes some older women and men, who have a choral role to play, singing and commenting on the kids’ actions, and some young men of various types, including a rather sleazy and opportunistic boss. Throughout the day various pairings of these characters get together and hash things out, and while there is no big reveal or drama to speak of, a number of smaller stories play out in a naturalistic way. It’s all very lovely, though you’ll need to take a moment to get into its rhythms, in a setting — and with a title — suggestive of some Kiarostami films, though this is Tunisian (not Iranian).

Taht el Karmouss (2022) posterCREDITS
Director Erige Sehiri أريج السحيري; Writers Sehiri, Ghalya Lacroix غالية لاكروا and Peggy Hamann بيجي هامان; Cinematographer Frida Marzouk فريدا مرزوق; Starring Fidé Fdhili فداء الفضيلي, Feten Fdhili فاتن الفضيلي, Ameni Fdhili أماني الفضيلي; Length 92 minutes.
Seen at the Embassy, Wellington, Sunday 30 October 2022.

Catherine Called Birdy (2022)

The full list of my favourite films of 2022 is here but I’m posting fuller reviews of my favourites. I recently covered Lena Dunham’s breakthrough feature film Tiny Furniture in my Criterion Sunday supplement (which led to her getting the Girls TV show), and in some ways she still struggles as an artist with growing up. Hence we get this feature in which she really throws herself into childhood, but with a middle ages twist, and it’s rather sweet really: almost brutal when it needs to be, but never really getting bogged down in the filth, at least not too much.


Lena Dunham directed (and wrote and produced) this adaptation of a young adult novel, but she isn’t in it at all, which is something worth pointing out to the sadly numerous anti-fans of hers. And though it may seem quite different from artsy studenty metropolitan lives, perhaps its mediæval setting isn’t so far removed from that spirit of creative jouissance she usually tries to cultivate. It’s certainly not far from the darker and more depressive concerns because for all its lightness of touch, quirky colour and spirited performances, there’s an underlying grimness to life itself which haunts the film. Of course the key is that for the most part the characters don’t dwell on this (perhaps because it’s something they can never escape), but it adds something grounding to what could otherwise come across as altogether too twee. There are memorable turns from all kinds of supporting actors, not least Andrew Scott (unsurprisingly) as Birdy’s father, or Paul Kaye as “Shaggy Beard” (some kind of Yorkshire nouveau riche), as well as from Bella Ramsey in the lead role who gets across her childish energy as she is thrust into an altogether more adult world (or rather, perhaps there is no such distinction; certainly there was no concept of being a teenager, and that’s part of what the film gets across well: you’re a child until you’re not).

Catherine Called Birdy (2022) posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Lena Dunham (based on the novel by Karen Cushman); Cinematographer Laurie Rose; Starring Bella Ramsey, Andrew Scott, Billie Piper, Lesley Sharp, Joe Alwyn, Sophie Okonedo; Length 108 minutes.
Seen at home (Amazon streaming), Wellington, Thursday 20 October 2022.

Criterion Sunday 606: Blithe Spirit (1945)

Unexpectedly — for a David Lean film — this story of spiritual mediums and the haunting presence of a dead ex-wife, is very silly. Still, it’s very much in writer Noël Coward’s line, I suppose, with a brittle comedy of manners amongst very middle-class people set at a pleasant home in the country, where Rex Harrison’s novelist Charles wants to research a crime plot involving a séance. This introduces us to Margaret Rutherford’s Madame Arcati, who very much steals the entire film with her flamboyant performance, and thus to the novelist’s recently-deceased ex Elvira (Kay Hammond) who trades barbs with him while Charles’s current wife Ruth (Constance Cummings) looks on, concerned for his mental health and upset that he seems to be rekindling his relationship with the glamorous dead woman. I’m not sure what deeper thing it says about the English, but it’s pleasant enough as a silly divertissement and has some lovely use of Technicolor.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • The extras include a 1992 episode of the long-running arts show The South Bank Show dedicated to Noël Coward. It strings together archive footage of Coward himself talking about his life as a way of bringing together his upbringing and artistic career, as well as his later years in Jamaica and a bit about his public and private life as a gay man in 20th century England. There is some good footage they’ve unearthed of him as a young man, and as a stage actor, as well as little clips from the making of some of his works, and some interviews with collaborators like John Gielgud and John Mills. It may not dig really deep but it gives you a good overview of the man.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director David Lean; Writers Lean, Ronald Neame and Anthony Havelock-Allen (based on the play by Noël Coward); Cinematographer Ronald Neame; Starring Rex Harrison, Constance Cummings, Kay Hammond, Margaret Rutherford; Length 96 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 8 January 2023.

Criterion Sunday 604: In Which We Serve (1942)

A solidly crafted flag-waving exercise in wartime uplift, about the way a diverse (well, diverse from a class-based background at least, if literally nothing else) group of fighting men on a navy ship come together through adversity. The film is largely told in flashback as the HMS Torrin lies crippled and sinking after the Battle of Crete, as some of the surviving crew reflect on how they came to be there. Turns out this is a fairly effective narrative strategy, allowing both for the setbacks of war (the sinking of the ship, the loss of life) to intertwine with the duty and service that motivate these men, most of whom are lifelong Royal Navy crewmembers, and the wives and children that wait for them back in England — and indeed, given the fairly limited screen time, it’s the women who give some of the film’s best performances. Writer and co-director Noël Coward himself plays the ship’s captain, which makes sense given his own leading involvement in getting the film made, and he acquits himself well enough, in the soulful vein of a by-the-book type who nevertheless has great admiration for all his crewmembers (except for a baby-cheeked Richard Attenborough, who abandons his post in one memorable vignette), but it’s the emotional story between John Mills and Bernard Miles which is most satisfying. All in all, this is well-made and probably the film for its time, but it’s still pretty boilerplate as a wartime fighting film.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors Noël Coward and David Lean; Writer Coward; Cinematographer Ronald Neame; Starring Noël Coward, John Mills, Bernard Miles, Celia Johnson, Kay Walsh, Joyce Carey; Length 114 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 1 January 2023.