Criterion Sunday 523: Night Train to Munich (1940)

This British film, made near the outset of World War II, certainly seems to aspire to that Lubitsch touch, and if it doesn’t quite succeed it still has a daffy charm. After all, I can’t fully take against any film that treats Nazis as quite this contemptible and foolish (there’s even a lovely moment where a guard has been gagged with a copy of Mein Kampf, a neat visual metaphor of sorts), even if apparently Rex Harrison did enjoy wearing the uniform a little bit too much. He has a dashing presence that makes up for Margaret Lockwood, who has that prim quality so beloved of wartime films, and the cast is rounded out by some fine turns, including a reappearance for the cricket-loving fuddy-duddies first seen in The Lady Vanishes (penned by the same writers). It’s very English in that way of the period, but ultimately its heart is in the right place and so it’s a fun ride.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Carol Reed; Writers Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder (based on the short story “Report on a Fugitive” by Gordon Wellesley); Cinematographer Otto Kanturek; Starring Margaret Lockwood, Rex Harrison, Paul Henreid [as “Paul von Hernreid”]; Length 95 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 9 April 2022.

Criterion Sunday 504: Hunger (2008)

The subject of this film is undeniably tough, like Steve McQueen’s later film about American slavery (12 Years a Slave), and one that I had put off viewing for some time. I remember watching Wang Bing’s epic documentary Dead Souls a few years ago (about Mao-era Chinese re-education camps) and one of the most striking and upsetting things was the extensive descriptions of what happens to the human body when it’s starved. Here instead we get a visual depiction, and though McQueen leaves much of it to the last 15-20 minutes, it’s still impossible not to reckon with the image of Fassbender’s body, not unlike that of the slaves in the later film, even if their situations are obviously different. Bodies remain a focus throughout, and wounds, like those on the knuckles of the prison guard that start the film, making us wonder how they were sustained (and pretty quickly we find out). Quite aside from his knuckles, that guard’s fate makes it clear that nobody really benefits from these struggles. That said, McQueen is fairly circumspect with the politics: the points it makes are largely visceral ones, and Bobby Sands’s place in re-energising nationalist republican politics isn’t explicitly confronted, though the centrepiece of the film is a bravura single-shot dialogue he has with a partisan priest (Liam Cunningham) shortly before starting his hunger strike, in which he sets out his philosophical basis for the action. (I didn’t learn from the film, for example, that Sands had been elected an MP in the UK Parliament while he was striking, nor about the specific demands that led to the end of the strike, after 10 men had died.) After all, you don’t need to have characters speaking about the brutality of British rule when it is enough to see the conditions of the prison and their struggles to retain some dignity. So ultimately, for all my fears about the film, it walks a line between the visceral evocation of horror and a visual artist’s eye for semi-abstraction in the compositions; this is McQueen’s debut, but it merely begins a new phase in his artistic work after many years at the forefront of gallery-based visual arts.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Steve McQueen; Writers Enda Walsh and McQueen; Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt; Starring Michael Fassbender, Liam Cunningham; Length 96 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Saturday 5 February 2022.

NZIFF 2021: Sisters with Transistors (2020)

I’ve already covered some of the range of documentaries at New Zealand International Film Festival. In some respects it’s surprising that the music ones have been the less formally innovative, given that both films (this and Poly Styrene) deal with boldly experimental artists working outside the mainstream. However, while both are fairly straightforward, they at least deal with very interesting subjects. I don’t think they both work entirely, but they serve as useful primers.


This film definitely deals with a topic I have a lot of interest in: I love the work of Éliane Radigue, which shimmers with barely perceptible fluctuating textures and tonalities like a pulsing sonic organism, and own releases by Pauline Oliveros, Laurie Spiegel and others covered here. So in that respect, I was very happy to see and learn more about these women working in a strange, dusty little corner of the music world which would come in time to have more prominence. But it’s undeniably also the case that this film is very much fixated on a certain type of electronic sound artist, which unfortunately means they all seem to have a similar kind of well-educated background, a similar intensity of expression, although the sounds they conjure range along a gamut. The addition of Wendy Carlos almost feels like an after-the-fact gesture (she’s not listed as one of the main profiled women in the end credits), and her music is dismissed somewhat as populist and light — which may well be her place within this particularly austere community, but the footage we see certainly shows she had plenty of ideas and ability to conjure incredible sounds from circuitry. But on the whole, this is a solid primer on the work of pioneering sound artists, from the boffins of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop (Oram and Derbyshire) to the experimenters in France and America and is worth watching for those interested in sound.

Sisters with Transistors (2020)

CREDITS
Director/Writer Lisa Rovner; Cinematographer Bill Kirstein; Length 86 minutes.
Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Wednesday 10 November 2021.

Criterion Sunday 483: Repulsion (1965)

This is a dark, atmospheric horror film, or perhaps more a psychological terror film, because much of the pain and panic we see is inside Catherine Deneuve’s heroine Carole. She seems traumatised by something, and while it’s not something that we ever see or is ever explained, it seems fairly clear that it goes back some way into her past, causing her to move through the world as if in a fugue state. That’s what the film’s camera is attempting to capture, along with a jarring score, that constantly fixates on small details that take on something greater, something horrific in the way that it all cuts together. And while nothing particularly shocking happens outwardly — though there are some deeply unpleasant men (even if a lot of their behaviour is just that of 60s London) — the accretion of details mount up to something tense, putting us inside Carole’s mind, inflicted by a constant state of terror. As an English-language outing from its director (Roman Polanski, who would go on to greater renown and of course infamy) it has a peculiar focus and a power that follows on from his (Polish language) debut Knife in the Water.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Roman Polanski; Writers Polanski, Gérard Brach and David Stone; Cinematographer Gilbert Taylor; Starring Catherine Deneuve, Ian Hendry, Yvonne Furneaux, John Fraser; Length 105 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 28 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 461: Hobson’s Choice (1954)

Not sure why I should be suspicious every time I start a David Lean film, but he knew how to craft a movie and most that I’ve seen have been exceptionally well crafted, and not all of them have attained the renown of, say, Lawrence of Arabia or Brief Encounter. The cannily observed The Passionate Friends is a personal highlight, for example, and while this particular film looks to be a rather knockabout comedy — it casts Charles Laughton as a drunken bootmaker in late-19th century Salford (just outside Manchester), and that’s a recipe for comic disaster — it turns out to be, if not social realism, still a fairly incisive work about the English working classes. The title comes from a phrase referring to having no effective control over a situation, and his daughter Maggie (Brenda De Banzie) is the one offering Henry Hobson that particular ‘choice’, as she takes control of her own future within the (fairly mean) terms that society is offering her. I wouldn’t call it a progressive film, but it feels moreso than some of what would come out of English society in the decades after this, and at its heart is a delightful romantic fantasy about getting one up on the small-minded mean-spirited small town forces of conformity.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director David Lean; Writers Wynyard Browne, Lean and Norman Spencer (based on the play by Harold Brighouse); Cinematographer Jack Hildyard; Starring Charles Laughton, Brenda De Banzie, John Mills, Daphne Anderson, Prunella Scales; Length 108 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Friday 10 September 2021.

Criterion Sunday 452: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965)

I’ve seen a number of films that occupy this terrain, whether direct adaptations of Le Carré (such as Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) or other works that sit in the same talky glum espionage vein (something like Bridge of Spies, I suppose). It’s not a genre I necessarily warm to, and usually like my spying to be a little bit more silly and fun (like Bourne, if not quite Bond), but there’s something rather elegant to this mid-60s adaptation of a story set deep into the Cold War era. It’s a tale of spies crossing and double-crossing one another in ways that don’t even always make sense to the spies themselves as they’re happening (like Richard Burton’s titular character, Alec Leamas) and part of the drama is just trying to keep up with who knows what and who’s working for whom at any given point. I didn’t expect this to particularly appeal to me, but it held my attention, and along the way there is some fine monochrome cinematography and gliding camera shots — never perhaps quite as bold as the introductory nod towards Touch of Evil, but always with a strong sense of the frosty sangfroid of these suited, spectacled men vying for the upper hand.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Martin Ritt; Writers Paul Dehn and Guy Trosper (based on the novel by John Le Carré); Cinematographer Oswald Morris; Starring Richard Burton, Oskar Werner, Claire Bloom, Cyril Cusack, Rupert Davies; Length 112 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Wednesday 4 August 2021.

Criterion Sunday 441: The Small Back Room (aka Hour of Glory, 1949)

Powell and Pressburger made quite a few films, but few of them have the profile of their big Technicolor productions like The Red Shoes or The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, among many others, and this black-and-white World War II-set drama about a bomb disposal expert (of sorts) is one of their lesser-remembered productions. It stars David Farrar, best known from his turn in another of their better-known films from a few years below, Black Narcissus. He’s playing Sammy Rice, an embittered alcoholic scientist working away in a secret department during the war, who has some good ideas he feels are being smothered by bureaucracy and mismanagement (the government minister is a particular dimwit, as ministers always seem to be), and his relationship with Kathleen Byron’s Susan isn’t exactly going swimmingly either. That’s the set-up for the emotional dramatic arcs, while in the background there’s a MacGuffin involving a new German bomb that’s been killing kids, but the film is mostly focused on those interpersonal dynamics, along with his grumpiness at work. It’s an interesting angle on the war, not as a stage for heroics, but as a grim series of ordeals that everyone struggles through as best they can, not always handling things very well. It also has an excellent noirish, even expressionist, sense of dim lighting, as high contrast shadows are thrown over many scenes. Maybe not the greatest of the Powell and Pressburger collabs, but certainly an intriguing one.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors/Writers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (based on the novel by Nigel Balchin); Cinematographer Christopher Challis; Starring David Farrar, Kathleen Byron, Jack Hawkins, Michael Gough, Cyril Cusack; Length 107 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), Wellington, Friday 25 June 2021.

Criterion Sunday 431: The Thief of Bagdad (1940)

The Criterion release of this film has a commentary by Scorsese and Coppola, and you can understand when you watch it what might appeal to them. Would that every era of cinema had such a colourful and inventive spectacle and I can see that children exposed to this in the 1940s or 50s might have had little to compare it to in terms of the effects it achieves. There’s a gloriously saturated colour scheme in the filming and the production design and costuming that heightens the magical wonder of the storytelling. It’s just that watching now makes for a more problematic experience and it’s not that I’m out here calling for any ‘cancellations’ or whatever your term du jour is when you read this for the idea that maybe art has certain responsibilities. After all, things that seem a bit racist now (or orientalist or just a bit misguided, depended on your point of view) might have been equally so back then, it’s just that there was an unexamined expectation that putting dark makeup on very white English actors and having them enact Middle Eastern-set stories was perfectly fine and nothing to be concerned about. Of course, compared to some contemporary films, there was certainly worse racism in othering depictions of such parts of the world and their people, but that doesn’t excuse what at best just seems a little painful now, however well-meaning it might have been. There’s plenty to enjoy here, and those who find it easier to tap into the childlike spirit at play will be rewarded more handsomely than those hatchet-faced killjoys like myself who’d rather not watch fully-grown and very English gentlemen (along with a German, an Indian and an African-American) play dress-up as Arabs.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors Ludwig Berger, Michael Powell and Tim Whelan [as well as Alexander Korda, Zoltan Korda and William Cameron Menzies, uncredited]; Writers Lajos Biró and Miles Malleson; Cinematographer Georges Périnal [as “George Perinal”]; Starring Conrad Veidt, John Justin, Sabu, June Duprez, Miles Malleson; Length 106 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Thursday 27 May 2021.

Criterion Sunday 422: The Last Emperor (1987)

It’s odd now to think of that era (which I suppose has never really ended, though I hope is a little more circumspect these days) when a grand multinational epic of another country could be mounted by a largely Western creative team, in English, and win all the awards. It’s certainly very strange to me watching again now, though I can’t deny the artistry that director Bernardo Bertolucci and director of photography Vittorio Storaro manage to bring together to tell the story of Puyi, the titular character.

Puyi was deposed (or forced to abdicate, somewhat in his absence, and seemingly unknown to him) in 1912, the last of the Qing dynasty, but whose story hardly ends there and Bertolucci does honour the sweep of it, cutting between scenes in 1950 China, when Puyi is being held in an internment camp after an abortive attempt to start a new empire in Manchuria, with his childhood ascending to the throne and then the strange events that followed. We see much of it from his eyes, so the real power in the court is only passingly glimpsed (we barely see his mother, or his father, the rest of his family fade into the background, and the most prominent character seems to be his English tutor, played by Peter O’Toole). This also means that key historical events in Chinese 20th century history have to be relayed by people telling him what’s going on, or helpfully rehearsing the events for the benefit of the viewer, because the little Chinese we hear (and see) isn’t translated on-screen. It would also be impossible to capture the intricacies of this period (or indeed extended Chinese history) so it necessarily takes a fairly clipped view of events, but it does give at least some time to the more contested ones, the events that one imagines various regimes would wish to forget.

Ultimately, however, if this film is about the last emperor, it also feels like the last vestige of an older style of film, sumptuous and grand but rather exoticised, an exemplar of a taste that’s been largely superseded. For all its evident weaknesses or rather old-fashioned ways, there’s still something grand that comes through clearly in the imagery and the staging, a lost art perhaps, a vanishing history like the one being depicted.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Bernardo Bertolucci; Writers Mark Peploe and Bertolucci (based on the autobiography 我的前半生 From Emperor to Citizen by Puyi 溥儀); Cinematographer Vittorio Storaro; Starring John Lone 尊龙, Joan Chen 陳沖, Peter O’Toole; Length 160 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 1 May 2021 (and several decades before on VHS at home, Wellington, probably).