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.

Criterion Sunday 545: Easy Rider (1969)

I guess this film is a bit like Kerouac or any of those other self-styled poets of the American road, as in it’s something that has been influential and has attracted plenty of love, but is also equally reviled by those who just find it bloated and self-serving. To be fair, these are mostly straw man arguments to a certain extent; aside from a few snide comments I’ve seen, I’m just assuming the existence of this film’s detractors, because my mind itself is pulled in two directions. On the one hand, these characters are like empty ciphers for some metaphorical telling of the American Dream/Nightmare, drugged-up hipsters (though the more I see of the 1960s counterculture, the more segments of it feel more like libertarian neo-conservatism than real progressive belief) on a road journey that self-knowingly takes in all the contradictions of city vs urban life, hippies and drop-outs vs those on a demented vision quest, and everyone in between. You don’t really learn very much, is what I’m saying, because there’s a lot of posturing and smugness… and yet, on the other hand, there’s something a little bit gorgeous about this evocation of the road (probably in part thanks to cinematographer László Kovács), compelling in its nihilism perhaps, but I like the music and I enjoy the ride, even if I don’t always particularly like the company.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Dennis Hopper; Writers Peter Fonda, Hopper and Terry Southern; Cinematographer László Kovács; Starring Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Jack Nicholson; Length 95 minutes.

Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Monday 18 December 2000 (and more recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Sunday 26 June 2022).

Criterion Sunday 544: Head (1968)

If one of the best-known aspects about Bob Rafelson’s debut as a director — and the first (and last) outing of manufactured music group The Monkees onto film — is that it was a massive commercial flop, that’s also probably the least interesting thing about it. After all, being a failure is sort of built into its very genetic code: it was designed to be a wholesale razing of The Monkees’ image, perhaps to allow them to go onto other things. However, it’s not like it’s designed to be bad, it’s just so scattershot and weird as to be basically unwatchable in a strictly narrative sense. But it’s certainly not lacking in interest either. Some of it remains very much of its era, and some of the ways it interrogates contemporary culture are less successful than others (just showing footage of an execution from the Vietnam War alongside screaming fans at a Monkees gig seem a little bit simplistic). But Rafelson and company — including co-screenwriter/producer Jack Nicholson — are throwing so much at the screen that at least some of it still maintains the power to perplex and astonish as it does to cause concern. It’s a series of setpieces and ideas that probably seemed more fully-formed when the makers were on acid (which is both evident and also documented), but still manages to be silly and serious in almost equal measures, a predecessor to what Adam McKay does now but if it were done to challenge rather than entertain the audience.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • One extra is a recent interview with director/co-writer Bob Rafelson, who had helped to create The Monkees as a TV show (and thereby a band), who is lucid and very entertaining talking about the genesis of this film and how things worked out for everyone. It’s almost half an hour, but an entertaining one.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Bob Rafelson; Writers Rafelson and Jack Nicholson; Cinematographer Michel Hugo; Starring The Monkees (Peter Tork, David Jones, Micky Dolenz, Michael Nesmith); Length 85 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 11 June 2022.

Criterion Sunday 543: Modern Times (1936)

I am, if I’m being realistic, more than halfway through my life, which for someone who watches as many films as I do, is late to be getting into Charlie Chaplin. Of his features, I’ve only seen A Countess from Hong Kong (1967), which is probably not considered the classic way to start (his last film, although it’s certainly interesting for its era). But Modern Times holds up: a lot of its critiques of workplace relations and management pressure hardly seem to have aged at all, even if some of the technology it imagines is rather fanciful. The comedy is focused mostly into those sequences with the machines — Chaplin’s Tramp on the assembly line, getting sucked into the cogs, and doing a variety of pratfalls around the factory. However, it does feel far more strongly as if Chaplin is interested in social commentary, as well as finding an emotional thread with his relationship with the similarly marginalised Paulette Goddard’s “Gamin” character (she’s also Chaplin’s real-life wife of the time, and though 20 years younger than him is at least in her 20s for a change, even if she’s playing a juvenile delinquent). Overall it has a clarity to its comedic setups that focuses attention on the mistreatment of labour and the fallout of the Depression on people in America, with an undercurrent of poverty and desperation that I think sharpens some of the satire. I think it will take me a little while to deepen my appreciation of Chaplin, though, and so I look forward to seeing more of his classics as my Criterion project goes on.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Charlie Chaplin; Cinematographers Ira H. Morgan and Roland Totheroh; Starring Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard; Length 87 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 12 June 2022.

Criterion Sunday 541: The Night of the Hunter (1955)

If I were in a less generous mood I would see this as a noble failure, a strange blend of folk horror and exaggerated camp that leans far too heavily into its fairy tale register, and to be honest it does often come across as faintly absurd while it’s playing out. But I’m not feeling grumpy today and I think the very staginess of the undertaking is exactly right for what it’s trying to do, which is not to scare in a traditional sense, but to evoke a mythic sense of dread that is as much a part of the canon of fairy tale literature as it is part of 20th century film history. Needless to say it wasn’t exactly embraced on release and probably prevented its director Charles Laughton from ever making another film, but what he does here with his collaborators (both in the writing and especially the monochrome cinematography by Stanley Cortez) is to evoke a curiously timeless — partially because in some senses it remains accurate — portrait of America, with its fascination with guns, religion and children and the way these three elements combine.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There are plenty of bonuses stretched over two Blu-ray discs, so it may take me a while to watch all of them, but I did look at the 15-minute piece on the BBC show Moving Pictures which has a few short interviews with various key cast members (Mitchum, Winters), some behind the scenes people like a producer and a set designer, as well as archival footage of Gish, speaking to the enduring power of the film sometime around its fortieth anniversary as well as the excellence of its director in bringing everything together.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Charles Laughton; Writer James Agee (based on the novel by Davis Grubb); Cinematographer Stanley Cortez; Starring Robert Mitchum, Billy Chapin, Lillian Gish, Shelley Winters, Sally Jane Bruce; Length 93 minutes.

Seen at the National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 6 June 2001 (also earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, July 1999 and most recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Monday 6 June 2022).

Criterion Sunday 540: The Darjeeling Limited (2007)

I certainly was not expecting much in revisiting this film by Wes Anderson, not that I have bitter memories of disliking it, but just that it never really stuck out from his other films — though they are very much all of a piece — just that I assumed it would not have aged well. Indeed, as much as you expect something made by a white American guy (a bunch of them indeed) that’s largely set in India to be a little bit tone-deaf — and certainly Adrien Brody hasn’t exactly avoided controversy in his time for, shall we say, culturally inappropriateness — it turns out that this largely train-set movie is actually quite delightful. I’m not sure how it plays to actual Indians, though it doesn’t seem to me that it’s making fun of or trying to ape the culture, so much as it being a different palette for Wes Anderson to utilise in his usual fastidious set designs. So yes there’s a bit of exoticism to it, but under it all, it’s a story of three siblings who have been a bit bruised by their upbringing struggling to move forward. So if this all recalls familiar shades of The Royal Tenenbaums (complete with a small role for Anjelica Huston), that’s not entirely a bad thing.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • The main bonus is the short film Hotel Chevalier, made (and presented here) as essentially a 13-minute prologue to the feature, preceding its action in time. It’s set at the titular hotel in Paris when Jack’s ex (Natalie Portman) comes to visit briefly. It does a good job of setting up these characters within the constraints of the setting with a bit of withering wit as well.
  • There is one deleted scene and two alternate takes of scenes, just a small insight into the creative journey. One wonders that there was not a lot more left on the cutting room floor (but perhaps most of that is just shots that needed more exact framing).
  • There’s a cute little American Express ad that was clearly made around the same time, and somehow manages to express even more of Anderson’s peculiar aesthetic, except with him as the star rather than Owen Wilson.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Wes Anderson; Writers Anderson, Roman Coppola and Jason Schwartzman; Cinematographer Robert Yeoman; Starring Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, Jason Schwartzman; Length 91 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 29 May 2021 (and earlier at some point at home, London, late-2000s).

Criterion Sunday 538: Paths of Glory (1957)

I think by the time Stanley Kubrick made this film he was really hitting his imperial phase, when every element of his craft was honed towards some form of perfection. I used to find that thrilling, but it has less effect on me now, though I’d certainly not quibble with anyone proclaiming this a masterpiece. It is a perfectly tooled piece of filmmaking after all, the many elegant dolly shots back and forth intensify the restless energy of Lt Dax, Kirk Douglas’s central character, as he struggles against the implacable will not of an unseen enemy but of his own military bosses, who show such contempt for human life that they are blithely willing to kill their own troops. You can well see why it was banned in France for so long, because there’s a genuine clear anger that is fully and almost bluntly directed in the courtroom scenes and the meticulous preparations for yet another senseless (if judicial) murder. It’s all beautifully shot and harrowing in some ways, almost as precision tooled as the military weapons it depicts.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Stanley Kubrick; Writers Kubrick, Calder Willingham and Jim Thompson (based on the novel by Humphrey Cobb); Cinematographer Georg Krause; Starring Kirk Douglas, George Macready, Adolphe Menjou, Ralph Meeker, Timothy Carey, Joe Turkel; Length 88 minutes.

Seen at Paramount, Wellington, Sunday 31 March 2002 (as well as earlier on VHS in the university library, Wellington, September 1998, and most recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Monday 6 June 2022).

Criterion Sunday 536: The Thin Red Line (1998)

I have seen this film many times on the big screen, but have never tried to put into words what I love about it. And while it’s fair to say it’s one of my favourite films, and I’m happy to rate it five stars (or 10/10 or whatever metric you want, although apparently two green ticks is what I currently use here), I don’t particularly hold that it is perfect in every detail. Perhaps what I love about it is more some of the effects that Terrence Malick achieves as a filmmaker, poetic and empathetic achievements, the deployment of actors, the development of its narrative, and the way it stands in relation to other war movies. Because if we want to get into criticism, then I think some of the tropes are still a little bit underdeveloped — particularly Ben Chaplin’s Pvt Bell and his relationship with his wife back home (Miranda Otto), conveyed in largely voiceless flashbacks of them holding each other in pre-war times and followed up with an almost literal “Dear John” letter (his name is actually Jack in the film) and his anguished responses in the twilight and rain of the R&R following a major battle, all of which feels a little bit convenient and familiar.

What’s not so familiar is the elegiac tone, which differed wildly from the other major World War II-era film released that same year of 1998 (Saving Private Ryan). Where Spielberg’s film, or at least its opening, was forceful in its evocation of the brutality of combat, Malick’s film instead subsumes everything into a sort of continuum with nature. The voiceovers — which come from many different characters and create almost a shared voice of humanity joined in pain and confusion — cue this up almost from the outset, the very first words we hear asking “What is this war in the heart of nature, why does nature vie with itself?” while we look on gnarled old swampland trees, overgrown with vines and tendrils. Even when we see our first combat casualty, it’s part of a sequence of the new troops making their way quietly through the jungle, and so the brutality of the vision of a mangled body becomes just part of the evocation of the darkness within nature. The extended battle scenes too alternate Nick Nolte’s Lt Tall shouting down the phone at Cpt Staros (Elias Koteas) with long languorous shots of the Guadalcanal hills, long grass flecked with sun, winds blowing them aside as the troops advance towards the Japanese positions.

So when I say that the film’s imperfections don’t matter to me so much, it’s because this to me is a film about humanity (specifically men, of course) within nature, about death as part of a continuum of life, about the search for the light. This central metaphor of the light is clearly a religious one, and Jim Caviezel’s subsequent film work playing the Christ in Mel Gibson’s self-flagellating film of the Passion (and others) finds its origins here in what is undoubtedly supposed to be a Christ-like figure, rebelling against authority and trying to find the light and goodness in his fellow men. I’m not convinced about the way Malick uses the indigenous Melanesian people in the opening ‘paradise’ sections as well as the subsequent commentary on their fall due to the war which has been unwillingly brought to them, but for me it’s nevertheless a beautiful sequence that combines John Toll’s cinematography with Fauré’s Requiem and Melanesian choirs orchestrated by composer Hans Zimmer, to convey in musical and visual terms this search for the light that ends the film too. Again and again, the restless camera cranes away towards the sky and the sun, and either we see it through the roofs of the homes in the flashback sequences, or it’s obscured by the jungle trees, perceived only as light filtering through the crevices between the leaves, or in holes that nature has made through them.

So yes, while I cannot say that do not see flaws in The Thin Red Line, they are the flaws perhaps of overreaching, of Malick and his fellow collaborators on this film, trying to get at something essential in humanity or how they see humanity as part of the world. It’s a poetic evocation of a world that owes as much to the Bible as it does to James Jones’s novel or to (what I imagine is) the experience of war itself, and so it’s a film I love and happily continue to watch over and over again.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Terrence Malick (based on the novel by James Jones); Cinematographer John Toll; Starring Jim Caviezel, Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, Ben Chaplin, Elias Koteas, Dash Mihok; Length 171 minutes.

Seen at Manners Mall, Wellington, Tuesday 2 March 1999, at the Embassy, Wellington, Monday 7 June 1999, at Riverside Studios, London, Thursday 18 March 2004, and at the Embassy, Wellington, Sunday 15 November 2020 (and on VHS, DVD and Blu-ray at home, in Wellington and London, on several occasions in between).

Criterion Sunday 535: 戦場のメリークリスマス Senjo no Meri Kurisumasu (Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, 1983)

Imagine my surprise getting halfway through this film only to find out that David Bowie’s character is actually a New Zealander… Well, I believe he’s intended to be English, but you can’t edit out those thick NZ accents that the schoolkids boast and the school’s Auckland setting. Those however, are just brief flashback scenes; the rest of the film deals with prisoners of war during World War II on the island of Java, but shot on Rarotonga in the Cook Islands (meaning there’s actually a pretty strong NZ underpinning to this production). Director Nagisa Oshima has a fine way with the camera, composing artful long takes that reflect the intensely internal emotions each of these characters is dealing with — shame, guilt, remorse, fear and longing. There’s certainly no shortage of scenes depicting ritual seppuku, though the anglo cast also go through their fair share of self-lacerating shame and humiliation, and there’s a balance to the way its constructed. Neither side likes the other, but there’s a grudging respect accorded (whether the Japanese officers speaking English, or Tom Conti’s titular Lawrence speaking Japanese to his friend/captor played by Takeshi Kitano in his first feature film role). Negotiating these wartime relationships is a buried psychosexual charge that is mostly only ever in the background, but is clearly there in the ritualistic forms of embrace and punishment that take place. Basically, there’s a lot to unpack, but Oshima does a fantastic job in making a 1980s film that isn’t hideously dated.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There are a number of bonus interviews, including a lengthy piece in which producer Jeremy Thomas, actor Tom Conti and actor/composer Ryuichi Sakamoto reflect on the making of the film. Its labelled on the disc as “On the location” and while each of them does talk about the Cook Islands setting, the discussion widens out into memories of the process, of Oshima’s style as a director, and of each one’s feelings of being an amateur.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Nagisa Oshima 大島渚; Writers Oshima and Paul Mayersberg (based on the novel The Seed and the Sower by Laurens van der Post); Cinematographer Toichiro Narushima 成島東一郎; Starring David Bowie, Tom Conti, Ryuichi Sakamoto 坂本龍一, Takeshi Kitano 北野武, Jack Thompson; Length 123 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 14 May 2022.

Criterion Sunday 533: Crumb (1994)

Robert Crumb is undoubtedly a messy human, but that just makes him a more fascinating documentary subject, and it’s something that his old friend Terry Zwigoff just knows by this point. Zwigoff’s film of a decade earlier following an obscure blues man Louie Bluie, was just a warm up for this in-depth portrait which he seems to have been making for much of the decade between the two films. And in telling Crumb’s story — which necessarily involves getting into his sexual fetishes, given the themes of his comic art — what Zwigoff uncovers is really a story about more than just a single man, but about a whole family. Indeed much of the Criterion release feels as much about Charles Crumb, Robert’s younger brother who passed not long before the film was completed and after Crumb had picked up to move to France with his family. The box artwork features a reproduction of a drawing sample done by Charles as a kid, as well as his obsessive scrawls hinting at writing but never quite resolving into anything, making beautiful abstract patterns on the inner lining. Charles gives the film its heart, while Robert doodles himself around the edges, a man with a complicated relationship to his mother, to all women, to sex and violence — and the talking heads argue various interpretations of his work, but with almost thirty years hindsight and with his brothers as comparison, it seems almost sweet that it’s just art in which he expresses these feelings (or at least that’s the feeling the film gives, and I earnestly hope it’s the case, because in many ways he bounces around like an eager child looking for inspiration and diversion). In terms of documentaries about outsiders in American society whose existence somehow provides a kind of key to decoding that society, this is up there with Grey Gardens.

NB The Criterion release lists this as 1995, but the IMDb page suggests that it premiered at the Toronto film festival in 1994.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Terry Zwigoff; Cinematographer Maryse Alberti; Length 120 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 15 May 2022 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, March 1997).