Criterion Sunday 566: Insignificance (1985)

I’m not honestly sure where the comedy is in this, except that it’s a fantasy scenario. Not unlike the more recent One Night in Miami…, it’s a theatrical production which imagines four historical figures gathering together in a single hotel room to talk over various ideas of interest to the playwright/screenwriter. None of these figures is identified by name but it’s clear who they’re supposed to represent (Marilyn, Joe DiMaggio, Einstein and Senator Joseph McCarthy), and over the course of the night various ideas are discussed. There’s some exploration of Marilyn’s inner life, of sex and hypocrisy, of the American state’s interest in foreign individuals like Einstein (even if it does see McCarthy acting more like an FBI agent), and some kind of fantasy nuclear apocalypse scenario in which Marilyn dances through the fire, the hotel room exploding like the end of Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point. It’s a lot to take in, and given its origin, it’s rather talky, but there’s plenty to like, plus watching Tony Curtis play McCarthy here makes me wonder how many other actors have starred in films with both the real person and someone doing an impersonation of them.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Nicolas Roeg; Writer Terry Johnson (based on his play); Cinematographer Peter Hannan; Starring Theresa Russell, Michael Emil, Tony Curtis, Gary Busey; Length 108 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 28 August 2022.

Criterion Sunday 563: Something Wild (1986)

I can only assume there’s an element of nostalgia to the way people view this film. It’s good fun, for sure, and perhaps setting it against much of what passed for mainstream entertainment in the 1980s is enough to rate it highly. I can respect that, but this feels like a messy film. It’s certainly a film about messy people living their lives, and that’s going to get messy, but just structurally there are plenty of longueurs where the film feels aimless, the way Charlie is trying to put his life together, or Audrey/Lulu is trying to figure out her identity. All I know is that Ray Liotta adds a necessary element of danger to a story that could easily get bogged down in new wave 80s quirkiness, like its angular soundtrack (which is nevertheless pretty solid). There’s a sense in which these characters feel like a throwback, and Melanie Griffith is somehow both iconic — a manic pixie dream girl avant la lettre — and deserves a better written character, but she knows exactly how to pitch herself against Jeff Daniels’s rather dull NYC corporate salary man. It’s a bold, colourful film brimming with ideas, not all of which work, but I’m glad Demme found an outlet for them.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jonathan Demme; Writer E. Max Frye; Cinematographer Tak Fujimoto; Starring Melanie Griffith, Jeff Daniels, Ray Liotta; Length 113 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Wednesday 24 August 2022.

Criterion Sunday 560: White Material (2009)

Part of what I think is difficult to take in about this film, at least on a first viewing, is that so much of it happens off-screen when we aren’t (or the central character, Maria Vial, played by Isabelle Huppert, isn’t) looking. By which I mean the violence that drives it, that claims several central characters, that drives a wedge between Vial and her coffee plantation business, as well as her family (Christophe Lambert as estranged husband and Nicolas Duvauchelle as deranged son). Partly that’s because she’s never reliably looking the right way to witness it, so intent on downplaying and ignoring the rising tide of anti-colonial violence taking place, the efforts to push out white landowners; she’s too immured in a rapidly vanishing system of rule to even seem to notice the threats to her existence, because it is her home after a fashion, the only life she’s known. And so while I think this film is filled with bold contrasts and strong drama, a lot of it just seems to seep in around the edges, until eventually it starts to overwhelm even La Huppert, who as an actor — as much as a character — feels like an indomitable spirit. She’s hardly a hero, but she just keeps trying to make things happen and she doesn’t know how to relent.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There’s an interesting little short film made by Denis, filmed from her point of view on a camcorder of some sort, of her taking this film to the Écrans Noirs film festival in Yaoundé, Cameroon, and having to deal with the outdated technology and limited screening conditions available there. Indeed, the whole story builds to a bit of a punchline, almost.
  • There’s also a short deleted scene of Maria finding a certain person (no spoilers, eh) dead near the end, but presumably this was just too direct for Denis’ method.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Claire Denis; Writers Denis and Marie NDiaye; Cinematographer Yves Cape; Starring Isabelle Huppert, Christophe Lambert, Nicolas Duvauchelle, Isaach de Bankolé, Michel Subor; Length 105 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 31 July 2022.

Criterion Sunday 557: The Times of Harvey Milk (1984)

I do wonder, watching this classic documentary once again, how many figures from history are forgotten or only dimly recalled, people who have had enormous influence in their time. As the filmmaker reflects in one of the extras, you can easily imagine Harvey Milk fading from view, for while his importance at a certain point in San Francisco’s civic history may have been undoubtable, the wider significance of his work could easily have never been properly established. What this film does then is a work of urgent engagement with a public legacy, coming from a sense of injustice — not just in the way that Milk was killed, but in the way his voice took so long to be heard at all and about the easy way in which his killer was treated. But it’s not the story of Dan White that’s of interest here — his brand of neo-conservative Bible-thumping bigotry has been every bit as influential in American politics sadly — but the effervescence and life of Harvey Milk, a man who knew early on what his fate would be (as anyone who’d grown up in American politics of the post-war period surely knew) but forged ahead anyway. He has a great skill with oratory and a belief in what was right, more than can be said for some of his political colleagues who may continue to wield influence in the state of California. It’s a great film to celebrate a life, not just mourn a death, and that’s what it taps into more than anything else.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There is a wealth of documentary material included as extras here, including the film’s premiere at the Castro (although not its first screening, but the first to the local community), introduced by Vito Russo and with speeches from its director, as well as the rather more staid affair of the Oscars where it won the best documentary that year (no mean feat, given the closed way that the Documentary Oscar was for many years selected).

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Rob Epstein; Writers Epstein, Carter Wilson and Judith Coburn; Cinematographer Frances Reid; Length 88 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 30 July 2022 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, June 2000).

Criterion Sunday 554: 歩いても 歩いても Aruitemo aruitemo (Still Walking, 2008)

I can understand the love for this film by Hirokazu Kore-eda, because it intersects fairly straightforwardly with love for Yasujiro Ozu. I suppose there’s always been a certain debt in Kore-eda’s filmmaking to the master but it’s clearest here, in a story of adult children (and their children) gathering at their elderly parents’ home for possibly the last time. There’s that elegiac sense of time and a generation passing, wrapped up in (misremembered) memories and advice and, of course, cooking. The whole first few scenes are just taken up with recipes being prepared, and there’s that gentleness of Ozu in the repeated (titular) motif of the parents walking around their neighbourhood, just gently moving about. Over the course of the film, we get a pretty great sense of what motivates them, the petty resentments they still hold onto with respect chiefly to their youngest son, how he couldn’t be like his (now deceased) older brother, and his poor choice of marriage — though in that respect at least there’s a little softening over the film’s course, which sticks to a day-long timeframe. There’s just a lot of sweetness here, tinged with melancholy at times, but what family gathering isn’t.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Hirokazu Kore-eda 是枝裕和; Cinematographer Yutaka Yamasaki 山崎裕; Starring Hiroshi Abe 阿部寛, Yui Natsukawa 夏川結衣, Kirin Kiki 樹木希林, Yoshio Harada 原田芳雄; Length 114 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 17 July 2022.

Criterion Sunday 553: Fish Tank (2009)

Watching this is very much an exercise in looking for the glimmers of hope and possibility in a story about people whose lives (all of them, really) have been derailed or sidelined, and who have turned to anger and sarcasm to get them through their lives (well those as well as drinking, lashing out, the usual kinds of things). It’s a film set in East London, not the trendy cool bit, but the Essex bit, out in Dagenham and Barking and beyond, stuck in a place where there doesn’t seem to be much of a way out. There’s an emaciated horse, the hope of five pounds stashed away to buy a few cans of super strength cider, dancing in parking lots with your friends, a sunny day away to a reservoir. Still, Andrea Arnold keeps it all moving along, just on the right side of hopelessness as our teenage protagonist Mia (Katie Jarvis) struggles to find some way to connect; Michael Fassbender as her mum’s boyfriend Conor seems to offer some hope for their family to come together, but then it turns out he’s just another rotten one, perhaps the worst, but yet somehow catalyses some feeling of change for Mia. You don’t want to watch it at times, but it hurtles forward with the brash energy of youth.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • Three of Andrea Arnold’s early short films are included. The first is her debut Milk (1998), about a woman coping with the death of her baby during childbirth, but it has one of those scenarios that only seems to happen in short films. Still it gets to an emotional core, and there are some nice shots of derelict suburban life.
  • The next is Dog (2001), which pretty convincingly does in 10 minutes what far longer films fail to do: give a sense of a life, who she is, where she’s come from, where she can expect to end up. Kinda brutal in its way (not least for the title character, a teenage girl played by Joanne Hill).

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Andrea Arnold; Cinematographer Robbie Ryan; Starring Katie Jarvis, Michael Fassbender, Kierston Wareing; Length 122 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 17 July 2022.

Criterion Sunday 552: Broadcast News (1987)

This news satire, in which Holly Hunter’s TV news producer Jane opens the film arguing desperately against the erosion of news journalistic standards in chasing entertainment value and glossy smarmy hosts, already tells a story that is nostalgic, depicting a lost era when there still seemed to be some possibility to tell true stories of the world. That said, in pegging this change to Jane’s lovelife — the way she is pulled between two men, the earnest, intelligent yet abrasive journalist Aaron (played by Albert Brooks) and the unctuous, slightly vapid yet still sincere Tom (William Hurt) — is extremely likeable. As you’d expect from a veteran of television like writer/director James L. Brooks, this is both pretty incisive stuff that understands its milieu well, but also written with an eye to the funny. From an era when a lot of the most lauded films are pretty unwatchable now (and certainly Joan Cusack’s fashion choices here haven’t aged brilliantly), this makes a case for being one of the decade’s best and most watchable films and even if it’s still a product of its times, there’s a real glow from watching Holly Hunter being competent and professional.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer James L. Brooks; Cinematographer Michael Ballhaus; Starring Holly Hunter, William Hurt, Albert Brooks, Joan Cusack; Length 132 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 10 July 2022.

Criterion Sunday 551: Cronos (1993)

This is Guillermo del Toro’s first feature film and if it’s a little rough around the edges, it certainly shows a lot of flair. You can see in his work some of the same interests as in Peter Jackson’s early stuff: the latex effects and the light gore, but to illustrate what is, essentially, a vampire story. There’s a mysterious device, an antiques dealer, a lot of tropes that will seem familiar, as in Gremlins for example or any film where an ancient evil totem is hidden amongst the exotic miscellany of a shop. This particular one prolongs life, but also drives the person to blood lust, and so this story progresses, filmed beautifully on some expressive sets. Del Toro is excellent at making his (presumably fairly minimal) budget go a long way, and this has a burnished look and some excellent effects.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • With his 1987 short film Geometría, you can very much see the indebtedness del Toro has to Italian giallo filmmakers like Mario Bava and Dario Argento, just from that neon-hued deeply saturated lighting. This is very 80s, sure, but it also has an inventiveness and a sense of humour — like many good short films, it builds to a joke.
  • There’s an interview accompanying the short film in which del Toro reflects on making it, and on making some changes more recently in order to bring it more into line with his original vision, which largely involves dubbing into Italian, as well as fixing the soundtrack.
  • Del Toro is also an amiable host in conducting a 10-minute tour of his collections, which are large and obsessive but also beautifully presented in an old home, and I guess that’s the perk of achieving some success, is in having your own personal museum of weird stuff you’ve gathered over the years.
  • There are a set of interviews, interspersed with archival photographs of the production, in which the lead actor Federico Luppi speaks (this is an old TV interview, not such great quality) as well as more recent ones with Ron Perlman, cinematographer Guillermo Navarro and of course del Toro himself.
  • There’s a good gallery of stills from the production, as well as of the fake ancient occult text produced for the film.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Guillermo del Toro; Cinematographer Guillermo Navarro; Starring Federico Luppi, Ron Perlman, Claudio Brook; Length 92 minutes.

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

Criterion Sunday 550: The King of Marvin Gardens (1972)

I suppose if there’s a theme to BBS movies, the titles collected by Criterion in the box set “America Lost and Found”, then it’s a sense of the crumbling of the American Dream, or at least that peculiarly mid-20th century vision of it. I mean, it’s certainly deserved, but what these films do is shine a light on confused white men in what should be bastions of that Dream wondering what happened, and that’s no less the case with Jack Nicholson and Bruce Dern here, as brothers David and Jason. Jason has designs on Atlantic City, but keeps getting into trouble, and when David comes into town it’s largely to survey its noticeable decline. The film feels a bit unfocused at times, but then again so does American society, and the more I think about what Rafelson has put on the screen, the greater fondness I have for this rambling and at times surreal film (sequences of the two on horses on the beach make the Criterion release’s cover art, while elsewhere we have Nicholson compering an audience-less Miss America pageant, amongst other little flourishes). While watching it, I wasn’t quite sure what it all added up to, but in retrospect that may be the point: nothing quite adds up, because this is a story and a society destined to fall apart. The title explicitly anchors it in capitalism, referring to the original Monopoly board (complete with its misspelling of Marven Gardens), and this is a city that has sadly foundered on the promise of a dazzling future, just like these characters, just like all the characters in the BBS movies (whether Five Easy Pieces, Easy Rider, The Last Picture Show or even the Monkees in Head).


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Bob Rafelson; Writer Jacob Brackman (based on a story by Brackman and Rafelson); Cinematographer László Kovács; Starring Jack Nicholson, Bruce Dern, Ellen Burstyn, Benjamin “Scatman” Crothers, Julia Anne Robinson; Length 104 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 3 July 2022.

Criterion Sunday 549: The Last Picture Show (1971)

A classic, if not the defining, film of the sad people in a sad small town feeling sad at the fleetingness of all things and at their sad, uneventful futures in the dead end of the American Dream genre, which to be fair is a reasonably well-worn one. But I’d not seen this film before, and director Peter Bogdanovich is sensible to keep his focus on the actors and on Larry McMurtry’s script (based on his own youthful experiences I gather, and shot in the small Texas town he grew up in). All these different actors, whether new youthful faces like Jeff Bridges and Cybill Shepherd and Timothy Bottoms (and even Randy Quaid) all hit their marks perfectly, but in a sense this is even more a film for Eileen Brennan and Ellen Burstyn and Cloris Leachman and Ben Johnson, as the older generation who have clearly already lived the lives these teenage kids are going through and who convey an immense amount of pathos. The script is certainly on point with its metaphors, but it wouldn’t matter much were it not for the tightly controlled performances of the leads, underscored by the monochrome cinematography and crumbling small town set design.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Peter Bogdanovich; Writers Larry McMurtry and Bogdanovich (based on McMurtry’s novel); Cinematographer Robert Surtees; Starring Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges, Cybill Shepherd, Cloris Leachman, Ellen Burstyn, Ben Johnson, Eileen Brennan; Length 126 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 2 July 2022.