Criterion Sunday 473: にっぽん昆虫記 Nippon Konchuki (The Insect Woman, 1963)

I do feel like there was a lot going on in this film that I wasn’t taking in. Partly that’s just the way it tells its story, in little chunks dispersed through time, constantly shifting forward a year or so, constantly moving location, never really settling, like its central character. She is buffeted and moved around as much as Japan is over the course of the time period (from her birth in 1918 to roughly the film’s present), as Japan moves into and out of war, its economy changes, there are changes to social structures, but still this woman (and by extension women generally within society) seemed to receive fairly short shrift. I suppose another key factor is that she’s born poor and must seize whatever opportunity she can, whether prostitution or other unfulfilling labour. It’s far from a rosy picture, but it’s a Japanese one, a story of adversity and struggle for little reward.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Shohei Imamura 今村昌平; Writers Keiji Hasebe 長谷部慶次 and Imamura; Cinematographer Shinsaku Himeda 姫田真佐久; Starring Sachiko Hidari 左幸子, Jitsuko Yoshimura 吉村実子; Length 123 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), Wellington, Friday 24 September 2021.

Criterion Sunday 472: 豚と軍艦 Buta to Gunkan (Pigs and Battleships, 1961)

I watched this a few days ago and already I’m struggling to piece together the plot; reading up on it on Wikipedia, I realise there’s a lot, possibly more than I took in while watching it. But that’s in the nature of Shohei Imamura’s budding style — it’s both possible to see how it might have stood out in Japanese post-war cinema, but also it can be quite tiring watching the action flick here and there incessantly. At the heart of the story though is the young, somewhat foolish wannabe gangster Kinta (Hiroyuki Nagato). He gets swept up into the game, much to the disgust of his dad, while meanwhile his girlfriend Haruko (Jitsuko Yoshimura) has few enough choices of her own either. So it’s a film not just about Japan in the aftermath of WW2, but it also wraps up an unequal class system too, affected by the colonising Americans, whose capitalism this whole gangster lifestyle seems to be cribbing from. There’s a lot going on, and maybe a rewatch is in order to keep it all straight, though I imagine I’d still find myself a bit lost, not unlike Kinta.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Shohei Imamura 今村昌平; Writer Hisashi Yamanouchi 山内久; Cinematographer Shinsaku Himeda 姫田真佐久; Starring Hiroyuki Nagato 長門裕之, Jitsuko Yoshimura 吉村実子; Length 108 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), Wellington, Monday 4 October 2021.

Criterion Sunday 470: Wise Blood (1979)

This is an odd film, sufficiently so that I’m convinced I either have it completely wrong and it’s actually a masterpiece beyond my meagre understanding, or else maybe it’s just plain odd, but in its oddness it sits apart from most of contemporary cinema. It deals with what I can only call very American themes — of a sort of autochthonous religious mania, where the open spaces of the American heartlands blend seamlessly with Christianity, sex and death, and become somewhat messed up in the head of Brad Dourif’s war veteran Hazel Motes — which war is never quite specified, though the headstone of his father, played by the director, has a birth year that suggests maybe it’s a future war, yet in tone and costuming it feels very much like World War II or maybe something earlier even. It is, in short, a very American film about something buried deep in the white American psyche, and so perhaps it is a masterpiece, but it’s one that takes a hard route to follow. One that’s perhaps worth following, but it does its best to frustrate anyone trying to do that and the hard face of Hazel, his angry bitter mien is right at the heart of that attempt, a bleak and brutal film of the American mid-20th century experience.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director John Huston; Writers Benedict Fitzgerald and Michael Fitzgerald (based on the novel by Flannery O’Connor); Cinematographer Gerry Fisher; Starring Brad Dourif, Dan Shor, Amy Wright, Harry Dean Stanton; Length 105 minutes.

Seen at a bed and breakfast (DVD), Takaka, Saturday 16 October 2021.

Criterion Sunday 458: El Norte (1983)

I didn’t really expect much going into this, perhaps something a bit well-meaning and earnest, like contemporary Costa-Gavras films or those of John Sayles — which to be fair, is really quite deeply unfair to the latter’s work, but I’m trying to convey that sense of slightly po-faced political dramas about ordinary people in challenging times. In a sense, cinema since then hasn’t really grappled with those topics so much, but in relation specifically to the Anglophone cinema of Latin-American politics that I’m most familiar with, Gregory Nava’s feature has a more poetic register. This isn’t magical realism, though, it’s a poetic realism more akin to the Italian Neorealists, I think, but imbued with a lived sense of how America treats its Latin-American citizens. The central characters are indigenous people, from a small Guatemalan village, who journey to the North because of conditions back home, and who have to endure a lot to get to the very bottom of the ladder in the US. It’s not straightforwardly for or against anything though — their lives in the US do have some benefits compared to the past, but oppression comes in many guises and for all that they do see some material changes to their position, in other ways they are made to feel very much an underclass, not least in terms of the bureaucracy of immigration (and not much has changed there in almost 40 years one suspects). It’s a film that is as concretely about the conditions of work and life as anything else of the decade, but one imbued with a sense of almost mystical dread, that can be at times overwhelming but equally quite beautiful and resonant.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Gregory Nava; Writers Nava and Anna Thomas; Cinematographer James Glennon; Starring David Villalpando, Zaide Silvia Gutiérrez; Length 140 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Friday 3 September 2021.

Criterion Sunday 455: White Dog (1982)

It’s interesting to see the way that the pulpy, B-movie aesthetics of Samuel Fuller, developed from his earliest films as director in the late-40s and 50s and present in his 60s classics like Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss, translated to the filmmaking scene of the 1980s. This could stand alongside any kind of straight-to-video exploitation horror/thriller movie, of the kind being reclaimed by any number of home video labels nowadays, with its murky colour palette and zooms. It just so happens that having Sam Fuller’s name attached gives it a slightly higher profile (although not enough to give it much chance at success when it was released). But Fuller retains a roughness to it that feels right for the material, dealing with a young woman who takes in a stray dog, that turns out to have been trained to attack Black people. Obviously there’s a racial thematic that Fuller is pursuing and it certainly seems appropriate that for all the havoc and death the dog wreaks, it remains protected by those around it, who are earnestly trying to save the dog from itself and unlearn it of its attack programming. The film comes across as earnest in the way it treats this material, though it’s understandable from the formal qualities (scuzzy exploitation cinema) why it remains challenging.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Samuel Fuller; Writers Fuller and Curtis Hanson (based on the novel by Romain Gary); Cinematographer Bruce Surtees; Starring Kristy McNichol, Paul Winfield, Burl Ives; Length 90 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 8 August 2021.

Criterion Sunday 454: Europa (aka Zentropa, 1991)

One of Lars von Trier’s earlier works, back when his focus was very much on being a wunderkind behind the camera and doing tricksy things with deep focus honouring his classical heroes, while also setting the stage to some extent for Guy Maddin and others, but for me it all lacks the thrill of Maddin. It certainly achieves a certain textural depth, with the graininess of the colour tinted film and the deep contrasts of the black-and-white working quite nicely with one another. The plot is a bit Hitchcockian, with its trains and machinations and a certain post-war gloominess about the idea of Europe along with Germany’s place within it. I didn’t feel an enormous amount of attachment to the characters or the story but as an exercise in style it’s persuasive.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Lars von Trier; Writers von Trier and Niels Vørsel; Cinematographers Henning Bendtsen, Edward Kłosiński and Jean-Paul Meurisse; Starring Jean-Marc Barr, Barbara Sukowa, Udo Kier, Ernst-Hugo Järegård, Max von Sydow; Length 107 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 22 August 2021 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, June 1998).

Criterion Sunday 450: Bottle Rocket (1996)

This is, of course, Wes Anderson’s debut feature and we all now know how his career went after this. In retrospect it’s easy to glean hints of what would become central to his style, which due to the budget is not so much in the production design, but certainly there are quirks of costume and staging that are quintessentially of this filmmaker. What’s striking is the non sequitur style of comic writing that he and Owen Wilson already have perfected by this stage, but also the musical cues that add energy to these madcap comic heist sequences (my favourite naturally being the Proclaimers). I think a lot is in place here from a filmic perspective, and there’s a certain something extra that comes from being a first-time director, a certain almost amateur energy at times which I especially appreciate given how incredibly controlled and perfected Anderson’s vision would become over time, but this remains an enjoyable caper.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Wes Anderson; Writers Anderson and Owen Wilson; Cinematographer Robert Yeoman; Starring Luke Wilson, Owen Wilson, Robert Musgrave, James Caan; Length 91 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 25 July 2021 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, December 1999).

Criterion Sunday 449: Missing (1982)

In a way this film by Costa-Gavras is exemplary of a certain strand of political filmmaking that flourished in the 1980s, finding a way into an epochal event through a human rights case involving (white) Americans, to make it more relatable. Interestingly, of course, the Chilean coup in 1973 that led to the death of the young American journalist Charles Horman (played here by John Shea) is so far in the background that Allende and Pinochet are barely even named, and the Chileans we see are just shady military characters with little to distinguish them. Costa-Gavras is very much more interested in focusing on the Americans involved, which makes sense given the help they gave to what was an explicitly anti-leftist and militaristic coup, aligning so well with their destabilising influence across Central and South America in this Cold War era. So we are led to see all these events, the disappearance and death of American journalists, as part of an essentially American story of silencing their own citizens as part of enacting geopolitical change that would favour their own national interests. That said, what I find frustrating about the film is just having to watch Jack Lemmon (playing Charles’s dad Ed) trying to throw his weight around and not understanding his own son’s situation, though it’s all presented as part of a learning curve for him — as someone of a certain age who implicitly trusted his own government finally understanding that he could never trust them again. His character is difficult and has trouble understanding the context, and that can just make him a little bit difficult to watch at times when it’s just variations of him going into rooms and being dismissive of his son’s wife (Sissy Spacek) and friends whenever they speak. Still, it’s a well-intentioned film that did attempt to grapple with some of this geopolitical reality at a time when Reagan had recently been elected.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Costa-Gavras Κώστας Γαβράς; Writers Costa-Gavras and Donald E. Stewart (based on the non-fiction book The Execution of Charles Horman: An American Sacrifice by Thomas Hauser); Cinematographer Ricardo Aronovich; Starring Jack Lemmon, Sissy Spacek, John Shea, Melanie Mayron; Length 122 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Saturday 17 July 2021 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, September 2000).

Antoinette dans les Cévennes (Antoinette in the Cévennes aka My Donkey, My Lover & I, 2020)

Finishing off my week of films I saw at Wellington’s recent French Film Festival is this recent release, which went swiftly into the cinemas and I think has probably done quite well, presumably based on the lead actor’s profile in Call My Agent! (which is certainly where I know her from). I hadn’t realised Robert Louis Stevenson had been a pioneer of hiking, or had links with this area of France, but that was one of the things I learned from this otherwise rather silly (but fun) movie.


Did Balthazar truly die so that Patrick could take a walk with Laure Calamy in the Cévennes? I was all ready to be snarky and dismissive along those lines, but actually this is quite a sweet and even rather funny film in which Calamy basically reprises her role as Noémie in the TV show Call My Agent! but as the titular Antoinette, lovestruck over a married man and barely holding herself together at times, but finding through her journey an inner resilience (nurtured by a growing bond with Patrick the donkey, etc. etc.). I mean, it should all be unwatchable really, but Calamy (a bit like Jane Krakowski on US TV shows like 30 Rock) has a gift at imbuing what seem like shallow caricatures with an inner humanity. She’s introduced as a teacher changing at the back of her classroom into a spangly dress to lead her kids in a rendition of a thematically very inappropriate and slightly gothy song to a group of parents, while winking at what we all assume is her boyfriend, but turns out to be the (married) parent of one of her children, and when he heads off for a holiday with his family, foolishly decides to secretly stalk him. It’s the pure sociopathic stuff of romcoms, but as ever is negotiated largely through having such a likeable lead. Basically, it shouldn’t really work, but it does.

Antoinette dans les Cévennes (Antoinette in the Cévennes aka My Donkey, My Lover & I, 2020)CREDITS
Director/Writer Caroline Vignal (based on the book Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes by Robert Louis Stevenson); Cinematographer Simon Beaufils; Starring Laure Calamy, Benjamin Lavernhe, Olivia Côte; Length 97 minutes.
Seen at Penthouse, Wellington, Tuesday 15 June 2021.

Judas and the Black Messiah (2021)

A film that came out earlier this year, and got some Oscar nods (including a win for Kaluuya), is this impressive biopic. It’s hardly perfect but it’s put together well with some fine performances, and shines some light on an underappreciated aspect of revolutionary American history.


This feels in many ways like a pretty traditional biopic showing all the strengths and weaknesses of that genre, with its arc through to someone’s death, and though it’s not clunky or badly directed, it really stands or falls on the quality of its actors. Luckily Daniel Kaluuya as Illinois Black Panther Party Chairman Fred Hampton and Lakeith Stanfield as FBI informant Bill O’Neal, along with (notably) Dominique Fishback as Deborah Johnson, the partner of Hampton, all do brilliant work. Kaluuya’s is the more up-front role, the more direct angry young man, but it’s Stanfield who particularly impresses as this fraught character (the ‘Judas’), torn in many directions who communicates that well without big speeches, but just in these quiet scenes between himself and his handler (Jesse Plemons), that means the epilogue about the real life Bill O’Neal somehow comes as no real surprise while also being quite shocking. But the greatest shock of the epilogue — and something not fully conveyed by the film and its casting (however fine the actors) — is just how young all these people were. Hampton was 21 when the film ends. It’s a film not just about his work with the BPP but also about the policing culture (at the time, though I think we all know that time hasn’t changed much in that respect), and about the way this authoritarian power was directed at those trying to make positive change and resist the racist, capitalist narratives of the mainstream. Ultimately this is still a studio product, but it allows for those voices to be heard, that protest to be enunciated, and as protest this is striking.

Judas and the Black Messiah (2021)CREDITS
Director Shaka King; Writers Will Berson, King, Kenny Lucas and Keith Lucas; Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt; Starring Daniel Kaluuya, Lakeith Stanfield, Jesse Plemons, Dominique Fishback, Ashton Sanders, Martin Sheen; Length 126 minutes.
Seen at Light House Cuba, Wellington, Tuesday 16 March 2021.