Criterion Sunday 562: Blow Out (1981)

Brian De Palma is one of the great American filmmakers whose work I’ve never properly explored. I believe he has many great, stylish, compulsive films and he certainly likes to dwell in the sleazy byways of American culture, and amongst those this may be one of the strongest. After all it’s about a filmmaker — well, a man who works capturing sounds to soundtrack sleazy horror slasher movies. In style, it’s 80s through and through but with a core of 70s paranoid conspiracy thriller, like Blowup or The Conversation. Yet despite being so uncannily reminiscent of those earlier (great) films, it holds its own as a stylish thriller, not least because of Travolta’s central performance as a haunted man desperate to find out the truth, and not something you’d expect the man as he is now to be doing. That said, De Palma’s camerawork is pretty slick, and he always knows the good angles to capture the mood he wants. The film never lets up its taut focus, making it another quality addition to this genre.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Brian De Palma; Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond; Starring John Travolta, Nancy Allen, John Lithgow, Dennis Franz; Length 108 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 20 August 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 542: Antichrist (2009)

I know that Lars von Trier wants us to hate his movies, because he wants us to have that authentic visceral reaction to them, whether it be love or hate. That seems fairly clear both from his pronouncements as from the films themselves, and therefore I want to respond by saying I found his film — surely one of the films that most potently distils everything that he wants to assault the viewer with — as merely middling. However, I cannot lie: I disliked it a lot. Not that it wasn’t acted with great power by both Gainsbourg and Dafoe, who are pretty much the only humans we see for much of the film (aside from their infant son who dies in the prologue and whose death hangs over the entire psychodramatic dynamic that ensues). Not that it wasn’t filmed with customary elegance by Anthony Dod Mantle. Not that there weren’t elements that worked well and could be appreciated. But just that constant assault of images and ideas that serve no purpose other than to evoke grand emotions. Well, I’m glad people can embrace those and I don’t doubt that it’s all very intentionally done. I could dispassionately render a critique on its artistry. But I feel like a more honest response — and perhaps the one that Trier would prefer — is just: f*ck that guy. I didn’t hate his film, and maybe even one day I can come to it with understanding, but I don’t have to watch it again, and I’m glad about that.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Lars von Trier; Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle; Starring Willem Dafoe, Charlotte Gainsbourg; Length 108 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 18 June 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).

NZIFF 2021: Titane (2021)

The closing night film of the New Zealand International Film Festival ended up being the Cannes Palme d’Or winner Titane, which is certainly a very bold and disturbing film to be winning major awards but there’s something to that. I was never quite sure if I really loved it while it was going on, but I do know that it was surprising and confrontational, and quite baroquely stylish, with an excellent performance from newcomer Agathe Rousselle and grizzled veteran Vincent Lindon.


Watching this Cannes prize-winning film most strongly reminds me of the work of Claire Denis. The influence of David Cronenberg is perhaps most obvious in its body horror genre trappings, but for me Denis is the influence that seems clearest to me, and partly that’s a matter of tone. The one time I’ve seen Denis discuss her film at a live Q&A was after a screening of Bastards, which also stars Vincent Lindon and is set in a twilight world riven with anger (at least in my recollection), and reading interviews with this film’s director Julia Ducournau reminds me of the way Denis would confront her critics, never seemingly more engaged than when she was outraged by an angry comment.

Clearly there’s a lot that audiences and critics are divided over with Titane, and some of the criticism is probably quite at odds with what Ducournau intended, but it seems at heart to be about human connection. Along the way it dispenses with trite psychologising — we see Alexia (Agathe Rousselle) briefly as a child, but any relationship she has with her parents is very much only indirectly implied, and the reasons for her turning to murder are never really delved into — in favour of a heady immersion into a stylised world of machines and flesh. This isn’t the romantic abstraction of, say, Ex Machina, but instead a very fleshy world of scars and body transformation, which hints at a trans subtext (though the filmmaker denies that) and certainly speaks to gender fluidity, an in-your-face be-queer-do-crimes vibe. That said, when she comes into contact with Vincent Lindon’s firefighter, the film changes perceptibly to being one about acceptance and love despite everything — and there’s a lot there for his character to blindly accept.

The filmmaking is fearless when it comes to bodies, and that much is certainly evident from Ducournau’s debut feature Raw, but it’s also very much within a genre framework where this kind of horror is a little bit abstracted from the emotional reality (a scene with a knitting needle lands very differently in, say, Happening) without entirely relinquishing that primal response. That can make twists like Alexia’s relationship with the car make a certain amount of poetic sense, but her relationship with Vincent seems pretty profound too, and he is great in what must have been a challenging role. The textures of the colours and images, the propulsive music and relentlessness of the endeavour carries it, along with a fair amount of jet black humour. I’m not even sure if it’s a great film, but it feels pretty special.

Titane (2021) posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Julia Ducournau; Cinematographer Ruben Impens; Starring Agathe Rousselle, Vincent Lindon; Length 108 minutes.
Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Sunday 21 November 2021.

NZIFF 2021: Pleasure (2021)

Somehow even amongst the more solidly film festival fare at Whānau Mārama – New Zealand International Film Festival, Sweden’s Pleasure manages to stick out, not least because it is very much set in the USA and is about a subject that feels somehow inextricably linked to LA, which is the adult film industry. And yet it’s still a festival film, an arthouse drama, a film that is about people working within that industry without (at least I don’t think) being exploitative or shaming, which most films dealing with the topic tend to do. It’s hardly uplifting, of course, but I admire what it does, though I daresay it will be controversial.


Isn’t it odd the way that films titled for an abstract noun with largely positive connotations often entirely lack that quality (my mind goes to films with titles like HappinessJoy and so forth). Well, it’s much the same here, although to my mind this film at least avoids the pitfalls of being preachy and moralistic. This is a film about Linnéa (Sofia Kappel), a young Swedish woman who travels to LA to get involved in the p0rn industry under the soubriquet Bella Cherry, but the film is not really interested in why she made that choice or about wagging its finger at her for having made it. As far as we see in the film, Bella just wants to do something she enjoys, and while her experiences aren’t uniformly positive, there’s a camaraderie that grows between her and others in the same industry that develops over the film. And though it could be said to sour towards the end, it’s not played for high melodrama or camp (as in, say, Showgirls) but instead is allowed to have a complex emotional range, chiefly expressed in the relationship between Bella, her imperious arch-rival (at least in Bella’s head) Ava, and her housemate Joy (Revika Anne Reustle), who falls lower down the pecking order it seems.

All of the cast seem to be taken from the adult film industry, and in most cases give pretty believable naturalistic performances, even the sleazier agents and directors. And while it is clearly going to be a divisive film, to my mind it doesn’t play as exploitative, but instead has a certain kinship to, say, Sean Baker’s films. There’s a beauty to all this mess, but primarily this a drama charting the messy but often healthy relationships that develop, as well as the pitfalls too. These latter are not exclusively amongst male-dominated sets, but are certainly exacerbated by certain male egos, and there’s a striking contrast made between the carefully delineated consent and constant attention she’s given in a bondage video directed and staffed by women, and a rather more naturalistic depiction of rough sex in a video made by men. Plenty of this is at times quite disturbing, but the film is judicious and balanced in its depiction of a sordid world.

Pleasure (2021)CREDITS
Director Ninja Thyberg; Writers Thyberg and Peter Modestij (based on Thyberg’s short film); Cinematographer Sophie Winqvist Loggins; Starring Sofia Kappel, Revika Anne Reustle; Length 105 minutes.
Seen at Roxy, Wellington, Wednesday 17 November 2021.

NZIFF 2021: @zola (2020)

The first film I saw at Whānau Mārama – New Zealand International Film Festival is probably the most ‘commercial’ of the lot, though it still fits in a lot of darkness to its otherwise gaudily-toned story of… well, of Florida. It’s a setting that’s been done many times before (think Magic Mike for a start), but I can’t deny that there’s an energy to this setting that energises plenty of films, this one no less than any other.


Nobody’s really out there adapting Twitter threads and I can only applaud the ways the filmmakers here find to transfer some of that era-specific energy (Twitter, Facebook and… Tumblr all get a mention, because of course). There are bravura touches (a lot of toilet-focused exposition that’s revealing without being gross), a lot of humour (Cousin Greg!! sorry I mean Nicholas Braun, best known for his role in Succession) and the constant presence of Taylour Paige as Zola, being cool under pressure and rolling her eyes back into her head at Riley Keough’s character Stefani. Keough has played this type before but yet I didn’t recognise her; Stefani feels like a different character and a very specific one. It’s not all jolly laughs — there’s some very credible terror and some nasty men (okay those things are somewhat related) — but it is pulled through by the narrative voice and a sense of self-mythologising that’s ongoing and inherent to the narrative itself.

@zola (2021)CREDITS
Director Janicza Bravo; Writers Bravo and Jeremy O. Harris (based on the Rolling Stone article “Zola Tells All: The Real Story Behind the Greatest Stripper Saga Ever Tweeted” by David Kushner and the original tweets by Aziah King); Cinematographer Ari Wegner; Starring Taylour Paige, Riley Keough, Nicholas Braun, Colman Domingo; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Friday 5 November 2021.

Criterion Sunday 481: Made in USA (1966)

Godard always had a way of making films really quickly, especially in his mid-60s career pomp, and most seemed to be either stark black-and-white films about a woman (often Anna Karina), or widescreen saturated-colour genre riffs (often with Anna Karina). Made in USA, as its title implies, is very much one of the latter, and the genre it’s playing off is the detective film, via a novel by the creator of the Parker character (very much unofficially at that, hence the film’s relative unavailability in the US until this release, due to threats of legal action). The plot itself makes very little sense at a casual acquaintance, and this is surely the point: it’s more about using the tropes and the visual language of detectives, spies, gangsters and the like to create some nifty juxtaposition of colour, sound and image that throws up a critique of the capitalist West and its innate corruption. Anna Karina is fetching as ever in the lead role of Paula Nelson, while everyone else sports character names based on Godard’s favoured directors (the film is dedicated to Sam Fuller and Nick Ray, after all). His resulting movie has energy to spare, with all the little tics Godard was known for, layering multiple texts with jarring sound effects, only further obscuring the machinations of the plot. It feels like a heady formal exercise, and it rather paved the way for later films like Week End (1967) that Le Gai savoir (1968) that lead towards abandoning such bourgeois affectations altogether.

(Written on 8 January 2016.)


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jean-Luc Godard (based on the novel The Jugger by Donald E. Westlake [as “Richard Stark”]); Cinematographer Raoul Coutard; Starring Anna Karina, Jean-Pierre Léaud, László Szabó; Length 85 minutes.

Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT2), London, Thursday 7 January 2016.

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 467: 愛の亡霊 Ai no Borei (Empire of Passion, 1978)

This ghost story doesn’t have the frisson of controversy that many of Oshima’s other films (it immediately follows his most sensational, In the Realm of the Senses, and has a similar title in the original), but it certainly does look gorgeous. It’s ostensibly a story about a man wronged (Takahiro Tamura) who returns to haunt his wife (Kazuko Yoshiyuki) and her lover (Tatsuya Fuji), but really it is much more about the wife and the way that she is first assaulted by and then lured into a love tryst with a disreputable young man (though the actors aren’t so far apart in their actual age) in 1890s Japan. There’s a fundamental unhappiness at the heart of all their actions, but then again they live a meagre life, he a rickshaw puller and her making ends meet as a lowly servant to a grand home. Like a lot of ghost stories, there’s a great deal of expressive use of the dark, and plenty of grime and filth too, though it’s not exactly scary. It’s more about internal strife and an inchoate desire for something else, some other way of living, some kind of connection with emotion that seems to motivate the woman, and the film’s central tragedy.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Nagisa Oshima 大島渚; Writers Oshima and Itoko Nakamura 中村糸子; Cinematographer Yoshio Miyajima 宮島義勇; Starring Tatsuya Fuji 藤竜也, Kazuko Yoshiyuki 吉行和子, Takahiro Tamura 吉行和子; Length 105 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Monday 13 September 2021.