Criterion Sunday 573: জলসাঘর Jalsaghar (The Music Room, 1958)

Probably still one of the world’s major filmmakers whose work I’ve never properly watched (aside from his debut feature, not even yet the trilogy), Satyajit Ray took some time to receive the critical acclaim that was his due, perhaps because his films were far outside the expectations for the local cinema. This is his fourth feature and it showcases the classical music of his homeland beautifully, as it revolves around a local aristocrat who basically spends up his entire income and sells off his wife’s jewellery, just to keep the talent and the guests coming through the opulent room of the film’s title that’s in his home. The film allows the performances the space to breathe, and along the way tells a story of class and privilege in this society, as he tries to retain his status even as his money dissipates and nouveaux riches non-aristocratic traders start to challenge his position. It’s all beautifully filmed and honestly every Ray film I see is another film I feel I need to have seen in a cinema (because at home, late at night, falling asleep a bit) is hardly the ideal viewing experience.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Satyajit Ray সত্যজিৎ রায় (based on short story by Tarasankar Bandyopadhyay তারাশঙ্কর বন্দ্যোপাধ্যায়); Cinematographer Subrata Mitra সুব্রত মিত্র; Starring Chhabi Biswas ছবি বিশ্বাস, Padma Devi শ্রীমতি পদ্মা দেবী, Gangapada Bose গঙ্গাপদ বসু; Length 99 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Monday 26 September 2022.

Criterion Sunday 572: Léon Morin, prêtre (Léon Morin, Priest, 1961)

I’m not exactly certain what makes a Jean-Pierre Melville film a Melville film, what his particular touch is, but I do know that I really like just about all of them that I’ve seen. In his way he’s as singular a director as his contemporary (albeit slightly older) Robert Bresson, who also had an interest in religious themes. Melville didn’t really explore them quite as much as he did here, and maybe that’s what sets it apart from his gangster films, but it has all the essential elements of great drama — two people, drawn to each other despite the fact that one is a priest, at a time and place of great trauma (Nazi-occupied France) — and is filmed in austere black-and-white. Belmondo is an actor I’ve never fully connected with, but he brings something compelling to his priest, and the film becomes one of clandestine glances shared between him and Emmanuelle Riva. That said, the film is never quite as melodramatic as I’ve made out, and moves like a chamber drama, while giving enough life to the characters around this central pair that it threatens throughout to move off on another tangent, before being pulled back into these two, and their tangled, messy lives, but it’s a sympathetic portrait of what a good and moral church man might be at a time when such figures seemed to be sorely lacking.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jean-Pierre Melville (based on the novel of the same name in French but usually translated as The Passionate Heart by Béatrix Beck); Cinematographer Henri Decaë; Starring Emmanuelle Riva, Jean-Paul Belmondo; Length 117 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 25 September 2022.

Criterion Sunday 565: The Great Dictator (1940)

This is the film in which Chaplin finally takes on that other notable world figure with the same moustache. And, suitably, he comes to him with comedy, and it is certainly always worthwhile ridiculing fascism. There are indeed some fine laughs in this film, well-constructed little asides that resonate with some darker undertow while also keeping the film fairly light on its feet — whether it’s Chaplin as a Jewish barber, dazed from being struck with a frying pan, doing a little dance up and down a street with boarded shops daubed with the stark words ‘JEW’, or Chaplin as the dictator Hynkel presiding over underlings demonstrating new technological advances that end up (somehow, comedically) killing them. As I’ve seen other critics note, the horror comes across effectively in these fleeting moments. Elsewhere it’s absurdity that he uses to undercut Adenoid Hynkel with his speeches (in some kind of mock-German) and his posturing, though the broadest pure comedy performance is reserved for Jack Oakie as the Mussolini stand-in, Benzino Napaloni, a true buffoon. It’s all approached with a deep earnestness, and I can appreciate that — the end has a touching quality to it that’s hokily undeniable — but the existential threat of fascism doesn’t ever really feel as if it’s captured, and the comedy never achieves more than just isolated moments of greatness. But that’s only my opinion; those who love it have purer hearts.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Charlie Chaplin; Cinematographers Karl Struss and Roland Totheroh; Starring Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard, Jack Oakie; Length 125 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 27 August 2022.

Criterion Sunday 561: Kes (1969)

The UK seems like a pretty horrible place to be right now — reading the news, there seems to be a lot of intolerance and judgment, and it primarily seems to flow from the top down (you just have to look at the current Prime Minister and those people vying to take over from him). Turns out none of this is new and you can hear this strain of small-minded authority figures lecturing down to poor working-class kids here too, in a film made at the tail end of the 1960s, in a mining community where young Billy doesn’t want to follow his family down the pit. There’s a lot of bleakness to this quiet story of childhood desperation, and then there’s the eponymous bird (a kestrel, of course) which seems to signify so much more potential to Billy’s world. I think Loach keeps this all in nice balance — the metaphors of freedom and the bleak reality of constraint — and though the grim constant grind that Billy lives under, the abuse of the school teachers (except for the one kind soul who encourages him towards the end), and his horrible brother, loom large they never quite become the whole story. Perhaps there’s hope, perhaps there’s not, you can read the film how you want to.

NB: This is listed as 1970 by the Criterion Collection, though it was screened at the 1969 London Film Festival.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Ken Loach; Writers Barry Hines, Loach and Tony Garnett (based on Hines’s novel A Kestrel for a Knave); Cinematographer Chris Menges; Starring David Bradley, Freddie Fletcher, Colin Welland; Length 99 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 20 August 2022 (and earlier, probably on VHS in the 1990s).

Criterion Sunday 556: Senso (1954)

This film is, undoubtedly, full-blooded. If you have any kind of aversion to melodrama, you would be well-advised to be aware of that going in, because Visconti and his lead actor Alida Valli do not, in any way, hold back. She plays the Countess Serpieri, an Italian noblewoman in 1866 just as Italy is seeking its independence, whose cousin (Massimo Girotti) is deeply embedded in the resistance fight, but yet she dramatically, deeply, impossibly falls in love with a young Austrian officer Franz (played rather less memorably by Farley Granger, and truly the lip-synching is, as you’d expect from Italian films, very far off). The further she is sucked into passionate love for this pathetic preening jerk, the further she betrays her country and her ideals, until both are thrown explosively against one another in a final showdown that really undoes them both. The title is apt: this is a film of the senses, taking its cue (as VIsconti often does) from opera, which is where it literally begins, until the entire film is suffused with an operatic sensibility and the denouement can’t help but be bold. So if you like your films melodramatic and operatic, then this is exactly the kind of cinema you will love.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Luchino Visconti; Writers Suso Cecchi d’Amico, Visconti, Giorgio Bassani, Carlo Alianello, Giorgio Prosperi, Tennessee Williams and Paul Bowles; Cinematographers G.R. Aldo and Robert Krasker; Starring Alida Valli, Farley Granger, Massimo Girotti; Length 123 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 24 July 2022.

Criterion Sunday 555: Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

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.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Alexander Mackendrick; Writers Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman (based on Lehman’s novelette Tell Me About It Tomorrow! in Cosmopolitan); Cinematographer James Wong Howe 黃宗霑; Starring Tony Curtis, Burt Lancaster, Susan Harrison; Length 96 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 23 July 2022 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, June 2000).

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 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 537: Ansiktet (The Magician, 1958)

I know this will come as a great surprise to all adherents of the cinema of Ingmar Bergman, but this is a film about faith, about the failures and disappointments of organised religion but also about the supernatural, using a Christ-like central figure to channel doubts about the divine. Added to this, it is, as is perhaps rather more underappreciated when it comes to Bergman, essentially a comedy, albeit one with a body count by the end, though everyone just seems to shrug that off (but maybe that’s more a sign of the times). No this is in many respects a bawdy, silly romp but with added occultism (and a touch of horror, too), as Max von Sydow’s apparently mute mesmerist Albert Vogler travels around towns with his little magical sideshow. But… is there more to his powers? The scepticism of one small town he enters, particularly of Gunnar Björnstrand’s physician Vergerus, open up these questions, to which von Sydow’s baleful eyes do a lot of answering. It’s pretty good, made during Bergman’s imperial (and rather more comedic) phase, well worth watching especially if you think it’ll be too dour.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Ingmar Bergman; Cinematographer Gunnar Fischer; Starring Max von Sydow, Gunnar Björnstrand, Ingrid Thulin, Naima Wifstrand, Bengt Ekerot, Bibi Andersson; Length 101 minutes.

Seen at the Embassy, Wellington, Monday 18 July 2022.

Criterion Sunday 530: The Last Command (1928)

Emil Jannings won the very first Best Actor Academy Award for this performance (though actually, in this first Oscars ceremony, actors could be nominated for multiple roles, so technically it was not just for this film). Looking back in retrospect, it can be difficult to judge whether such awards were justified. After all, as is typical of the silent era, there’s a lot of gestural and facial work that seems to modern film viewers rather broad and a little lacking in subtlety. But if you get through those (which come partly from the wordless form, and are partly typical of just the style of acting prevalent at the time), you can see at the core there is indeed something rather fascinatingly complex about Jannings’ work here.

Himself a lauded German actor (as in Murnau films like The Last Laugh), Jannings here plays a grand Russian military figure, perhaps the most senior after the Tsar, fighting desperately against the Bolsheviks in the Russian Revolution of 1917. Finding sympathy here is no natural task — the Tsarist forces aren’t exactly on the side of the people, and as far as I understand from history, America was hardly as virulently anti-revolutionary and anti-Communist back then as it later became — but Jannings and director Sternberg achieve something similar to what Renoir was doing in France: evoking empathy for those relics of history like Jannings’ military man. Along the way he pulls out all kinds of camerawork that has a vibrancy and lightness to it, with movement and momentum matching those of the characters, which would take a while for cinema to regain in the sound era. It’s a film that looks forward to some of Sternberg’s masterpieces of the sound era with Marlene Dietrich, a blend of European and brash American sensibility that’s quite enticing. Plus there’s a young William Powell as a revolutionary turned film director in the framing story.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Josef von Sternberg; Writers John F. Goodrich and Herman J. Mankiewicz (from a story by Lajos Biró); Cinematographer Bert Glennon; Starring Emil Jannings, Evelyn Brent, William Powell; Length 88 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), Wellington, Monday 28 February 2022 (and earlier on VHS in the university library, Wellington, June 2000).