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).

Criterion Sunday 503: Lola Montès (1955)

This is one of those grand European follies (like Les Amants du Pont-Neuf in more recent times, perhaps) which burned up money in its production and then failed spectacularly at the box office, but it’s the last film by the great director Max Ophüls and if it’s a failure, it’s a spectacular and beautiful one, immaculately staged and choreographed. Of course, as a film, it’s not a failure at all, but perhaps it just didn’t suit the tastes of the mid-1950s audience. It’s set a hundred years earlier, around the time of the revolutions of 1848, and tells a story of a courtesan and (apparently fairly indifferent) dancer known primarily for her liaisons with rich and powerful men, such is the way of that era’s stardom. Martine Carol in the title role is a glamorous presence but, when seen from the vantage point of her later years performing in a circus, a curiously voiceless one, as the ringmaster Peter Ustinov puts most of her words into her mouth. I don’t think that’s a failure of acting, though: if she feels underwhelming, it’s because her life has pushed her to this, and the flashbacks in which her story is told find her with more agency and a more vibrant presence. But acting aside this is a film peculiarly constructed in the staging and shooting, as beautifully framed widescreen images are composed, and the emotional movement of the story is as evident from the camerawork as from the screenplay or acting. Undoubtedly a film to lose oneself in on the big screen, it’s one of cinema’s great films by one of the medium’s finest directors.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Max Ophüls; Writers Ophüls and Annette Wademant (based on the novel La Vie extraordinaire de Lola Montès by Cécil Saint-Laurent); Cinematographer Christian Matras; Starring Martine Carol, Peter Ustinov, Anton Walbrook, Will Quadflieg, Oskar Werner; Length 115 minutes.

Seen at Te Papa, Wellington, Sunday 30 July 2000 (as well as earlier on laserdisc at the university, Wellington, April 1998, and most recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Friday 7 January 2022).

Criterion Sunday 498: Paisà (Paisan, 1946)

This film of Rossellini’s is less contained than his first in the “War Trilogy” that started with Rome, Open City. After all, it tells six separate stories rather than the one, across the length of Italy in the period leading up to the end of the war, as the Americans and British are found fighting the Germans on Italian soil. We see stories of partisans but also of women and children — whether living in poverty and desperation (as in the second and third stories), or helping out on the frontlines (as in the first and fourth) — and their encounters with the Allies. It’s not a film of hope, as there’s plenty of bleakness, but it feels like a series of stories that is trying to say something about the experience of war rather than (perhaps more usual) propaganda-friendly stories of triumph against adversity, or victory against fascism. In most of these stories, there is no victory because there aren’t really any good or bad guys, there’s just the struggle to survive when there are so few opportunities, and then in the fifth story there’s a different struggle that seems entirely abstracted from the war, of a group of Catholic monks whose primary interest is in ensuring the souls of the non-Catholic Americans can be saved. There’s a bit of humour in it, but a wealth of humanity, and even if the individual stories can sometimes seem a little bit moralistic, as a whole it offers a sweeping view of wartime struggle that it may be my favourite of his works.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Roberto Rossellini; Writers Sergio Amidei, Klaus Mann, Federico Fellini, Marcello Pagliero, Alfred Hayes and Vasco Pratolini; Cinematographer Otello Martelli; Starring Carmela Sazio, Dots Johnson, Maria Michi, Gar Moore, Harriet Medin, Renzo Avanzo, William Tubbs; Length 126 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Tuesday 25 January 2022.

A Castle for Christmas (2021)

It’s that time of the year, the time of the year for the extremely bad (but hopefully still fun to watch) seasonal films on just about every channel you care to look on, and as usual Netflix has stepped up to the plate with a bunch of releases. I had hoped to bring you that seasonal treat Spencer for this special day, but inexplicably that hasn’t been released here in NZ yet, so you’ll have to make do with this very bad — but nevertheless compulsively watchable (if only for the car crash of Elwes’s Scottish accent) — film.


The director Mary Lambert is best known for directing horror movies (most famously 1989’s Pet Sematary), and I’d really like to put the knife in and say this is in the same genre, but honestly there is stuff I liked here. It is formulaic in the extreme, and don’t even get me started on Cary Elwes’s Scottish accent (okay maybe do, because it is very bad, just constantly, almost every scene perceptibly worse than the last one), and there are many holes in the plot. The script, in short, is messy. There’s a slightly evil couple who show up at one point in the middle of the film, and you go, “Ah… her ex! Or some nefarious English buyers for the castle. The stakes have just been raised!” but it swerves and you never see them again. The stakes therefore never get raised, and remain firmly at the level of the relationship between Brooke Shields’ American romance writer and Elwes as a Scottish duke fallen on hard times (or hard-ish, well maybe not hard at all really in the grand scheme of things, but hard by the standards of Christmas-themed romance movies). It really is a mess, and the music is mostly pretty bad and makes it seem like it really wanted to be an Irish-set movie (though most of the actors are English, so maybe they should have just sticked to there, as England has castles too). But, for all that, it retains a sort of kitschy charm.

A Castle for Christmas (2021) posterCREDITS
Director Mary Lambert; Writers Ally Carter and Kim Beyer-Johnson; Cinematographer Michael Coulter; Starring Brooke Shields, Cary Elwes, Lee Ross, Andi Osho; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), Wellington, Sunday 12 December 2021.

NZIFF 2021: Memoria (2021)

Some films are made for film festivals, and none more so than any given new film by Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Some of them have becoming (surprisingly) modest arthouse hits, like Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, and Memoria is very much in a similar mould, with lush jungle terrains (here in Colombia) and a slow, mysterious narrative that seems to promise both naturalism and also science-fiction and fantasy at times. The central investigation may recall Brian De Palma’s Blow Out, in being based around a mysterious sonic fragment, but there’s little else that recalls mainstream narrative cinema, and Tilda Swinton is looking strangely ordinary here as she searches for… something.


Apichatpong Weerasethakul proves that even making a film largely in English and set in Colombia, he’s still able to make exactly the kinds of films he makes, which is to say slow, somnolent and oblique. As with Cemetery of Splendour I nodded off a little at times (to be fair that one was a film about people with some kind of sleeping sickness), but it felt like part of the artistic process, a durational one, about a woman who seems to be searching for the source of a mysterious sound. That search takes her to various specialists (real or imagined?), and to a small village in the mountains, and those shots of ruins and lush vegetation seem very much of a piece with his most famous works. I think in many ways Memoria extends those themes, with some surprising additions that never exactly serve to make clear what’s been going on, but instead intensify and deepen the mystery. But that’s often the way. This had me fascinated and I loved the slow rhythms of it, but it danced nimbly away from explaining itself. Undoubtedly both this and the pacing will madden many of its potential viewers, but it’s an experience in being open to the possibilities of narrative.

Memoria (2021) posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Apichatpong Weerasethakul อภิชาติพงศ์ วีระเศรษฐกุล; Cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom สยมภู มุกดีพร้อม; Starring Tilda Swinton, Jeanne Balibar, Elkin Díaz; Length 136 minutes.
Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Thursday 18 November 2021.

NZIFF 2021: Sisters with Transistors (2020)

I’ve already covered some of the range of documentaries at New Zealand International Film Festival. In some respects it’s surprising that the music ones have been the less formally innovative, given that both films (this and Poly Styrene) deal with boldly experimental artists working outside the mainstream. However, while both are fairly straightforward, they at least deal with very interesting subjects. I don’t think they both work entirely, but they serve as useful primers.


This film definitely deals with a topic I have a lot of interest in: I love the work of Éliane Radigue, which shimmers with barely perceptible fluctuating textures and tonalities like a pulsing sonic organism, and own releases by Pauline Oliveros, Laurie Spiegel and others covered here. So in that respect, I was very happy to see and learn more about these women working in a strange, dusty little corner of the music world which would come in time to have more prominence. But it’s undeniably also the case that this film is very much fixated on a certain type of electronic sound artist, which unfortunately means they all seem to have a similar kind of well-educated background, a similar intensity of expression, although the sounds they conjure range along a gamut. The addition of Wendy Carlos almost feels like an after-the-fact gesture (she’s not listed as one of the main profiled women in the end credits), and her music is dismissed somewhat as populist and light — which may well be her place within this particularly austere community, but the footage we see certainly shows she had plenty of ideas and ability to conjure incredible sounds from circuitry. But on the whole, this is a solid primer on the work of pioneering sound artists, from the boffins of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop (Oram and Derbyshire) to the experimenters in France and America and is worth watching for those interested in sound.

Sisters with Transistors (2020)

CREDITS
Director/Writer Lisa Rovner; Cinematographer Bill Kirstein; Length 86 minutes.
Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Wednesday 10 November 2021.

Criterion Sunday 462: Le Dernier Métro (The Last Metro, 1980)

There are two stories here and I’m not convinced they are always in sync with one another. There’s the story of occupied France in the early-1940s, under Nazi control with people just doing what they can to make ends meet and escape the controlling boot of the occupying forces. And then there’s the theatre story, which is very much at the centre. It has all the feeling of Les Enfants du paradis but with opulent colour and set design and a bravura performance from Catherine Deneuve as a woman whose Jewish theatre director husband (Heinz Bennent) she says has escaped Paris but is actually secretly hiding out in the cellar. So you’ve got this behind-the-scenes story of a theatre troupe rehearsing for a new production, a bit of three-way love action courtesy of a handsome leading actor (Gérard Depardieu), and then you have Nazis. I suppose that puts it somewhat in the camp of Cabaret except with less, er, camp. It’s gorgeously shot and mounted, with some tense set-pieces involving the Germans, but in keeping its focus on the theatrical setting over the horrors of the era, it feels far more like a throwback to a classic era of French filmmaking, and that’s not a bad thing.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director François Truffaut; Writers Truffaut and Suzanne Schiffman; Cinematographer Néstor Almendros; Starring Catherine Deneuve, Gérard Depardieu, Jean Poiret, Heinz Bennent, Sabine Haudepin, Jean-Louis Richard; Length 131 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Wednesday 15 September 2021.

Criterion Sunday 452: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965)

I’ve seen a number of films that occupy this terrain, whether direct adaptations of Le Carré (such as Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) or other works that sit in the same talky glum espionage vein (something like Bridge of Spies, I suppose). It’s not a genre I necessarily warm to, and usually like my spying to be a little bit more silly and fun (like Bourne, if not quite Bond), but there’s something rather elegant to this mid-60s adaptation of a story set deep into the Cold War era. It’s a tale of spies crossing and double-crossing one another in ways that don’t even always make sense to the spies themselves as they’re happening (like Richard Burton’s titular character, Alec Leamas) and part of the drama is just trying to keep up with who knows what and who’s working for whom at any given point. I didn’t expect this to particularly appeal to me, but it held my attention, and along the way there is some fine monochrome cinematography and gliding camera shots — never perhaps quite as bold as the introductory nod towards Touch of Evil, but always with a strong sense of the frosty sangfroid of these suited, spectacled men vying for the upper hand.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Martin Ritt; Writers Paul Dehn and Guy Trosper (based on the novel by John Le Carré); Cinematographer Oswald Morris; Starring Richard Burton, Oskar Werner, Claire Bloom, Cyril Cusack, Rupert Davies; Length 112 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Wednesday 4 August 2021.

Criterion Sunday 446: 秋刀魚の味 Sanma no Aji (An Autumn Afternoon, 1962)

I’ve just watched this film for the first time, Ozu’s final film as a director, and like a lot of final works, it’s probably one that I need to sit with for a long time in order to understand it fully. Ostensibly, it’s not particularly bleak, but it follows a familiar late Ozu pattern of having his lead actor Chishu Ryu play a lonely elderly character, and the movement of the plot is towards his eldest daughter (Shima Iwashita) being married off and leaving the family home, where she cares for him. However even this plot is hardly the centre of the film’s narrative momentum; Ryu’s Shuhei is a company man who still has friends. His old teacher (Eijiro Tono) is still alive too, though he’s a drunkard and a source of barely-disguised pity for his former students due to that and his fall in status to a (not even very good) noodle joint owner. But for all that, Shuhei is looking at a life on his own, as his family move away. There’s a generational gulf too evident in all the talk, both at home and in workplaces, of women getting married, questions about when they’re getting married, and constant reminders of this patriarchal expectation hanging over everyone in their 20s. Meanwhile the older characters reminisce about the war and get nostalgic for old military marches; this is a society that has definitively moved on (shots framed by new buildings, English language signage, old and new facing off), populated by people who haven’t. Ozu’s characters (and perhaps the director himself, too) feel out of step with this changing world, and that suffuses the film throughout, in elegantly framed set-ups that leave our protagonist isolated from others, blankly nodding and smiling into a quieter future.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Yasujiro Ozu 小津安二郎; Writers Kogo Noda 野田高梧 and Ozu; Cinematographer Yuharu Atsuta 厚田雄春; Starring Chishu Ryu, 笠智衆, Shima Iwashita 篠田志麻, Nobuo Nakamura 中村伸郎, Eijiro Tono 東野英治郎, Haruko Sugimura 杉村春子; Length 113 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), Wellington, Friday 23 July 2021.

Criterion Sunday 444: Le Plaisir (1952)

This is a film of three stories, though the first and third are rather brief and function more to introduce and close out the themes of the film, about pleasure of course (the title is clue to that at least), but pleasure as it’s intermingled with various more fleeting things like ageing and death. That first sequence, in focusing on a grand ball, also introduces us to Ophüls’ favoured camera style that loves decadence and the drama of a set combined with the elegant choreography of both bodies and camera in space. That said, for all his gliding camera work, much of it settles down in the longer central segment to deal with a group of women (prostitutes it would appear, not that we see anything so uncouth as coitus) on a group trip to the countryside to celebrate the madam’s niece’s first Communion. In that respect, it already breaks our expectations of prostitutes in film, but the simple bucolic charms of the country and their presence there neatly dovetail with the exploitation (if not unhappiness, so far as we see) back at work. There’s a sub rosa commentary on patriarchal society that runs through all three stories, of an older man desperate to regain his youth (and the youthful affairs that went with it), and an artist who objectifies a model he falls in love with in the third story, along with the women of the central section, free from the tawdry expectations of the men who habitually surround them.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Max Ophüls; Writers Jacques Natanson and Ophüls (based on the short stories “Le Masque”, “La Maison Tellier” and “Le Modèle” by Guy de Maupassant); Cinematographers Philippe Agostini and Christian Matras; Starring Madeleine Renaud, Jean Gabin, Danielle Darrieux, Daniel Gélin, Simone Simon, Jean Servais; Length 97 minutes.

Seen at Paramount, Wellington, Thursday 27 July 2000 (and most recently on DVD at home, Wellington, Monday 28 June 2021).