Criterion Sunday 613: Sommarlek (Summer Interlude, 1951)

One of Bergman’s earlier films, he’s finding his way to some of his most enduring themes here, via the story of a traumatic past haunting the present for a ballerina, Marie (Maj-Britt Nilsson). But it’s not just trauma: there are truly happy moments that seem to mock her from the past, as she labours in misery with a rather priggish and accusatory boyfriend (Alf Kjellin). Of course, her first love Hendrik (Birger Malmsten) had his faults too, but the past scenes, teenage years by a lake, lit brightly, with an effervescence to them, feel like a different film (despite the actors being the same). They pick wild strawberries, they go for a swim, there’s a joy that’s clearly lacking in the present day scenes. But light and darkness are intermingled, and the memories of the past can bring respite to us, though as ever in Bergman the solaces of religion are of variable quality.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Ingmar Bergman; Writers Bergman and Herbert Grevenius (based on a story by Bergman); Cinematographer Gunnar Fischer; Starring Maj-Britt Nilsson, Birger Malmsten, Alf Kjellin; Length 96 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Tuesday 17 January 2023.

Criterion Sunday 606: Blithe Spirit (1945)

Unexpectedly — for a David Lean film — this story of spiritual mediums and the haunting presence of a dead ex-wife, is very silly. Still, it’s very much in writer Noël Coward’s line, I suppose, with a brittle comedy of manners amongst very middle-class people set at a pleasant home in the country, where Rex Harrison’s novelist Charles wants to research a crime plot involving a séance. This introduces us to Margaret Rutherford’s Madame Arcati, who very much steals the entire film with her flamboyant performance, and thus to the novelist’s recently-deceased ex Elvira (Kay Hammond) who trades barbs with him while Charles’s current wife Ruth (Constance Cummings) looks on, concerned for his mental health and upset that he seems to be rekindling his relationship with the glamorous dead woman. I’m not sure what deeper thing it says about the English, but it’s pleasant enough as a silly divertissement and has some lovely use of Technicolor.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • The extras include a 1992 episode of the long-running arts show The South Bank Show dedicated to Noël Coward. It strings together archive footage of Coward himself talking about his life as a way of bringing together his upbringing and artistic career, as well as his later years in Jamaica and a bit about his public and private life as a gay man in 20th century England. There is some good footage they’ve unearthed of him as a young man, and as a stage actor, as well as little clips from the making of some of his works, and some interviews with collaborators like John Gielgud and John Mills. It may not dig really deep but it gives you a good overview of the man.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director David Lean; Writers Lean, Ronald Neame and Anthony Havelock-Allen (based on the play by Noël Coward); Cinematographer Ronald Neame; Starring Rex Harrison, Constance Cummings, Kay Hammond, Margaret Rutherford; Length 96 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 8 January 2023.

Criterion Sunday 605: This Happy Breed (1944)

There is a certain strain of English cinema (and it does seem very precisely English, maybe even Home Counties England) of which Noel Coward was an expert purveyor. He was from a fairly dowdy background but he perfected a certain kind of genteel middle-classness that is exemplified of course in Brief Encounter but seems to inform all his films that I’ve seen, not least this one set in the very plain, working class London suburb of Clapham (not that you’d get much of that these days in Clapham). I am, however, quite a sucker for London stories, so despite my reservations, my attention was held throughout this generational tale.

Coward’s perspective can come across as slightly condescending at times, and I’m not quite sure where he sat politically but it all seems a bit small-c conservative, given the attitudes towards the socialist partner of one of the family’s daughters. It was also made during wartime so it naturally has a bit of that patriotic perspective to it. Still, there’s an everyday feeling to it, of several members of a family over the interwar period, living their lives and getting on with things while the big events of the day are telegraphed via newspaper headlines and conversations over tea. In short, yes, it’s very English, very much from a certain perspective, but I still found myself very much liking it.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director David Lean; Writers Lean, Anthony Havelock-Allen and Ronald Neame (based on the play by Noël Coward); Cinematographer Ronald Neame; Starring Robert Newton, Celia Johnson, Kay Walsh, John Mills, Stanley Holloway, Eileen Erskine; Length 111 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 8 January 2023.

Criterion Sunday 604: In Which We Serve (1942)

A solidly crafted flag-waving exercise in wartime uplift, about the way a diverse (well, diverse from a class-based background at least, if literally nothing else) group of fighting men on a navy ship come together through adversity. The film is largely told in flashback as the HMS Torrin lies crippled and sinking after the Battle of Crete, as some of the surviving crew reflect on how they came to be there. Turns out this is a fairly effective narrative strategy, allowing both for the setbacks of war (the sinking of the ship, the loss of life) to intertwine with the duty and service that motivate these men, most of whom are lifelong Royal Navy crewmembers, and the wives and children that wait for them back in England — and indeed, given the fairly limited screen time, it’s the women who give some of the film’s best performances. Writer and co-director Noël Coward himself plays the ship’s captain, which makes sense given his own leading involvement in getting the film made, and he acquits himself well enough, in the soulful vein of a by-the-book type who nevertheless has great admiration for all his crewmembers (except for a baby-cheeked Richard Attenborough, who abandons his post in one memorable vignette), but it’s the emotional story between John Mills and Bernard Miles which is most satisfying. All in all, this is well-made and probably the film for its time, but it’s still pretty boilerplate as a wartime fighting film.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors Noël Coward and David Lean; Writer Coward; Cinematographer Ronald Neame; Starring Noël Coward, John Mills, Bernard Miles, Celia Johnson, Kay Walsh, Joyce Carey; Length 114 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 1 January 2023.

Criterion Sunday 599: Vanya on 42nd Street (1994)

As a film, this is the very definition of stagy. You could reduce it in synopsis to a recording of an ongoing theatre project whereby director Andre Gregory convened the same group of actors over a period of several years to work together on the text of Uncle Vanya (as rewritten by David Mamet), just for themselves and occasional invited guests but never for public show. However, as directed by Louis Malle (in his final film), there’s an elegance and grace to this project and a feeling that it’s more than mere recorded theatre, but that something cinematic is going on. It’s not just the space where the filming takes place — an abandoned old theatre in the heart of NYC — though that certainly lends a lot of the film’s atmospherics, but it’s a way of really focusing on performances and performance styles, stripping away the design and setting elements (there is some costuming that hints towards its Russian roots, but for the most part this is both modern-day and also somehow timeless). What you get is the themes of the play — the aggressive pleasures and pain of being with family, the melancholy of ageing, all that fun stuff — and none of the distraction, and for me, despite (or perhaps because of) its self-evident staginess, it’s all the more engrossing.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • This is a fairly basic package, with only a half-hour piece made in 2011 about the creation of this work, its production and its filming. It catches up with most of the cast, including Gregory and most of the case (only Phoebe Brand as the grandmother had passed) and is fairly insightful into his process as a theatre director.
  • The only other extra is the trailer, which is fairly standard issue as these things go, but it did impress on me that there were plenty of moments in the film that I still somehow missed, suggesting that rewatching it would probably bring out different aspects of the production.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Louis Malle; Writer Andre Gregory (based on the play Дя́дя Ва́ня Dyadya Vanya by Anton Chekhov Антон Чехов, as adapted by David Mamet); Cinematographer Declan Quinn; Starring Wallace Shawn, Julianne Moore, Larry Pine, Brooke Smith, George Gaynes; Length 119 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 17 December 2022.

Criterion Sunday 591: 12 Angry Men (1957)

This is one of those perennial classic films that always shows up on lists that I’ve contrived never to have seen until now, but I have to say it certainly does hold up — albeit perhaps not legally. However, I do love a chamber drama, and this one, as the title suggests, features twelve men, fairly indistinguishable on the surface though as the film goes on we get to know each one for obviously — this is a basic screenwriting requirements, one imagines — they have quite different personalities. This could be just a writer’s exercise, but it comes alive in the telling thanks to the taut dialogue, the fine, expressive acting (far more the latter for Lee J. Cobb), and sinuous long take camera movements that really serve to open up this claustrophobic and (both literally and figuratively) overheated space. There’s not much reason this should work, but it does so and with excellent economy.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Sidney Lumet; Writer Reginald Rose (based on his play Twelve Angry Men); Cinematographer Boris Kaufman Бори́с Ка́уфман; Starring Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, Ed Begley, Martin Balsam; Length 96 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 19 November 2022.

Criterion Sunday 583: The Four Feathers (1939)

Look I don’t know, I feel like even attempting a critique is to invite the ire of the ‘political correctness gone mad’ brigade (who are nowadays known as the ‘cancel culture wokification’ mob or some such similar word salad). After all, there’s plenty cinematically to appreciate in this derring-do story of a man confronting his own lack of nerve and doing right by his friends. It’s filmed, in colour, in some spectacular desert settings that although in Academy ratio wouldn’t be bettered until Lawrence of Arabia, and there are some solid central themes. And yet! I’m sorry! But it is extremely difficult to watch plummy-voiced English toffs play dress-up at colonial war doing all their rah-rah isn’t British military discipline great and haven’t we (unironically) brought up some fine fellows with the merest patina of anti-war gesturing and then an entire sub-plot about how one of them pretends to be a disabled Arab, affecting a dead-eyed dullard expression under heavy beard and makeup to properly fit in with the imperialist view of the local riff raff, and accept it. For all that I can admire certain aspects of the film, it’s aggressively “of its era” to an extent that makes it difficult to really put up with.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Zoltan Korda; Writers R.C. Sherriff, Lajos Biró and Arthur Wimperis (based on the novel by A.E.W. Mason); Cinematographer Georges Perinal; Starring John Clements, Ralph Richardson, C. Aubrey Smith, June Duprez; Length 115 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Saturday 29 October 2022.

Criterion Sunday 579: Körkarlen (The Phantom Carriage, 1921)

There’s a lot going on in this silent film, which is based on a novel by the first woman to become a Nobel Laureate in Literature (Selma Lagerlöf). The story is of a layabout drunkard called David Holm, who has abused his wife, left her and his children and is slowly drinking himself to death carousing with his friends. And yet a Salvation Army woman, Sister Edit (Astrid Holm), believes he can be redeemed, and she calls for him on her deathbed — apparently too late, though.

Just at the story level, via the device of the dying woman seeking to save his soul, we are drawn sympathetically to the story of David (played by the director himself, still most famously known as the lead in Bergman’s Wild Strawberries), despite his being repeatedly a compromised, abusive and unlovable man. But what’s striking is the way this is all unfolded, in a series of flashbacks nested within other flashbacks, stories within stories, as like the narrative structure itself we start to get closer to the heart of this character. And all of this is quite aside from the central titular conceit of the film, which is that one who dies at the chiming of New Year’s Day has to serve Death by riding his carriage to pick up the dead bodies.

Putting that all together — the intense melodrama, the supernatural horror — makes this an extremely evocative film, and the Criterion release has an excellent musical score by Swedish composer Matti Bye complementing the on-screen action perfectly.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Victor Sjöstrom (based on the novel of the same title but usually translated as Thy Soul Shall Bear Witness! by Selma Lagerlöf); Cinematographer Julius Jaenzon; Starring Victor Sjöstrom, Hilda Borgström, Astrid Holm; Length 106 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Wednesday 5 October 2022.

Criterion Sunday 559: The Mikado (1939)

There were two notable Broadway stagings of Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic operetta in the year this film was made, The Swing Mikado and The Hot Mikado, both all-Black casts which reimagined the text on a less specific island than Japan. I have no doubt that both would present problems to modern viewers, had they been preserved in anything more than audio excerpts from radio and a few still images, but instead we have this document. It has lavish, Technicolor staging, and I can’t dispute that it looks pretty lovely, rich and deeply saturated colours, flamboyant costumes and a bunch of actors who are largely familiar with the traditions of Gilbert and Sullivan. I’m not a massive fan of these two’s work, though Mike Leigh’s 1999 film about them (Topsy-Turvy) is one I really like, that gets into what it is to make an artistic collaboration and to deal with delivering a consumer-focused product to a popular audience. This, however, is a curio, and not one that exactly meshes with modern tastes. Of course, its Japan is a confected one, based on a vague interest in Japanoiserie and a vague idea about Orientalism, so yes it feels decidedly racist, but you get the sense (perhaps more so from Leigh’s film) that it’s only an affectation, as it’s really about a bunch of white Home Counties English people putting on a play, and on that level it’s probably quite fun. But it is hard, very hard, to watch it and to focus on the staging and the joy of performance, and not on the fact that they are all playing ridiculous Japanese stereotypes. But the colour and the costuming and the sets are lavish.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • One of the extras is a short deleted scene of a song that was excised (“I’ve Got a Little List”), perhaps for its topical political references (to a certain Mr Hitler), or maybe more so for its racial slur in the lyrics, because even in 1939 some things were just a step too far.
  • Surviving audio clips are presented from the two African-American productions of the musical mentioned in my opening sentence above, two songs from each, and though one cannot see them, you immediately get the sense that perhaps each would have made for a fine spectacle and ones far more worth preserving than this.
  • There’s a short, silent film of The Mikado (1926) included, which is obviously missing a key component of the Gilbert and Sullivan opera on which it’s based, but it’s there to give a sense of Charles Ricketts’ new costumes for the Savoy production of the long-running show, which draws more heavily on authentic Japanese costuming. Whether or not that’s the right direction to go for such a ridiculous piece of Orientalism is unclear to me, but the short preserves some little snippets of the D’Oyly Carte company’s performers of the 1920s, and of course those costumes (with a short sequence showing the designer at work, discarded cigarette butts and all).
  • A fascinating extra is a half-hour piece of two academics (Josephine Lee and Ralph MacPhail Jr.) speaking to this production, as well as to a history of productions of Gilbert and Sullivan, and both make some excellent points, one from a specifically Asian-American perspective, but both with a wealth of knowledge.
  • Mike Leigh gives his opinions too, and he certainly has positive things to say in the 1939 film’s favour, as well as plenty of critiques. Still, it’s interesting to hear a fellow film director’s take on a film production, even if he acknowledges it’s more of a curio now than anything else.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Victor Schertzinger; Writer Geoffrey Toye (based on the opera by W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan); Cinematographers Bernard Knowles and William V. Skall; Starring Kenny Baker, Martyn Green, Sydney Granville, Jean Colin, John Barclay; Length 91 minutes.

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

Criterion Sunday 543: Modern Times (1936)

I am, if I’m being realistic, more than halfway through my life, which for someone who watches as many films as I do, is late to be getting into Charlie Chaplin. Of his features, I’ve only seen A Countess from Hong Kong (1967), which is probably not considered the classic way to start (his last film, although it’s certainly interesting for its era). But Modern Times holds up: a lot of its critiques of workplace relations and management pressure hardly seem to have aged at all, even if some of the technology it imagines is rather fanciful. The comedy is focused mostly into those sequences with the machines — Chaplin’s Tramp on the assembly line, getting sucked into the cogs, and doing a variety of pratfalls around the factory. However, it does feel far more strongly as if Chaplin is interested in social commentary, as well as finding an emotional thread with his relationship with the similarly marginalised Paulette Goddard’s “Gamin” character (she’s also Chaplin’s real-life wife of the time, and though 20 years younger than him is at least in her 20s for a change, even if she’s playing a juvenile delinquent). Overall it has a clarity to its comedic setups that focuses attention on the mistreatment of labour and the fallout of the Depression on people in America, with an undercurrent of poverty and desperation that I think sharpens some of the satire. I think it will take me a little while to deepen my appreciation of Chaplin, though, and so I look forward to seeing more of his classics as my Criterion project goes on.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Charlie Chaplin; Cinematographers Ira H. Morgan and Roland Totheroh; Starring Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard; Length 87 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 12 June 2022.