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.

Criterion Sunday 531: The Docks of New York (1928)

Sternberg’s last surviving silent film reaches a feverish peak that he would sustain over his next run of sound films starring Marlene Dietrich. It conjures the atmosphere of the titular location, beautifully using light and shadow, smoke and fog, and gliding camerawork. The actors are pretty great too, with George Bancroft giving his ship’s stoker character, Bill, a burly menace softened by his evident warmth of feeling towards Betty Compson’s suicidal prostitute Mae. There’s a generosity towards both characters, a lack of moral judgement, and the drama is in whether Bill will overcome his compulsion to fulfil the manly archetype he seems to hold of the sweaty stoker committed to his backbreaking labour, and whether Mae is willing to accept the possibility of a better life for herself. It’s all fairly compact and stays focused on the poetic evocation of this setting, doing a beautiful job of capturing what ultimately is a romance — and a hopeful one at that.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Josef von Sternberg; Writer Jules Furthman (from the story “The Dock Walloper” by John Monk Saunders); Cinematographer Harold Rosson; Starring George Bancroft, Betty Compson; Length 75 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), Wellington, Monday 7 March 2022 (and earlier on VHS in the university library, Wellington, July 2000).

Criterion Sunday 526: 父ありき Chichi Ariki (There Was a Father, 1942)

Another gentle Ozu film from a rather more difficult period in history, this is matched with his earlier The Only Son by the Criterion Collection, and they do seem to share a fair number of similarities, being about children raised by single parents. In this case, it’s a single father (Ozu stalwart Chishu Ryu) who has rather abandoned his son in order to earn money to support him, so it’s only a brief period of time that the son visits the father when he’s grown up. The film charts a certain amount of regret on both parts, as well as the rather bereft lives both have had living apart and not really knowing one another well. Perhaps one can see grander political allegories in this relationship, given the time when the film was made, but Ozu isn’t keen to emphasise any such reading. But it’s a film about one’s responsibility to the next generation at a time when you imagine such a message might have landed a little differently. It is also, as you might expect, excellently acted and it’s only sad that the quality of the film elements isn’t particularly superb.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Yasujiro Ozu 小津安二郎; Writers Tadao Ikeda 池田忠雄, Ozu and Takao Anai 柳井隆雄; Cinematographer Yushun Atsuta 厚田雄治; Starring Chishu Ryu 笠智衆, Shuji Sano 佐野周二; Length 87 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), Wellington, Monday 31 January 2022.

Criterion Sunday 525: 一人息子 Hitori Musuko (The Only Son, 1936)

Ozu’s later works are among some of my favourite films and it’s probably fair to say that a lot of the elements in his style were already in place by the time of this, his first sound film. He punctuates shots with images of socks and linen fluttering in the breeze in neatly-arranged rows, a clean organisation that belies the relative poverty the characters live in, and those tatami mat shots are very much in evidence. I also think his attitude to his characters is already fairly complexly laid out: the disappointment of the mother (Choko Iida) in her son (Himori Shin’ichi) is something she buries pretty deeply and when she does express it and try to find some way to accept her son’s life (which is, outwardly, pretty happy despite his lowly career), she is still left with a pain inside, expressed via a final shot. These emotional resonances are largely not expressed via dialogue, and that method of hiding sadness behind a smile is something Ozu would do a lot in his films with Setsuko Hara. Still, for some reason I find it difficult to embrace the film and I don’t think it’s just the slightly indifferent preservation of the elements (there’s a lot of noise on the image and soundtrack). Perhaps it’s the insistency with which the big city is seen as a corrupting influence (but then again the mother is struggling just as hard out in the countryside, having lost her family home), or perhaps I just feel out of step with the moral quandaries — though again I don’t think the mother’s internal struggle is impossible to imagine today. Still, it marks a step on the way to some of cinema’s greatest films.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Yasujiro Ozu 小津安二郎; Writers Tadao Ikeda 池田忠雄 and Masao Arata 荒田正男; Cinematographer Shojiro Sugimoto 杉本正次郎; Starring Choko Iida 飯田蝶子, Himori Shin’ichi 日守新一, Yoshiko Tsubouchi 坪内美子, Chishu Ryu 笠智衆; Length 82 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), Wellington, Tuesday 25 January 2022.

Criterion Sunday 519: کلوزآپ ، نمای نزدیک Kluzap, Nema-ye Nazdik (Close-Up, 1990)

I do love the late Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami’s works, and this isn’t even my favourite of his. It is however, the film that, perhaps more even than his celebrated Koker trilogy (the first of which pre-dates this film), shows the power of his craft. Once again he approaches a real-life incident but loops in so many layers of storytelling that it’s unclear where documentary ends and fiction begins. Perhaps there is no truth, or perhaps it is all true: there’s a court sequence that seems like it must be unmediated reality but that itself feels like a construct (the grainier image hinting at some more ‘truthful’ technique, like that video-shot sequence at the end of Taste of Cherry, but then there’s also an abundance of very prominent camera equipment, lights and boom operators, that moves us away from cinéma vérité). There are also sequences which must surely be reconstructions, but the classical filmmaking style gives the impression of being there, such that you have to catch yourself occasionally. Is our lead character Hossein Sabzian a foolish figure, a grifter out to make a buck, or is he the one ultimately being conned? You could make an argument for any of these, and all are possible within Kiarostami’s film. Ultimately this is a film asking where the truth lies, and certainly in Close-Up — as perhaps, we are led to believe, in all filmmaking — there is truth and there are lies.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • This is an excellent release for those who love Kiarostami because you get an entire early feature film as a bonus extra, The Traveller (1974), which is claimed in some sources to be his debut feature although it appears from others to be his second film (the first was an hour long, which may be where the confusion lies). In any case, like many of his early short films, this focuses on kids and football. A boy in a small town loves it to the exclusion of his schoolwork and is focused on getting to see the national team play in the capital Tehran. Thereupon he embarks on a series of ruses (mostly of dubious morality) to get the money to go. You can see Kiarostami’s indebtedness to Italian neorealism here, but there’s a lot of what would later become his familiar style present also. It ends in an almost shockingly abrupt way, but it works, especially when we consider its production by a childhood education institute — though there’s nothing overtly didactic about the script (aside from an amusing scene where he’s trying to do some maths, then promptly skips his maths lesson).
  • Another extra is Close-Up, Long Shot (1996, dir. Moslem Mansouri/Mahmoud Chokrollahi), a 44 minute video-shot companion piece that revisits Hossein Sabzian some years after he’d been the focus of Close-Up. With his greying hair (he’d made a reference in the earlier film to dyeing it black) and time to reflect, he cuts a quite different figure from the slightly foolish and diffident man of Kiarostami’s film — suggesting yet another layer on top of those presented in Close-Up of how truth has been manipulated. Certainly Sabzian does feel here — and expresses it with some eloquence — as if he was the one being conned ultimately, and if his story isn’t exactly triumphant, he at least has his wits about him (though sadly he died 10 years later). The filmmakers of this documentary give a sense of his life and family, talking to his friends, and it’s an interesting extra piece of what was already a multi-faceted cinematic puzzle.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Abbas Kiarostami عباس کیارستمی‎; Cinematographer Ali Reza Zarrindast زرین‌دست علیرضا; Starring Hossain Sabzian حسین سبزیان, Mohsen Makhmalbaf محسن مخملباف; Length 98 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Tuesday 12 April 2022 (and earlier, probably at home on VHS, Wellington, early-2000s).

مسافر Mosafer (The Traveller, 1974)
Director/Writer Abbas Kiarostami عباس کیارستمی‎; Cinematographer Firooz Malekzadeh فیروز ملک‌زاده; Starring Hassan Darabi حسن دارابی; Length 71 minutes.

Seen at Close-Up Film Centre, London, Monday 5 June 2017.

Criterion Sunday 516: Stagecoach (1939)

It’s pretty difficult to watch any classic movie with fresh eyes and I can’t pretend that I did that here. It’s a film I’ve seen before screened in a film class, and it has that patina of ‘classic’ that is pretty difficult to move past at times, especially as it’s been emulated so often in succeeding years, such that it’s difficult in my mind for me to think about old Westerns without thinking about a bunch of characters sharing a coach across dangerous frontier territory controlled by Native American raiding parties. That last part is of course the bit that has aged the least well, and the most I can say for it is that at least the Native Americans aren’t played by white guys in heavy makeup, a small consolation for what is still a pretty thankless part of old Westerns. However, that central chamber drama between the various passengers is played out remarkably well, and John Wayne still looks young and fresh-faced as a ne’er-do-well looking to reform himself and settle down. John Ford was a veteran director even by 1939, and he controls it all beautifully well, without flashiness but with plenty of clear vision as to what’s most effective on the screen. Well worth watching again, and perhaps I’ll try and see this on a big screen before another 20 years passes.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director John Ford; Writer Dudley Nichols (based on the short story “The Stage to Lordsburg” by Ernest Haycox); Cinematographer Bert Glennon; Starring Claire Trevor, John Wayne, George Bancroft, Andy Devine, Thomas Mitchell, John Carradine; Length 96 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 13 March 2022 (and earlier on VHS at university, Wellington, May 2000).

Criterion Sunday 505: Make Way for Tomorrow (1937)

I guess the Tokyo Story comparisons are obvious — it clearly is an inspiration on that film (Ozu loved his American melodramas, as is clear enough from film posters that show up in his early films) — although stylistically it’s rather different of course, but it hits just as hard in many ways. There’s a lightly comedic way it has of setting up its characters and their situations, and then when the families get to fussing and arguing, it could be straight out of 50s Sirk or 70s Fassbinder in the bitter undercurrents, the glances shared between the elderly mother’s son and daughter-in-law, the wearied sighs and desperate attempts to shift the burden of care amongst one another. But actually it’s the kindness that strangers and even sometimes family show one another that makes it most difficult to take, because nobody here is trying to be horrible or difficult, and the way the elderly couple at the film’s centre are forced apart is almost inevitable once it begins. They do get one last chance to revisit their youth and their love, but by the time the train trip beckons, there’s an overwhelming sorrow that puts it firmly among even the Criterion releases that precede it (films like Germany Year Zero and Hunger). Somehow even the sentimentality and humour makes it even more bleakly relatable, because tomorrow is always coming, and at an ever faster pace.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Leo McCarey; Writer Viña Delmar (based on the play by Helen Leary and Noah Leary, itself based on the novel The Years Are So Long by Josephine Lawrence); Cinematographer William C. Mellor; Starring Beulah Bondi, Victor Moore, Thomas Mitchell, Fay Bainter; Length 92 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 6 February 2022.

Petite maman (2021)

Another of my favourites of the year, I went to see this twice (the running time helped). The second viewing prompted a long discussion about when exactly it’s set, as it doesn’t appear to be the modern day but the markers of the time period are fairly oblique. The presence of a Walkman suggests to me maybe the early-90s at the latest, but I’m really not sure. Anyway, it’s a U-rated film about children that is still suffused with melancholy.


I’d just finished watching a 10-hour film when I went to see this, so was particularly appreciative of the virtues of concision. This film feels exactly as long as it needs to be. It tells a story that’s about grief and loss, sadness and familial disconnection, but from the point of a view of a child, and formally it sort of matches its narrative structure to that of a child’s game. with all the inventiveness and non sequiturs you might expect, as young Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) finds a very similar looking and similarly aged playmate called Marion (Gabrielle Sanz) in the forest near her recently-deceased grandmother’s home, with whom she starts to form a friendship. Sciamma has done films about childhood before (the excellent Tomboy) and I particularly appreciate her clear distinction between the two lead actors (sisters in real life, I can only assume from their names) marking them out with different clothes and a hairband for Marion. The film’s conceit becomes clear as it goes on, and yet it still preserves that mystery about really knowing someone else, even the connection one has with one’s own mother.

Petite maman (2021) posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Céline Sciamma; Cinematographer Claire Mathon; Starring Joséphine Sanz, Gabrielle Sanz, Stéphane Varupenne, Nina Meurisse; Length 72 minutes.
Seen at Penthouse, Wellington, Friday 26 November and at the Light House, Wellington, Monday 20 December 2021.

Criterion Sunday 487: That Hamilton Woman (1941)

This very much feels like a film from 1941. Almost every account of the film seems to want to mention that it was Winston Churchill’s favourite film (even that maybe he wrote one or two of Nelson’s speeches), but that’s the kind of thing that feels apocryphal: it’s a film that is engineered to feed into the war effort, and is thus part of a propaganda machine. If Nelson’s speeches feel Churchillian that’s because they are designed to be a rousing call to arms against a foreign despot hellbent on European domination. Still, for all that, this cannily remains focused on Vivien Leigh’s title character, Emma Hamilton, a Lady but one of dubious morals, it seems. Or perhaps not dubious, but certainly a woman who remains hampered throughout her life by the taint of her class background. You can see it in the aristocratic men who fall for her, falling for an image or idea of her (as a teenager she was the model for a number of paintings, particularly by Romney), but who keep her at arm’s length, never quite admitting her to the centre of society, and thus it’s framed by the story of her sad demise. It also feels a little wayward in its plotting at times, taking us down side roads that don’t seem to add to the drama at the heart, which is about her affair with (real-life husband) Laurence Olivier’s Lord Nelson. It ends up feeling like a missed opportunity with the strong undertow of wartime propaganda, albeit a much more palatable way to spin that.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Alexander Korda; Writers Walter Reisch and R. C. Sherriff; Cinematographer Rudolph Maté; Starring Vivien Leigh, Laurence Olivier, Alan Mowbray, Gladys Cooper; Length 125 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Saturday 11 December 2021.