Criterion Sunday 611: Being John Malkovich (1999)

I can’t really be considered part of the cult following of Charlie Kaufman. The tone of his work just doesn’t resonate with me so much, and there’s a lot here too, in what must surely be considered his foundational work, that leaves me a little cold (though it clearly works for a lot of people). That said, like plenty of classic comedies (albeit with an ironic 90s tone), this film throws so much at the screen that plenty of it does hit, and some of it really is quite affectingly off the wall. Specifically, the way that the film utilises Cameron Diaz is very much against type, and Catherine Keener too has never been more striking (usually those two actresses would be playing these roles the other way round, you feel), but together they create an emotional bond via the mediation of the titular figure that almost erases John Cusack’s puppeteer from the film entirely. By the final third, things have been put in motion that pull the film off in all kinds of weird directions, and the constant accrual of detail makes for a rather rich and perplexing series of thematic explosions that have a cinematic pyrotechnic value at the very least, though some even achieve emotional resonance. It remains a film I still admire more than fully love, but that’s on me; it’s a singular American achievement both coming out of the 1990s and drawing a line under it for a new decade.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Spike Jonze; Writer Charlie Kaufman; Cinematographer Lance Acord; Starring John Cusack, Catherine Keener, Cameron Diaz, John Malkovich, Orson Bean; Length 113 minutes.

Seen at the Penthouse, Wellington, Saturday 27 May 2000 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Sunday 29 January 2023).

Criterion Sunday 608: Harold and Maude (1971)

Having not been much of a commercial (or indeed, critical) success at the time of its release, like a lot of the New American cinema of the 1970s, this film has attained a certain cult status. It’s easy perhaps to see why, with its unconventional story of the odd, cherubic-faced, yet morbidly death-obsessed young Harold (Bud Cort) falling in love with the elderly Maude (Ruth Gordon) after meeting at funerals which they’ve been in the habit of crashing. As we see in the early part of the film, Harold has a flair for staging elaborate suicide scenes for the benefit (well, not ‘benefit’ exactly) of his status and image-obsessed mother (Vivian Pickles). Indeed their grand home is not unlike a mausoleum, with its rich mahogany surfaces and elaborate ornamentation. I can’t be entirely sure I like the resulting film, though it surely has its moments, and the romance (such as it is) is treated fairly obliquely. The two characters have contrasting, but complementary, personalities, as Maude seeks to teach Harold something about why life is worth living, and there’s a gratuitous shot of a fading tattoo on her forearm near the end just to drive that point home. But for the most part this is a pleasantly agreeable little black comedy about an odd couple, and made with assured directorial flair by Hal Ashby.

(Written on 30 December 2014.)


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Hal Ashby; Writer Colin Higgins; Cinematographer John Alonzo; Starring Ruth Gordon, Bud Cort, Vivian Pickles; Length 91 minutes.

Seen at ICA, London, Sunday 28 December 2014.

Criterion Sunday 600: Anatomy of a Murder (1959)

Otto Preminger’s courtroom drama stands up even today as a pretty intense piece of work, not least because it was breaking several taboos for its time — in detailing a fairly horrific crime in scientific detail, they were making a film that wasn’t for all ages, and indeed there’s plenty of incidental details to suggest a rather troubling existence. It’s Lt Fred Manion (Ben Gazzara) who’s on trial, for the murder of his wife’s rapist, but it might as well also be Laura Manion (Lee Remick) who is too, given the extent to which she is subjected to scrutiny also (I can’t think of any movie, old or new, which has so relished repeating the word “panties” quite so many times). Of course, the focus is on James Stewart’s defence counsel, who is seen putting on a performance to try and get his client off the charge, and when put together with the rather dubious nature of the reality being deconstructed in this small Michigan courtroom (and this is one of the few films I’ve seen set on the sparsely populated Upper Peninsula of that state), it’s a compelling black-and-white drama that leaves us with no clear conclusions about who’s in the right and who is in the wrong, but it’s an essential film for fans of the courtroom drama.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Otto Preminger; Writer Wendell Mayes (based on the novel by Robert Traver); Cinematographer Sam Leavitt; Starring James Stewart, Lee Remick, Ben Gazzara, George C. Scott, Arthur O’Connell; Length 161 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 24 December 2022 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, April 2000).

Criterion Sunday 593: Belle de Jour (1967)

This is likely a film that grows over repeated viewings, but on first viewing for me, it has a (presumably quite deliberate) quality of being very carefully controlled at a rather lugubrious pace. Nobody really emotes strongly, nobody moves quickly, there’s an unrushed quality that’s at odds with the lewdness of the setup, as if Buñuel, having drawn people into a sex film about bondage and control, wants to keep that as far away from the screen as possible. Instead, what we have are hints at the interior life of Sévérine (Catherine Deneuve), little flashes from growing up that hint at some trauma (without, crucially, making anything so plain as to give words to it), her fantasies of sexual domination, and then her move into working for a brothel during the days her husband is away at work (hence the name the brothel’s madam, played by Geneviève Page, gives her, also the film’s title). But the pacing allows the film’s hints to seep into her character, played by Deneuve as a sort of unemotional tabula rasa, and suggest, perhaps slyly, some idea possibly of liberation (or equally a chauvinist desire to see women subjugated; it’s never really clear whose point of view we’re truly seeing). However, it shares all the visual hallmarks of late Buñuel, an almost matter of fact depiction of surreal and subversive ideas by characters who seem rather dull and conformist.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Luis Buñuel; Writers Buñuel and Jean-Claude Carrière (based on the novel by Joseph Kessel); Cinematographer Sacha Vierny; Starring Catherine Deneuve, Jean Sorel, Michel Piccoli, Geneviève Page, Pierre Clémenti; Length 100 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 26 November 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 590: Trois coleurs : Rouge (Three Colours: Red aka Three Colors: Red, 1994)

I think even at the time of its release, this was widely thought to be the best of the trilogy and it holds up. There’s still something about Kieślowski’s style that seems overly fussy, overly attentive to the right image, the right idea, expressed in the perfectly written way that nevertheless feels a bit over-rehearsed somehow? But it all comes together in this third part, focused on the idea of “fraternité” and suffused, truly suffused, with the colour red (not in the way of say Cries and Whispers, mind, but the colour is consistently a presence throughout the narrative). It’s about the way people come together — or almost do so, with missed connections throughout the film, only emphasised by the focus on telecommunication (those opening shots tracking telephone cables, and phonecalls — including the eavesdropping thereon — being a running motif throughout). Irène Jacob, of course, is every bit the model in the central role of Valentine, but she also ties things together with her slightly lost look — that look that’s on her poster, and repeated in that final image — like the lost dog she comes across that kickstarts the narrative, or the puppies it gives birth to, a lost look also imitated by Jean-Louis Trintignant’s ex-judge Joseph, or Auguste (Jean-Pierre Lorit) — the man you sense may be Jacob’s life partner, whose path never quite meets hers until, eventually, surprisingly, it does. And for all this seems engineered to be satisfying, it is also quite satisfying, a fitting conclusion both to this trilogy and to Kieślowski’s career.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Krzysztof Kieślowski; Writers Krzysztof Piesiewicz and Kieślowski; Cinematographer Piotr Sobociński; Starring Irène Jacob, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Jean-Pierre Lorit; Length 99 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Friday 18 November 2022 (and first on VHS at home, Wellington, in the mid-1990s).

Criterion Sunday 588: Trois coleurs : Bleu (Three Colours: Blue aka Three Colors: Blue, 1993)

I don’t think it would be overstating the case to say that this trilogy of films largely compromised my introduction to ‘world cinema’ back in the mid-1990s. I was too young (or rather not sufficiently precocious) to have seen them in the cinema, but a year or two later on VHS at home, and they do make for a good introduction. Even now, rewatching so many years later, this film is much as I remember it: very consciously constructed, with bold use of colour (in the camera filters, in the scenery and set design, in expressive lighting choices), striking symbolism and the kind of directorial vision that makes it very clear — even to a young cinema neophyte such as myself 25 years ago — that every camera movement, every detail and every choice within the frame is very much intentional. I found this a little overbearing at the time, and I still don’t believe this is my favourite of the trilogy, but there is such an assured style that I can’t help but be impressed by it, lugubrious and mournful as the subject matter can be (a woman dealing with the death of her husband and child, in a peculiar twist on the concept of “liberté”). Moreover, there’s Juliette Binoche in the lead role, who is an undeniable force and even in the depths of her character’s grief and sadness makes her compellingly watchable.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • Two of the extra features are short films from the director’s film school days. His own is Tramwaj (Tramway, 1966), with the kind of throwaway premise that a lot of short movies have — in this case, a boy sees a girl on a tram and then realises he must chase after her. Still, there’s something to how it’s made despite the complete absence of sound, not that you’d have made the link between this and the director of Three Colours: Blue right away.
  • The other short film is Twarz (The Face, 1966), included not because he directed it (it was one of his fellow students, the otherwise unknown Piotr Studzinski) but because he stars in it. Indeed, it’s a fair bit more enjoyable than Kieślowski’s own student effort, with a cutting humour to its portrayal of the self-involved artist disgusted at his own face (which he has nevertheless used obsessively in his own art).
  • There’s a short featurette of interviews with various collaborators, including Binoche and the cinematographer Idziak, as well as some film writers (Geoff Andrew, Annette Insdorf), discussing the film and its creation, and how the director put it together, which is all fairly informative.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Krzysztof Kieślowski; Writers Krzysztof Piesiewicz and Kieślowski; Cinematographer Sławomir Idziak; Starring Juliette Binoche, Benoît Régent, Florence Pernel, Charlotte Véry, Emmanuelle Riva; Length 98 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 13 November 2022 (and first on VHS at home, Wellington, in the mid-1990s).

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 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 568: Kiss Me Deadly (1955)

One of the great 1950s noir films, this fits neatly into the wave of post-atomic paranoia films that were popular at the time (many being in the science-fiction and monster movie genre), though for much of the running time you wouldn’t really suspect it was anything outside the usual kind of setup. Hard-nosed detective Mike Hammer gets caught up with a mysterious lady (Cloris Leachman in her film debut), who happens across his sporty little car late one night on the California roads. The next thing he knows, they’ve been captured, she’s tortured to death, and he’s pushed off a cliff in his beloved car and comes to in a hospital. The rest of the film is him piecing together the mystery, visiting the kinds of people and places that are largely lost now (it’s set in the Bunker Hill neighbourhood), a shady underbelly of ordinary Los Angeles and its assorted characters — like the Greek car mechanic whose catchphrase is “va va voom”, or various denizens of the city’s nightlife. Hammer’s quest is all filmed in a typical noir style, and much of the film’s denouement has been cribbed for many other famous movies over the years (it will all seem very familiar), but this is a hard-boiled detective story that still very much holds up.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Robert Aldrich; Writer A.I. Bezzerides (based on the novel by Mickey Spillane); Cinematographer Ernest Laszlo; Starring Ralph Meeker, Wesley Addy, Maxine Cooper, Gaby Rodgers, Cloris Leachman; Length 106 minutes.

Seen at National Library, Wellington, Wed 6 June 2001, and at a cinema, London, Wed 10 February 2010 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Thursday 8 September 2022).