Criterion Sunday 119: Withnail and I (1987)

I have, as it happens, already written a review of this on this blog so here it is. There’s little I’d want to add to it, aside from reaffirming that it does stand up under the weight of its cult status, not that it’s a film I myself am necessarily drawn back to, unlike…

Criterion Extras: … the fans depicted in the short piece Withnail and Us (1999), who show a fanatical fondness for the film that sometimes seems too much (obsessive quoting of movie lines has never been something I’ve been good at, nor had any inclination to do) but also reminds me of what’s genuinely appealing about the film’s bleak dark vision of England. Alongside the fans, the documentary also corrals a number of the actors to talk about the experience of making the film, and is an enjoyable half-hour for what it is.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Bruce Robinson | Cinematographer Peter Hannan | Starring Paul McGann, Richard E. Grant, Richard Griffiths | Length 107 minutes || Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 26 January 2014

Criterion Sunday 118: Sullivan’s Travels (1941)

Of all Preston Sturges’ output — he had a glorious run in the 1940s, in particular — this is the film that tends to get most often featured as his pinnacle. And yet, and yet. I assume I’d be missing the point to say this is a film about an absurdly privileged paternalistic condescending white man, a film director no less, who learns a Truth about poor folk: that comedy films are what the people want and that he’s been wrong to speak down to his audience. I mean, as far as Lessons go, it’s a good one, but it does rather require sitting through a lot of Joel McCrea being a pampered, pompous cretin. After all, he’s been wanting to make a serious work of Art, a disquisition on the plight of Man: O Brother, Where Art Thou? (it was left to the Coen brothers many years later to imagine just how this director character might have fused drama and comedy). Of course, yes, Sullivan’s Travels is a commentary on the operation of class privilege, but yet there’s plenty in the film that still irks me (as just one example, that he showed no contrition whatsoever for assaulting a railway worker with a rock). The ending suggests Sturges’ intentions are good — and the scene in the church with the black pastor is beautifully moving — but as a comedy it has a streak of meanness to it that makes it a frustrating film for me at least. Veronica Lake as “the girl” (nice work with that name) doesn’t impress as a great actor on this outing, but I love her character’s attitude for much of the film, at least, and could have stood to see more of it. I don’t wish to dispute the film’s Great-ness overly, but it just impresses me less than Sturges’ other films upon rewatching.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Preston Sturges | Cinematographer John Seitz | Starring Joel McCrea, Veronica Lake | Length 90 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 4 September 2016 (and earlier on VHS at university, Wellington, March 1998)

Maynila, sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag (Manila in the Claws of Light, 1975)

A young man comes to the big city to track down his girlfriend, gets sucked in, spat out: the classic narrative. I can’t really speak to the subtext here: presumably there is some level of allegory about the Marcos regime at work (Mrs Cruz, abducting village girls into prostitution rings, looks a bit like Imelda). But then again a lot of the social criticism is fairly clear: this is a film about poor people, those marginalised within a crumbling, exploitative, venal, corrupt system. There are no protections for workers, no safeguard against crime, and the rising anger our hero feels — towards the dehumanising effects of his disenfranchisement, and those who would exploit him — propel him towards the film’s (withheld, but evidently bleak) conclusion. This is all heady stuff — violence, underworld criminality, gay sex rings (touched upon in a way that’s barely sensational, more a weary expectation of normality) — but done with empathy towards the suffering.


FILM REVIEW
Director Lino Brocka | Writer Clodualdo del Mundo, Jr (based on the novel Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag by Edgardo M. Reyes) | Cinematographer Miguel de Leon | Starring Bembol Roca [as “Rafael Roco, Jr”], Hilda Koronel | Length 125 minutes || Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT2), London, Monday 30 January 2017

Criterion Sunday 114: My Man Godfrey (1936)

All of a sudden the Criterion Collection seemed to become interested in 1930s screwball comedy with a number of fine Preston Sturges films, and alongside them this example from director Gregory La Cava, a somewhat underrated director responsible for the very odd Gabriel Over the White House (1933). His political viewpoint seems to come from FDR’s New Deal following the Depression, and there are fascinating ideological contortions at work, as an initial setup criticising the way capitalism reifies and recycles human beings ultimately gives way to a upper-class family-based knockabout comedy. The operation of class in the USA is always there in the background, even if it’s never clearer than in the opening sequence, as the imperious socialite Cornelia (Gail Patrick) and her ditzier sister Irene (Carole Lombard), both from a wealthy family, visit a bridge to grab a homeless man, Godfrey (William Powell). This is all in pursuit of a game they’re playing with their aristocratic friends, whereby they get points for parading him as a prize. Yet Godfrey turns out to be a quick wit and scrubs up nicely, so Irene hires him as the family’s butler, promptly falling in love with him too. That’s largely how things proceed, as further reversals of fortune take place, and it becomes apparent that Godfrey is not what he initially seemed. Still, it’s all great fun, and Powell is a compelling screen presence.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Gregory La Cava | Writers Eric Hatch and Morrie Ryskind (based on Hatch’s novel 1101 Park Avenue) | Cinematographer Ted Tetzlaff | Starring William Powell, Carole Lombard, Gail Patrick, Eugene Pallette, Alice Brady | Length 92 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Friday 19 August 2016

La Captive (The Captive, 2000)

The title of this Proust adaptation — centred around Simon (Stanislas Merhar, the Marcel character) and his beloved Ariane (Sylvie Testud, based on Albertine) — suggests it is about the woman. But… who is the real captive here? Well, depending on your temperament, possibly not the audience. I’m being unfair, though: I love Akerman’s films, and this one hinges around male obsession and jealousy. It’s very much about him failing to control, and failing to understand, Ariane — or indeed, women in general… or other people in general maybe. He’s a difficult character to watch, and a real jerk in his quiet, devotional way. Lots of long takes add to the atmosphere nicely, even if I’ll always prefer Akerman’s documentaries over her arthouse genre exercises (as I think of this and Almayer’s Folly, no doubt unfairly).


FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Chantal Akerman (based on La Prisonnière by Marcel Proust) | Cinematographer Sabine Lancelin | Starring Sylvie Testud, Stanislas Merhar | Length 118 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Friday 6 January 2017

Criterion Sunday 112: Play Time (aka PlayTime) (1967)

The films of Jacques Tati have never really been about the plot. Even his earliest efforts are more interested in the visual gag, how it’s set up and how it is executed, far more than in finding any kind of narrative-led justification for getting there. Play Time (or the camel-case PlayTime as Criterion prefers) is arguably Tati’s greatest achievement — it’s certainly my favourite of his films — and the refinement of his lifelong work on this pure gag-based visual technique. It’s essentially an absurdist avant garde film, almost entirely lacking in any kind of plot aside from having Tati’s familiar Hulot character bumbling around a gargantuan modernist set of his own devising. He encounters various people — bureaucrats, attendants, service workers and tourists — but it’s never clear what he’s trying to do or where he’s trying to go. Maybe I just missed something, but I’ve seen the film four times now and I’m no more the wiser. That said, I don’t really care. The visual world he creates is an advance on Mon oncle (1958), which contrasted the futuristic minimalist modernism of the nouveau riche upper-middle-classes with a decaying old world of Hulot. That latter world is entirely gone, aside from brief sightings of various familiar landmarks (like the Tour Eiffel and Sacre-Cœur) as reflections in the glass doors of Tati’s grim, grey concrete and steel office blocks. Hilariously, even tourist posters of other world cities just show these grey office blocks with their familiar tourist sights in the background.

A lot of the humour is of this variety and requires an active viewer scouring the many corners of the image to find them. Rarely is there a close-up to focus our attention, and many gags are played out across the space, sometimes with multiple different gags happening at the same time. One example might be when M. Giffard, a bureaucratic functionary, needs to give some data to a visiting American businessman, who calls his office from another in a series of hive-like cubicles viewed from above; Giffard then proceeds to leave his cubicle, open a filing cabinet on the outside of the office the American is calling from, and then returns to his own to relay the information back. All the while Hulot is standing in the extreme background waiting for Giffard to leave so he can speak to him (about what is never made clear). It’s this kind of long-shot staging that means the film is best seen on a 70mm print in the cinema, so for viewing at home, a big screen is almost required. Thankfully the Criterion edition presents the film in a pristine digital restoration that makes these kinds of setups clear, but no viewer will get everything going on in a single viewing, especially during a scene as hectic and extended as the bravura restaurant sequence that dominates much of the second hour.

Just recounting all the ways in which Play Time brilliantly uses its space to tell visual-led gags would take up far too long. Not all viewers will connect with this style, and I’ve certainly heard some say the film is boring or arid. It certainly makes little concession to the audience and requires an active, attentive viewing of the film — for example, there’s a 10 minute sequence inside an apartment which is viewed entirely from the street outside, and so we hear nothing of what is said by the characters. That said, it develops some of the most beautifully understated comic sequences in all of cinema, few of which even require the subtitles to be understood (there is some language-based humour emerging from the babble of voices, amongst which French, German and English dominate, but Hulot barely speaks at all), and all of it takes place on a set presenting a vision of modern times so self-contained and overwhelming that the experience can be a little deadening. Nevertheless, it’s a remarkable achievement all the same, and one that Tati would never again be given the same budget to achieve.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jacques Tati | Writers Jacques Tati and Jacques Lagrange | Cinematographers Jean Badal and Andréas Winding | Starring Jacques Tati | Length 124 minutes || Seen at Filmhouse, Edinburgh, Friday 12 September 2003 (and before that on VHS at home, Wellington, December 1999 and August 2001, and most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Sunday 24 July 2016)

Criterion Sunday 111: Mon oncle (aka My Uncle, 1958)

Jacques Tati, having gained access to a more significant budget, paves the way towards his later masterpiece Play Time (1967) with this film, in which he constructs a large minimalist modern house almost all powered by electricity to contrast with the shabby, crumbling old world harking back to Les Vacances de M. Hulot (1953). The central character of that earlier film, played as ever by Tati, returns here as brother to Madame Arpel, the aspirational wife of a besuited businessman, seen in these fancy new digs. Hulot’s role is mainly to bumble about looking confused, and indeed many of the characters seem waylaid by all the confusing trappings of modernity. There is little enough plot, but elaborating on the theme of social class mobility and the depersonalising effects of the modern world, there are some wonderful running gags — not least that of Mme Arpel’s decorative fish-shaped fountain, which she turns on every time there’s a buzz at the door, and then turns off depending on the social class of the visitor. For me, it feels like notes towards Play Time, but it’s still an excellent film in its own right, and will no doubt also repay further repeat viewings.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jacques Tati | Writers Jacques Tati, Jacques Lagrange and Jean L’Hôte | Cinematographer Jean Bourgoin | Starring Jacques Tati | Length 111 minutes || Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 24 July 2016

Criterion Sunday 110: Les Vacances de M. Hulot (Mr Hulot’s Holiday aka Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, 1953)

The Mr Hulot character is probably director-writer Jacques Tati’s most enduring comic creation. He’s a bumbling, almost speechless chap bent over a cane, with a distinctive floppy hat and long pipe, who wanders around getting involved in comedy situations, though just as often merely witness to the these (certainly by the time of later films like Mon oncle and Play Time, he’s more audience than actor). With a plot that sees Hulot off on his holidays in a rickety old car to the beach, we get to see him striding around the guest house, eating in the restaurant, taking sun on the beach — all very reminiscent of, and undoubtedly mined by, later British comedies like Fawlty Towers and Mr Bean. There’s an implicit contrast between Hulot’s backward ways and the big modern cars, private cabins, and antisocial behaviour of the aspirational holidaymakers. It all moves along in a very likeable way, with nice careful use of sound effects, creating a very quiet, almost contemplative, atmosphere in which the comedy unfolds.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jacques Tati | Writers Jacques Tati and Henri Marquet | Cinematographers Jacques Mercanton and Jean Mousselle | Starring Jacques Tati | Length 86 minutes || Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 24 July 2016 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, December 2001)

Criterion Sunday 105: Spartacus (1960)

There’s a certain quality to the classic Hollywood historical epic that by the mid-1950s had become pretty much fixed in the popular imagination, and is the kind of thing that is satirised in Hail, Caesar! (2016). In many ways, Spartacus feels like the culmination of these trends and a bookend of sorts, the sine qua non of the sword-and-sandals epic of the ancient world (aka the “peplum film” from those omnipresent flowing togas). The acting is largely excellent, with fine subtle work — when subtlety is required, but bombastic when not — from Kirk Douglas as the titular slave leader and Laurence Olivier as Crassus, a scheming Roman senator, not to mention Charles Laughton as his rival Gracchus. There are also more wooden efforts, but when they come, as with John Dall’s Glabrus, it’s a solid wood, a really finely-grained aged wood, the wooden hamminess of, say, Charlton Heston, which is after all very much within the generic convention. The direction is solid too, but this isn’t one of Stanley Kubrick’s usual films — he was brought on after production had started — and so it feels wrong to assess it as one of his steely auteurist pieces. Perhaps the strongest credit on the technical side is Russell Metty’s beautiful cinematography, particularly the shadowy interiors where deals are made and Spartacus’s will is most tested. In covering all these vicissitudes of fate (being set in pre-Christian Rome, religion is largely avoided), the film runs long, to be sure, but that’s hardly a criticism: it’s what the historical epic demands. There are the grandly-staged battle scenes, interspersed with smaller one-on-ones between Gracchus and Crassus, or Spartacus and his love interest Varinia (Jean Simmons). There’s also expert comedy relief from Peter Ustinov as Batiatus, introduced running a gladiator school but never one to stick around when things get tough. In short, it’s a fine film, a totem of Hollywood craft and large-scale organisation, and it’s never less than entertaining.

Criterion Extras: A full-to-bursting double-disc edition includes the usual commentaries, which I’ve yet to watch. There’s a clutch of deleted scenes, mostly just extra shots which were ditched, and a heavily cut version of the ending demanded by the Catholic Legion of Decency which entirely excises much of the pathos. There’s also a brief audio snippet of Gracchus’ death scene. There are a few minutes of vintage newsreels of the film’s production (it was one of the most expensive of its time hence the interest), including Kirk Douglas getting his chin print outside Mann’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. Promotional interviews with Peter Ustinov and Jean Simmons from the time of the film’s release (edited absurdly to allow local news programmes to interpolate their own ‘interviewer’) are joined by an interview with Ustinov from 1992 as he reflects on his time on the production, fairly informative about the change of director, and the script credit issues, including a number of amusing anecdotes about his fellow actors. There are some Saul Bass storyboards for the fight sequences, and a huge number of production stills (as well as advertising material and even a comic book) with brief contextualising intertitles. Finally, but still very interesting, is some silent footage taken during the making of the film as the actors are trained up as gladiators.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Stanley Kubrick | Writer Dalton Trumbo (based on the novel by Howard Fast) | Cinematographer Russell Metty | Starring Kirk Douglas, Laurence Olivier, Charles Laughton, Peter Ustinov, Jean Simmons | Length 196 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Monday 4 July 2016 (and earlier on VHS at the university library, Wellington, September 1998, and at the film department in April 2000)

Criterion Sunday 103: The Lady Eve (1941)

Preston Sturges has a knack for screwball comedy patter and pratfalls, all of which is very much in evidence here. It’s undoubtedly a very silly story — though that much is not unusual — about a father-and-daughter gambling duo working a cruise ship who spot an easy target in the foolish naïveté of Charles Pike (Henry Fonda), scion to a brewing fortune. However, their plans are complicated in that Jean (Barbara Stanwyck) falls in love with her mark. The action is all infinitely improved by the wittiness of Preston Sturges’ screenplay and the delivery of Stanwyck — a radiant light that keeps the film going through all its plot contrivances. Fonda acquits himself well too, even if he’s called on to be rather too clumsy in his frequent falls, and is supported by reliable character actors like Charles Coburn and the wonderfully gravel-voiced Eugene Pallette as the pair’s respective fathers. It may not be the greatest of Sturges’s films, but it certainly holds up to repeat viewings.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Preston Sturges (based on the story “Two Bad Hats” by Monckton Hoffe) | Cinematographer Victor Milner | Starring Barbara Stanwyck, Henry Fonda, Charles Coburn, Eugene Pallette, William Demarest | Length 94 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Monday 22 August 2016 (and earlier on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 19 June 2016, and on VHS at home, Wellington, January 2003)