Criterion Sunday 536: The Thin Red Line (1998)

I have seen this film many times on the big screen, but have never tried to put into words what I love about it. And while it’s fair to say it’s one of my favourite films, and I’m happy to rate it five stars (or 10/10 or whatever metric you want, although apparently two green ticks is what I currently use here), I don’t particularly hold that it is perfect in every detail. Perhaps what I love about it is more some of the effects that Terrence Malick achieves as a filmmaker, poetic and empathetic achievements, the deployment of actors, the development of its narrative, and the way it stands in relation to other war movies. Because if we want to get into criticism, then I think some of the tropes are still a little bit underdeveloped — particularly Ben Chaplin’s Pvt Bell and his relationship with his wife back home (Miranda Otto), conveyed in largely voiceless flashbacks of them holding each other in pre-war times and followed up with an almost literal “Dear John” letter (his name is actually Jack in the film) and his anguished responses in the twilight and rain of the R&R following a major battle, all of which feels a little bit convenient and familiar.

What’s not so familiar is the elegiac tone, which differed wildly from the other major World War II-era film released that same year of 1998 (Saving Private Ryan). Where Spielberg’s film, or at least its opening, was forceful in its evocation of the brutality of combat, Malick’s film instead subsumes everything into a sort of continuum with nature. The voiceovers — which come from many different characters and create almost a shared voice of humanity joined in pain and confusion — cue this up almost from the outset, the very first words we hear asking “What is this war in the heart of nature, why does nature vie with itself?” while we look on gnarled old swampland trees, overgrown with vines and tendrils. Even when we see our first combat casualty, it’s part of a sequence of the new troops making their way quietly through the jungle, and so the brutality of the vision of a mangled body becomes just part of the evocation of the darkness within nature. The extended battle scenes too alternate Nick Nolte’s Lt Tall shouting down the phone at Cpt Staros (Elias Koteas) with long languorous shots of the Guadalcanal hills, long grass flecked with sun, winds blowing them aside as the troops advance towards the Japanese positions.

So when I say that the film’s imperfections don’t matter to me so much, it’s because this to me is a film about humanity (specifically men, of course) within nature, about death as part of a continuum of life, about the search for the light. This central metaphor of the light is clearly a religious one, and Jim Caviezel’s subsequent film work playing the Christ in Mel Gibson’s self-flagellating film of the Passion (and others) finds its origins here in what is undoubtedly supposed to be a Christ-like figure, rebelling against authority and trying to find the light and goodness in his fellow men. I’m not convinced about the way Malick uses the indigenous Melanesian people in the opening ‘paradise’ sections as well as the subsequent commentary on their fall due to the war which has been unwillingly brought to them, but for me it’s nevertheless a beautiful sequence that combines John Toll’s cinematography with Fauré’s Requiem and Melanesian choirs orchestrated by composer Hans Zimmer, to convey in musical and visual terms this search for the light that ends the film too. Again and again, the restless camera cranes away towards the sky and the sun, and either we see it through the roofs of the homes in the flashback sequences, or it’s obscured by the jungle trees, perceived only as light filtering through the crevices between the leaves, or in holes that nature has made through them.

So yes, while I cannot say that do not see flaws in The Thin Red Line, they are the flaws perhaps of overreaching, of Malick and his fellow collaborators on this film, trying to get at something essential in humanity or how they see humanity as part of the world. It’s a poetic evocation of a world that owes as much to the Bible as it does to James Jones’s novel or to (what I imagine is) the experience of war itself, and so it’s a film I love and happily continue to watch over and over again.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Terrence Malick (based on the novel by James Jones); Cinematographer John Toll; Starring Jim Caviezel, Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, Ben Chaplin, Elias Koteas, Dash Mihok; Length 171 minutes.

Seen at Manners Mall, Wellington, Tuesday 2 March 1999, at the Embassy, Wellington, Monday 7 June 1999, at Riverside Studios, London, Thursday 18 March 2004, and at the Embassy, Wellington, Sunday 15 November 2020 (and on VHS, DVD and Blu-ray at home, in Wellington and London, on several occasions in between).

Criterion Sunday 535: 戦場のメリークリスマス Senjo no Meri Kurisumasu (Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, 1983)

Imagine my surprise getting halfway through this film only to find out that David Bowie’s character is actually a New Zealander… Well, I believe he’s intended to be English, but you can’t edit out those thick NZ accents that the schoolkids boast and the school’s Auckland setting. Those however, are just brief flashback scenes; the rest of the film deals with prisoners of war during World War II on the island of Java, but shot on Rarotonga in the Cook Islands (meaning there’s actually a pretty strong NZ underpinning to this production). Director Nagisa Oshima has a fine way with the camera, composing artful long takes that reflect the intensely internal emotions each of these characters is dealing with — shame, guilt, remorse, fear and longing. There’s certainly no shortage of scenes depicting ritual seppuku, though the anglo cast also go through their fair share of self-lacerating shame and humiliation, and there’s a balance to the way its constructed. Neither side likes the other, but there’s a grudging respect accorded (whether the Japanese officers speaking English, or Tom Conti’s titular Lawrence speaking Japanese to his friend/captor played by Takeshi Kitano in his first feature film role). Negotiating these wartime relationships is a buried psychosexual charge that is mostly only ever in the background, but is clearly there in the ritualistic forms of embrace and punishment that take place. Basically, there’s a lot to unpack, but Oshima does a fantastic job in making a 1980s film that isn’t hideously dated.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There are a number of bonus interviews, including a lengthy piece in which producer Jeremy Thomas, actor Tom Conti and actor/composer Ryuichi Sakamoto reflect on the making of the film. Its labelled on the disc as “On the location” and while each of them does talk about the Cook Islands setting, the discussion widens out into memories of the process, of Oshima’s style as a director, and of each one’s feelings of being an amateur.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Nagisa Oshima 大島渚; Writers Oshima and Paul Mayersberg (based on the novel The Seed and the Sower by Laurens van der Post); Cinematographer Toichiro Narushima 成島東一郎; Starring David Bowie, Tom Conti, Ryuichi Sakamoto 坂本龍一, Takeshi Kitano 北野武, Jack Thompson; Length 123 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 14 May 2022.

Criterion Sunday 476: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)

I guess that at a certain level this is one of those stories of a lifetime lived over much of the 20th century meaning it gets to reflect on these different eras of American life as it goes on, but it never dwells on them like in, say, Forrest Gump. This is a film that lives in period details and its fanciful imagination, and undoubtedly David Fincher (a legendarily exacting director) brings something rigorous to the way its filmed, such that I can’t entirely take against it (a bit like Todd Haynes changing gears with Wonderstruck a few years back). But it’s very strange and not entirely successful in its whimsy and wonderment. Brad Pitt does his beautiful moping thing (eventually; it’s a long wait until we see him as the Redford-like Hollywood golden boy we know he will eventually turn into), and the fine Black actors feel somewhat relegated in a by-the-numbers southern plot, which is a shame as Taraji P. Henson and Mahershala Ali are, as we all know, capable of so much more. It’s a long work (especially for a film based on a short story) and the reverse-ageing Pitt’s love story with the normally-ageing Cate Blanchett makes for some discomfort, but there are also some genuinely emotional moments that mean this film isn’t entirely wasted. Also, it looks great of course. It’s just… odd.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director David Fincher; Writers Eric Roth and Robin Swicord (based on the short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald); Cinematographer Claudio Miranda; Starring Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Taraji P. Henson, Julia Ormond, Maheshala Ali, Tilda Swinton; Length 165 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 6 November 2021.

Criterion Sunday 473: にっぽん昆虫記 Nippon Konchuki (The Insect Woman, 1963)

I do feel like there was a lot going on in this film that I wasn’t taking in. Partly that’s just the way it tells its story, in little chunks dispersed through time, constantly shifting forward a year or so, constantly moving location, never really settling, like its central character. She is buffeted and moved around as much as Japan is over the course of the time period (from her birth in 1918 to roughly the film’s present), as Japan moves into and out of war, its economy changes, there are changes to social structures, but still this woman (and by extension women generally within society) seemed to receive fairly short shrift. I suppose another key factor is that she’s born poor and must seize whatever opportunity she can, whether prostitution or other unfulfilling labour. It’s far from a rosy picture, but it’s a Japanese one, a story of adversity and struggle for little reward.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Shohei Imamura 今村昌平; Writers Keiji Hasebe 長谷部慶次 and Imamura; Cinematographer Shinsaku Himeda 姫田真佐久; Starring Sachiko Hidari 左幸子, Jitsuko Yoshimura 吉村実子; Length 123 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), Wellington, Friday 24 September 2021.

Criterion Sunday 463: Il generale della Rovere (General della Rovere, 1959)

This is a solid film, no doubt, though by 1959 I can’t help but feel this kind of moral drama about the end of World War II was already rather long in the tooth, as well as something Rossellini had himself already explored quite extensively. Still, it sees him collaborate with actor/director Vittorio De Sica, who plays the title role with a great deal of conviction, a small time criminal who is drafted in by the Germans to impersonate a resistance fighter they’ve accidentally killed, in order to extract key information about the ongoing resistance efforts against the Nazis in Italy, and who comes to take on more of the character of the man he’s impersonating. It takes a while for it to get to that point, and that first hour or so of the film where he’s plying his trade in 1944 Italy is compelling stuff, giving an evocative sense of Italy in this period and the kind of moral dubiousness that was at play. I can’t fault any of the filmmaking of course, but it feels like something oddly out of time just as various New Waves were starting to take hold around Europe.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Roberto Rossellini; Writers Sergio Amidei, Diego Fabbri and Indro Montanelli (based on the novel by Montanelli); Cinematographer Carlo Carlini; Starring Vittorio De Sica, Sandra Milo, Hannes Messemer, Anne Vernon; Length 132 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 19 September 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 454: Europa (aka Zentropa, 1991)

One of Lars von Trier’s earlier works, back when his focus was very much on being a wunderkind behind the camera and doing tricksy things with deep focus honouring his classical heroes, while also setting the stage to some extent for Guy Maddin and others, but for me it all lacks the thrill of Maddin. It certainly achieves a certain textural depth, with the graininess of the colour tinted film and the deep contrasts of the black-and-white working quite nicely with one another. The plot is a bit Hitchcockian, with its trains and machinations and a certain post-war gloominess about the idea of Europe along with Germany’s place within it. I didn’t feel an enormous amount of attachment to the characters or the story but as an exercise in style it’s persuasive.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Lars von Trier; Writers von Trier and Niels Vørsel; Cinematographers Henning Bendtsen, Edward Kłosiński and Jean-Paul Meurisse; Starring Jean-Marc Barr, Barbara Sukowa, Udo Kier, Ernst-Hugo Järegård, Max von Sydow; Length 107 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 22 August 2021 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, June 1998).

Criterion Sunday 442: 二十四の瞳 Niju-shi no Hitomi (Twenty-Four Eyes, 1954)

It’s over two-and-a-half hours long, and it feels like a great Japanese epic of wartime defeat, humbling itself on the world stage, but yet it humanises the conflict effectively by focusing on a strongly anti-war teacher and her 12 young students, who grow up from little rascals in 1928 to fighting in the war by the end of the film. We never see any war action, but it’s all filtered through the teacher (Miss “Pebble” is her nickname for much of the film, played by Mikio Naruse’s favourite Hideko Takamine), with a strong heft of sentimentality in the musical cues — not one of those twenty-four eyes is dry at any point in the film, it sometimes seems. Still, it’s a lovely film, with wide vistas of the island they all live on, contrasted with close-ups of the children’s faces for maximum pathos. Despite it all being thickly laid on, it never feels overly manipulative: this is a story about loss and sadness, but also of people whose lives continue regardless, and about the value of life itself.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Keisuke Kinoshita 木下惠介; Cinematographer Hiroshi Kusuda 楠田浩之; Starring Hideko Takamine 高峰秀子, Chishu Ryu 笠智衆; Length 156 minutes.

Seen at Courthouse Cinema, London, Sunday 22 April 2018.

Criterion Sunday 441: The Small Back Room (aka Hour of Glory, 1949)

Powell and Pressburger made quite a few films, but few of them have the profile of their big Technicolor productions like The Red Shoes or The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, among many others, and this black-and-white World War II-set drama about a bomb disposal expert (of sorts) is one of their lesser-remembered productions. It stars David Farrar, best known from his turn in another of their better-known films from a few years below, Black Narcissus. He’s playing Sammy Rice, an embittered alcoholic scientist working away in a secret department during the war, who has some good ideas he feels are being smothered by bureaucracy and mismanagement (the government minister is a particular dimwit, as ministers always seem to be), and his relationship with Kathleen Byron’s Susan isn’t exactly going swimmingly either. That’s the set-up for the emotional dramatic arcs, while in the background there’s a MacGuffin involving a new German bomb that’s been killing kids, but the film is mostly focused on those interpersonal dynamics, along with his grumpiness at work. It’s an interesting angle on the war, not as a stage for heroics, but as a grim series of ordeals that everyone struggles through as best they can, not always handling things very well. It also has an excellent noirish, even expressionist, sense of dim lighting, as high contrast shadows are thrown over many scenes. Maybe not the greatest of the Powell and Pressburger collabs, but certainly an intriguing one.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors/Writers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (based on the novel by Nigel Balchin); Cinematographer Christopher Challis; Starring David Farrar, Kathleen Byron, Jack Hawkins, Michael Gough, Cyril Cusack; Length 107 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), Wellington, Friday 25 June 2021.

Criterion Sunday 438: Mon oncle Antoine (1971)

It’s difficult now to approach this film without at least some awareness of the posthumous allegations that have so tarnished the name of the film’s director, but a film isn’t a work by a single person, and this remains a poignant and affecting story of growing up in the cold, icy middle of nowhere (well, near the Québec town of Asbestos, so I gather). You don’t need to know the history of the place or the strike of 1949 that would become so important to Québécois history (and again, I am rather reliant on Wikipedia for this, as obviously none of this was known to me, not being Canadian), in order to get a sense of the feeling of post-war 40s provincial Canada. If it does nothing else it provides a distinct sense of how little there is to do for young kids growing up, where the unveiling of the local shop’s nativity display is a major event (the shop being run by the titular character, who looks after his nephew Benoît like a son). This is largely how the film proceeds, with little vignettes of life, moments of liveliness and humour amongst the snow drifts and the evident tedium. There’s a distinctly 1970s vibe to filmmaking (all those zoom shots) but this isn’t the slick New Hollywood, but a more indigenous vibe that feels homegrown and a little bit amateur, but in an engrossing way that pulls you in. And while Benoît (Jacques Gagnon) is a bit of a blank slate as a character (which is more realistic to these kind of teenage protagonists), the lives of those around him become the focus, as well as the landscape of this remote place.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Claude Jutra; Writers Jutra and Clément Perron; Cinematographer Michel Brault; Starring Jacques Gagnon, Lyne Champagne, Jean Duceppe, Olivette Thibault; Length 104 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), Wellington, Friday 11 June 2021.