Criterion Sunday 467: 愛の亡霊 Ai no Borei (Empire of Passion, 1978)

This ghost story doesn’t have the frisson of controversy that many of Oshima’s other films (it immediately follows his most sensational, In the Realm of the Senses, and has a similar title in the original), but it certainly does look gorgeous. It’s ostensibly a story about a man wronged (Takahiro Tamura) who returns to haunt his wife (Kazuko Yoshiyuki) and her lover (Tatsuya Fuji), but really it is much more about the wife and the way that she is first assaulted by and then lured into a love tryst with a disreputable young man (though the actors aren’t so far apart in their actual age) in 1890s Japan. There’s a fundamental unhappiness at the heart of all their actions, but then again they live a meagre life, he a rickshaw puller and her making ends meet as a lowly servant to a grand home. Like a lot of ghost stories, there’s a great deal of expressive use of the dark, and plenty of grime and filth too, though it’s not exactly scary. It’s more about internal strife and an inchoate desire for something else, some other way of living, some kind of connection with emotion that seems to motivate the woman, and the film’s central tragedy.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Nagisa Oshima 大島渚; Writers Oshima and Itoko Nakamura 中村糸子; Cinematographer Yoshio Miyajima 宮島義勇; Starring Tatsuya Fuji 藤竜也, Kazuko Yoshiyuki 吉行和子, Takahiro Tamura 吉行和子; Length 105 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Monday 13 September 2021.

Criterion Sunday 445: Madame de… (The Earrings of Madame de…, 1953)

It feels a little as if historically this penultimate film by Max Ophüls has been somewhat undervalued due to its focus on jewellery, dancing, grandiose set design and its melodramatic storyline, but of course I think we can all rate it as one of his finest achievements now. Truly, his visual style reaches its apotheosis in his last few films, with the famed sequence of ballroom dances over time to convey the development of a romantic relationship just being one of the great sequences that Ophüls devises for the camera of Christian Matras. It also has an intricate plot construction, with the final movement achieving a certain emotional pitch that feels satisfying even as events unravel for all our major characters. It’s a glorious piece of work.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Max Ophüls; Writers Marcel Achard, Ophüls and Annette Wademant (based on the novel by Louise Lévêque de Vilmorin); Cinematographer Christian Matras; Starring Danielle Darrieux, Charles Boyer, Vittorio De Sica; Length 100 minutes.

Seen at Te Papa, Wellington, Sunday 16 July 2000 (earlier on VHS at the university library, Wellington, May 2000, and most recently on DVD at home, Wellington, Wednesday 30 June 2021).

Criterion Sunday 444: Le Plaisir (1952)

This is a film of three stories, though the first and third are rather brief and function more to introduce and close out the themes of the film, about pleasure of course (the title is clue to that at least), but pleasure as it’s intermingled with various more fleeting things like ageing and death. That first sequence, in focusing on a grand ball, also introduces us to Ophüls’ favoured camera style that loves decadence and the drama of a set combined with the elegant choreography of both bodies and camera in space. That said, for all his gliding camera work, much of it settles down in the longer central segment to deal with a group of women (prostitutes it would appear, not that we see anything so uncouth as coitus) on a group trip to the countryside to celebrate the madam’s niece’s first Communion. In that respect, it already breaks our expectations of prostitutes in film, but the simple bucolic charms of the country and their presence there neatly dovetail with the exploitation (if not unhappiness, so far as we see) back at work. There’s a sub rosa commentary on patriarchal society that runs through all three stories, of an older man desperate to regain his youth (and the youthful affairs that went with it), and an artist who objectifies a model he falls in love with in the third story, along with the women of the central section, free from the tawdry expectations of the men who habitually surround them.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Max Ophüls; Writers Jacques Natanson and Ophüls (based on the short stories “Le Masque”, “La Maison Tellier” and “Le Modèle” by Guy de Maupassant); Cinematographers Philippe Agostini and Christian Matras; Starring Madeleine Renaud, Jean Gabin, Danielle Darrieux, Daniel Gélin, Simone Simon, Jean Servais; Length 97 minutes.

Seen at Paramount, Wellington, Thursday 27 July 2000 (and most recently on DVD at home, Wellington, Monday 28 June 2021).

First Cow (2019)

I have been holding out for this particular film since I first heard about it after it screened at the 2019 New York Film Festival. That was even before there was a pandemic, and needless to say I’m extremely glad it’s finally been screened in NZ, because it’s clearly not the most commercial of pictures. Perhaps some of the director’s previous excellent works got it that slot, or maybe it’s because there was less of a glut of Hollywood nonsense clogging up the screens, but either way I’m glad! It’s great! I saw it twice.


Director Kelly Reichardt’s style by now is pretty evolved, and there’s a gentleness to the pacing that belies some of the emotional stakes. Because at core this is a film about capitalism and exploitation even in the supposed freedom of the frontier, out west in early-19th century Oregon. It couldn’t be more different tonally (and in Academy-ratio colour rather than black-and-white) but I kept thinking of the similar backdrop to Dead Man and how differently the two films handle this land and the characters who are out here forging a life (the kind of loud-mouthed military man played by Ewen Bremner is far more cut from that generic cloth than the two leads, the kinds of people you just don’t usually see in Westerns, being quiet and humble and self-effacing). However, having the comparison in mind already meant it didn’t feel like much of a surprise when Gary Farmer showed up in a small role towards the end. At a narrative level, though, what surprised me is that this is essentially the story of the first hipster food stall in Oregon (of course I jest, it’s so much more than that) but also that suggests an underlying comedy that might easily be missed by focusing on the harsh frontier lives or the pathos of this single cow out there on a rich man’s land.

First Cow (2019)CREDITS
Director Kelly Reichardt; Writers Jonathan Raymond and Reichardt (based on Raymond’s novel The Half Life); Cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt; Starring John Magaro, Orion Lee, Toby Jones, Ewen Bremner, Scott Shepherd, Gary Farmer; Length 121 minutes.
Seen at Light House Cuba, Wellington, Friday 30 April 2021 and Wednesday 5 May 2021.

醉拳 Zeoi Kyun (Drunken Master, 1978)

I could easily do a week of Netflix films with only original titles (perhaps just romcoms) from the last handful of years, but they do also have older stuff. It’s a bit hit or miss what you’ll get, in fact it’s almost entirely random it sometimes seems, but there are a few ‘classics’ buried in there. For example, old Hong Kong action comedies like this one by Jackie Chan from the late-70s.


I’ve managed to miss out on most early Jackie Chan (aside from the peerless Police Story) so I figured it was time to catch up with his oeuvre. This film is firmly in the comedy kung fu vein of the kind that used to be mocked (and who knows, maybe still is) for the poor dubbing, but as watched on Netflix the English dubbing only crops up at random periodic moments (in a totally slapdash way; was this the artistic intention?). In any case, it’s a vigorous demonstration of all kinds of martial arts choreography, and very impressive most of it is too, but it lowkey has some character development too, as Jackie Chan’s Wong Fei-hung “Freddy” starts out as a swaggering show-off, making fun of his teacher’s skills before swiftly being put firmly in his place by, first, his aunt and then a moustachioed gentleman “Thunderleg” (Hwang Jang-lee) and so he submits to the training of the title character So Hua (Yuen Siu-tin). In a sense, it’s about Freddy overcoming his childishness and misogyny and this new respect for women (and, obviously, alcohol) helps him wins fights. So it’s silly, but it’s also a filmic Bildungsroman of sorts with a positive moral lesson for our foolish comedy hero.

Zeoi Kyun (Drunken Master, 1978)CREDITS
Director Yuen Woo-ping 袁和平; Writers Siao Lung 蕭龍 and Ng See-yuen 吳思遠; Cinematographer Chang Hui 張海; Starring Jackie Chan 成龍, Yuen Siu-tin 袁小田, Hwang Jang-lee 황정리; Length 110 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), Wellington, Saturday 20 March 2021.

Criterion Sunday 435: The Furies (1950)

One of the things I love about this era of filmmaking is that the great stars were just these unassailable icons, and questions about how old the character they were portraying should have been (a lot younger) or how believable their relationship was with the inevitably dull and rather wooden guy cast opposite as the romantic lead (not particularly compelling) fade away almost to irrelevance. The fact — the only salient fact — is that Barbara Stanwyck is in charge here, and she’ll let you know it, like Joan Crawford in Johnny Guitar a few years later: an icon. As it is here, another moral might be: don’t name your New Mexico landholding after vengeful characters of Greek mythology, because surely someone will be punished and it’s likely to be the one hubristic enough to have chosen the name, though in fact there’s just a lot of punishment to go round here and the look of the film emphasises that, all glowering monochrome skies weighing heavy on the actors. This is, looking back, a great film, more interested in the character dynamics between father and daughter than in the weedy guy (Wendell Corey) who for all his relatively young years when this film was made still somehow seems too old, too conservative, too boring for someone as flashy a character as Stanwyck’s Vance (though she is older). Luckily the father is played by veteran Walter Huston, in his last screen role, and the sparring between them is the core of the film, driving the narrative and providing plenty of fodder for the avenging deities to work with.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Anthony Mann; Writer Charles Schnee (based on the novel by Niven Busch); Cinematographer Victor Milner; Starring Barbara Stanwyck, Walter Huston, Wendell Corey; Length 109 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 30 May 2021.

Criterion Sunday 423: Walker (1987)

Alex Cox certainly makes distinctive films. I’m not sure that they always gel with me, as I have a sort of in-built resistance to the carnivalesque and maximalist spirit he has (along with, say, Terry Gilliam). But I can’t fault Cox’s determination to bitterly present a satirical view of American involvement in central America, spurred by the contemporary exploits of such hucksters as Oliver North, and the film does everything it can to collapse one into the other. The mid-19th century setting increasingly becomes indistinguishable from the modern day as cars and helicopters, US tabloid news magazines and other anachronistic features start to become impossible to ignore. In the midst of all the pyrotechnics and madness is a very undemonstrative performance from Ed Harris, a tall blue-eyed blond man in a tailored black suit whose very stillness and composure in the midst of everything helps him stand out and grounds all the madness that swirls around him.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Alex Cox; Writer Rudy Wurlitzer; Cinematographer David Bridges; Starring Ed Harris, René Auberjonois, Richard Masur, Peter Boyle, Marlee Matlin; Length 94 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Friday 7 May 2021.

Criterion Sunday 416: Fröken Julie (Miss Julie, 1951)

I’ve actually seen this Strindberg adaptation before (16 years ago), and I’ve seen others too, but I don’t really retain anything of it, perhaps because I don’t particularly get on with the text. It feels a little bit pointedly about the terrible toll that an interest in women’s rights might get you to from a tut-tutting older Swedish man, and that may be a little unfair, but at the very least it’s certainly melodramatic. That said, this film is a stylish adaptation at times, which takes the play and interleaves past and present in an almost modernist way. This is most evident when the camera sweeps around from the present to the past in a single fluid motion, as the title character recalls her unhappy childhood and her fiercely independent mother, who is seen framed by flames with a wry smile on her face at one memorable point. Then there’s Julie’s romance with the groom, Jean (Ulf Palme), a mere servant though splendidly attired, which starts out flirtatiously but eventually descends into all the metaphorical angst in the world (caged and crushed songbirds, grand paintings collapsing on our leading man, flames and madness licking around this rotten world). There’s certainly stuff to like here, and Anita Björk gives an impressively imperious performance, but it’s Strindberg’s vision of the world that probably puts me off.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Alf Sjöberg (based on the play by August Strindberg); Cinematographer Göran Strindberg; Starring Anita Björk, Ulf Palme, Märta Dorff; Length 90 minutes.

Seen at Tate Modern, London, Sunday 17 April 2005 (and most recently on DVD at home, Wellington, Sunday 18 April 2021).

News of the World (2020)

I think it’s time I did another themed week, as I’ve been relying a little too much on the Criterion Sunday reviews on this blog and have let it go a bit. So in time-honoured fashion, we return to Netflix, a number of whose films I’ve seen in recent weeks, and which range in quality from the ‘bad’ to the ‘pretty okay but not much better than just good’, which is to be fair essentially the range of most Netflix films (with a few exceptions). The first I’m covering is one I saw in a cinema, but came out on Netflix shortly after, where probably most everyone else saw it.


Tom Hanks often seems to pick roles that speak somehow to a facet of the American experience. Here he’s Captain Kidd, a newsreader, but a peculiarly 19th century, post-Civil War version of that, travelling around small Texas towns gathering up dimes for the villagers to hear him tell stories from the newspapers. The idea is that he’s selecting the stories of value to them, placing him somewhere between a preacher and an organiser at times, as when he foments rebellion in a particularly hellish county town, but to British viewers at least the film’s title places him in a lineage of tabloid journos, sometimes greatly elaborating these stories to make them play better, perhaps making them up wholesale. It certainly seems to widen the scope of the Spielberg film The Post about modern news journalism. Still, the heart of the film is Kidd’s relationship with a young girl he finds on the road (Helena Zengel), German by birth but raised by Kiowa people, and now orphaned from both. The story of them getting to know one another, learning bits of each others’ language, is perhaps too familiar and the film can seem quite lumpy at times. Still, it’s nice to the see the girl at the heart of System Crasher extend her range, while still exhibiting the feral quality that came over so strongly there, and Hanks is always dependable as a weathered but genial surrogate, plus it has a beautiful, sweeping quality that seems inbred into the Western genre and comes across well here.

News of the World film posterCREDITS
Director Paul Greengrass; Writers Greengrass and Luke Davies (based on the novel by Paulette Jiles); Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski; Starring Tom Hanks, Helena Zengel; Length 118 minutes.
Seen at the Roxy, Wellington, Wednesday 3 February 2021.

The Lighthouse (2019)

While I was compiling my favourite films of 2020 list, I realised that there were still some titles I hadn’t posted full reviews of, so I’m going to try and knock the rest of those out this week. I’m going to start with a distinctive 2019 film that took its time getting to the UK, which is probably why I forgot to post a review of it. Still, it remains strikingly vivid in my mind.


I’ve not seen a Robert Eggers film before, but he’s certainly a stylist. It’s a film that hints strongly at a certain period without ever being specific, but then it moves between heavyweight historical grime, supernatural horror and something even rather mythic — and without giving away anything in my review, this becomes fairly explicit by the last shot. I came to this via Robert Pattinson (a very fine actor), whose accent also hints strongly at geography without ever quite landing on any one place (which may well be a conscious decision) but the one thing you can’t say about either of the leads (Pattinson or Willem Defoe) is that they’re afraid to commit. This in many ways is most reminiscent — in that commitment, in its blend of history and fantasy, but perhaps above all in the sheer unrelenting grimy muddy mulch of the film — of Hard to Be a God, and both pretty far out in performances. I’m not sure what it all adds up to, but I did rather admire it nonetheless (and discovering it was at least partly shot and funded by Canada, makes a lot more tonal sense to me).

The Lighthouse film posterCREDITS
Director Robert Eggers; Writers Robert Eggers and Max Eggers; Cinematographer Jarin Blaschke; Starring Willem Dafoe, Robert Pattinson; Length 109 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Sunday 26 January 2020.