Criterion Sunday 300: The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)

A lot of people I follow on Letterboxd really like this Wes Anderson film, and it surely has all of his familiar touches: an emotionally resonant central story about grown-up fathers and sons trying to find some common ground; incredibly precise set and costume design; elaborate multi-room sets; bright colours; stop-motion animated ocean creatures; and all the actors you could want, most of them returning from previous Anderson endeavours. Of course, there’s also a frequent criticism of Anderson’s style that he is detached as a filmmaker, though it’s something that also used to get levelled at, say, Stanley Kubrick, and neither of them strike me as being unemotional. Quite often their stories revolve around very fraught, even melodramatic, relationships and that’s the case here too. However, for the first time in Anderson’s oeuvre, I don’t feel able to connect to these characters beyond their surface characteristics. The filmmaking, the texture, the detail is all there, but somehow for me, in this film, these traits are all just ciphers for some story ideas Anderson and his co-writer Noah Baumbach were working through. There are little generic touches, like gun battles and pirates, which seem oddly out-of-place, even when filmed in Anderson’s elliptical and deadpan style, and elements which seem perfunctory at best and possibly a little ill-judged (the Filipino pirates, or the topless woman who assists Zissou as scriptgirl). That said, it’s certainly never boring and has ravishing production values that are probably worthwhile even if the story itself feels beside the point.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There are a number of deleted scenes (and one outtake), none longer than a minute and most around 20-30 seconds in length, which are just further little vignettes that round out some of the characters and situations, although it’s interesting to see how they look before post-processing and colour correction.
  • There’s an Italian television interview on a show called Mondo Monda which has an interview between the slick Italian host and Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach which is clearly a parody (like the fake talk show included on The Royal Tenenbaums as an extra). That said, you can spend some time imagining it’s real, except that it has all these deadpan reactions as the host largely refuses to translate his questions despite speaking perfect English, and in which Anderson and Baumbach are often reduced to single-word answers to extravagantly self-involved questions touching on poetic and philosophical nonsense.
  • There’s about half-an-hour of short interview featurettes compiling interviews with various actors and crew, as well as behind-the-scenes footage, on topics such as two of the main characters (those of Cate and Owen), the fastidious costume and production design, the animation of the sea creatures, et al.
  • A series of still photographs of the production and the design are included, which are visually striking.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Wes Anderson; Writers Anderson and Noah Baumbach; Cinematographer Robert Yeoman; Starring Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Cate Blanchett, Willem Dafoe, Anjelica Huston, Jeff Goldblum, Noah Taylor; Length 118 minutes.

Seen at Ritzy, London, Tuesday 22 March 2005 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Monday 16 March 2020).

Three Films by Taika Waititi: Boy (2010), Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016) and Jojo Rabbit (2019)

As far as the international reach of New Zealand cinema goes, I would guess that Taika Waititi is probably the most successful export of this decade. He made his directing debut with the quirky Eagle vs Shark (2007), starring Jemaine Clement from the Flight of the Conchords, which I somewhat liked if not quite as much as some people did. His next film was Boy, which took its time to find international audiences (it didn’t get a release in the UK until many years later) but is generally regarded as one of his finest works, and he followed it up with the low-budget Wellington vampire comedy What We Do in the Shadows (2014), which I’ve reviewed elsewhere on this site. After the success of Hunt for the Wilderpeople his following films have had a far more international flavour, without entirely losing his distinctive voice (given he does like to cast himself in his projects). The film I’ve omitted below is Thor: Ragnarok (2017), which as Marvel superhero movie, can’t quite be fit into the same category, though it retains plenty of his humour and is one of the better titles in that seemingly endless run of superhero films.

Continue reading “Three Films by Taika Waititi: Boy (2010), Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016) and Jojo Rabbit (2019)”

Two Black Women Filmmakers with a Budget: Mudbound (2017) and A Wrinkle in Time (2018)

I concede this is a fairly tenuous connection to make in order to lump together reviews of these recent films by two of the most successful of recent Black women directors, but I wanted to give them some attention during my week of Black American women filmmakers, despite having reviewed already a good number of their more famous works.

Obviously Ava DuVernay has become the most well-known of the two, primarily for Selma (2014), but she made some low-key dramas like Middle of Nowhere (2012) and I Will Follow (2010) which I like even more, as well as documentaries starting with This Is the Life (2008) but recently the high-profile 13th (2016), and graduated to the big budgets with this Disney-produced fantasy adventure film.

Meanwhile, Dee Rees made a splash with one of the best coming-of-age movies of the decade, Pariah (2011), before turning her attention to the (in my opinion) underrated biopic of Bessie Smith, Bessie (2015). Her budget for her World War II-set period drama Mudbound may only have been a fairly modest US$10 million, but you can see a lot of that up on screen, one of the earlier films in Netflix’s recent run of big prestige productions which have had some crossover between online streaming and big screen presentation.

Continue reading “Two Black Women Filmmakers with a Budget: Mudbound (2017) and A Wrinkle in Time (2018)”

Criterion Sunday 116: 隠し砦の三悪人 Kakushi Toride no San Akunin (The Hidden Fortress, 1958)

By this point, Kurosawa knew pretty well how to craft a samurai film as a version of a Western. There’s an effortless feel to his filmmaking, probably helped here by focusing the story so much around not Toshiro Mifune’s warrior, but instead the foolish comedy characters of the peasant duo (Minoru Chiaki and Kamatari Fujiwara) whose avarice constantly blinds them to the dangers they’re in. Of course Mifune does his eye-catching thing of being strong and supportive as the General of a defeated tribe, while the tribe’s Princess (Misa Uehara) shows quite a bit of self-determination, even if she can’t be in a scene — even ostensibly disguised as a peasant — without looking obviously imperious. To that extent, some of the adventurous heroics strain credulity, but the film never sacrifices character-grounded observation to action setpieces or silly plot contrivances. This is a film that remains invested in its characters most of all.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Akira Kurosawa 黒澤明; Writers Shinobu Hashimoto 橋本忍, Ryuzo Kikushima 菊島隆三, Kurosawa and Hideo Oguni 小国英雄; Cinematographer Kazuo Yamasaki 山崎市雄; Starring Toshiro Mifune 三船敏郎, Misa Uehara 上原美佐, Minoru Chiaki 千秋実, Kamatari Fujiwara 藤原釜足; Length 139 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Friday 26 August 2016.

Zootopia (aka Zootropolis, 2016)

Another solid Disney animated film after Frozen and Big Hero 6, this deals with a world of anthropomorphised animals where the big threat is the reversion by the predator animals to ‘savagery’ (i.e. their ‘natural’ animal state). Our hero is Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin), a bunny rabbit from a country carrot farm with dreams of serving on the metropolitan police force (called “Zootropolis” in the UK version, but “Zootopia” everywhere else), yet despite her ambition, she seems thwarted by the unfeeling old timers on the police force, led by their buffalo captain (Idris Elba). However, after falling into the ambit of small-time grifter fox Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), they team up to help solve a series of kidnappings. When you look at the character list, it all does seem very silly, but into this buddy-coppy fantasy adventure format, the film is trying to push some pretty serious ideas about civic corruption (Jenny Slate voices the assistant mayor, a sheep if not always sheepish), not to mention racial intolerance and understanding — all enfolded up into the big mystery of the savage animals which Judy and Nick are tracking down. Even aside from the thematics — and I have no idea how they’d play to children, as some of the ideas are pretty complex — the animation is gorgeously detailed and replete with all the expected blink-and-you’ll-miss-them visual puns in the backgrounds, not to mention sly hommages to various films (few of which would be known to kids, unless The Godfather and Chinatown are considered typical viewing for that generation these days).

Zootopia film posterCREDITS
Directors Byron Howard and Rich Moore; Writers Jared Bush and Phil Johnston; Starring Ginnifer Goodwin, Jason Bateman, Idris Elba, Jenny Slate; Length 108 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Chelsea, London, Thursday 21 April 2016.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

Finally, the review I’m sure you’ve all been waiting for, as undoubtedly you’ve all been hanging back, waiting cautiously about whether to see this film on the basis of my verdict. Well, I can unequivocally state that if you are fond of George Lucas’s original trilogy, then you’ll enjoy this new instalment from the auteur behind Star Trek Into Darkness, whereas if you are at best ambivalent about his franchise’s politically retrogressive and genocidally destructive worldview, then… it’s probably not for you? On the plus side is the welcome focus on three new and diverse young protagonists — Daisy Ridley’s Rey, John Boyega’s Finn, and Oscar Isaac’s Poe. There are some heartwarming reappearances by original cast members, and there are more silly chirruping droids. Plotwise, it feels of a piece with the original film, but the spoiler police are out in force on this one, so I’m not going to go into detail and, frankly, I’m not even sure I could. Suffice to say I laughed at a joke about the Force, and in general there’s a good sense of bonhomie amid the good-vs-evil derring-do.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens film posterCREDITS
Director J.J. Abrams; Writers Lawrence Kasdan, Abrams and Michael Arndt; Cinematographer Dan Mindel; Starring Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Harrison Ford, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac, Carrie Fisher; Length 135 minutes.
Seen at Odeon Holloway, London, Sunday 20 December 2015.

Bill (2015)

As far as kids-oriented comedy/thrillers based around the life of William Shakespeare go, this one is pretty good fun. In fact, for the quality of filmmaking and even set and costume design on show, I’d say it gives Shakespeare in Love a decent run for its money, and is frankly more enjoyable in many ways. If there’s a style it’s going for, then probably early Blackadder with a hint of Monty Python would about sum it up. Mathew Baynton’s Bill is a down-on-his-luck provincial type with a dream of making it in the big city as a writer, and so he ups sticks, leaving his wife Anne (Martha Howe-Douglas) behind and tries his luck — running into little success, but meeting Christopher Marlowe (Jim Howick) along the way. Meanwhile the Spanish King Philip (a properly moustache-twirling bad guy with a nifty line in stupid disguises, played by co-writer Ben Willbond) is plotting to kill Queen Elizabeth, all laid out courtesy of an actually rather thrilling pre-credits sequence. He duly takes advantage of the foppish Earl of Croydon (Simon Farnaby), who has been picked to write a play to be performed in front of the Queen (the perfect place for Philip’s plan), but knowing nothing of the dramatic arts has enlisted as ghost-writer… Bill! So it’s all very silly, and silliness really is the watchword, for while the film is not always as historically far-fetched as you might expect, it’s just mostly very silly indeed. Which turns out to be a good fit to the subject matter, hence an enjoyable film. I’m not sure if it’ll really play well to kids though, but what do I know. All I mean is, there’s plenty for grown-ups too.

Bill film posterNEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Richard Bracewell; Writers Laurence Rickard and Ben Willbond; Cinematographer Laurie Rose; Starring Mathew Baynton, Ben Willbond, Simon Farnaby, Martha Howe-Douglas, Jim Howick; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld O2 Greenwich, London, Thursday 24 September 2015.

Jurassic World (2015)

Let’s be honest, I didn’t exactly hold high hopes for this film, which at times has seemed more interested in creating brand partner synergies for commercial tie-ins, than being actually-any-good as narrative entertainment. Sadly that seems to have been the legacy of Spielberg’s (still quite excellent) Jurassic Park, though it’s hardly something it invented — just that it managed to tap into an enthusiasm for dinosaurs that remains largely unabated over 20 years on. Still, even given that, I remain confused as to why there was an ad before the film for a Lego tie-in. There was no room in the movie for the aforesaid product because it’s a 12-rated action film for a good reason (CGI-created dinosaur terror and mayhem; certainly the human characters weren’t much more than ciphers). Anyway the film’s clear product-placement winner was Mercedes-Benz, just for that smash cut to a perfectly-framed car ad angle of their vehicle after one of the kids says the line “you wanna see something amazing?” Oh to imagine how excited their execs must’ve been when they saw that. Just thinking about such a scenario really brought on some serious feels (not all good, let’s be honest); certainly it prompted more emotions than when a bunch of human dudes were eviscerated in the film (would that they were marketing executives eh).

I could go on about how this cartoonish dehumanisation of violence is an effect of the kind of corporatised culture which was surely intended as a point of satire in the original, but has long since been subsumed under the creature effects and merchandising. However, whatever baggage I might (not unreasonably I feel) load this franchise up with, the thing is that Jurassic World was quite an entertaining ride. Chris Pratt retains an easygoing charm, even if his relationship with prickly park boss Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) remained little more than a doodle in the corner of a page credited to FOUR screenwriters. Perhaps the tenacity with which Claire manages to perform at high speed on all terrains while never shedding (or breaking) her high heels should therefore be applauded as some kind of feminist triumph, but I’ll stop short of that. Still, the kids-in-peril weren’t too annoying, while Irrfan Khan as a wealthy industralist (an heir of sorts to Richard Hammond) and Omar Sy as the French dino-wrangler were nice smaller roles, even if there was no one who could measure up to Jeff Goldblum. And on the whole the mayhem was coordinated rather well, even if it did rip off some of the setpieces almost wholesale from the original film, to lesser effect.

So for a Summer blockbuster it just about works, I just don’t expect to be revisiting it with any warmth in 20 years’ time.

Jurassic World film poster CREDITS
Director Colin Trevorrow; Writers Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Derek Connolly and Trevorrow; Cinematographer John Schwartzman; Starring Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Vincent D’Onofrio, Irrfan Khan, Omar Sy; Length 124 minutes.
Seen at Genesis [2D], London, Tuesday 16 June 2015.

Criterion Sunday 16: 宮本武蔵完結編 決闘巌流島 Miyamoto Musashi Kanketsuhen: Ketto Ganryujima (Samurai Trilogy III: Duel at Ganryu Island, 1956)

The Duel at Ganryu Island is the final film in Inagaki’s trilogy about the famous 17th century samurai Musashi Miyamoto, and it follows on from the introduction of our hero as a young man in the first film and then his peripatetic years as a wandering ronin in the second. By this point he is widely renowned, and courted by powerful leaders, but elects instead to live in a humble fashion by a village. Again, there are reminders of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai in the way Musashi works to protect the village near which he lives from bandit attacks, but for the most part the film again focuses on his relationship with Otsu and Akemi, two women who’ve been in love with him for much of the trilogy’s running time. The visual palette is once again richly coloured, and Inagaki and his cinematographer (different on this film than the previous two) show a fondness for long shots with plenty of depth of focus. The big challenge for Musashi — and the conflict with which the film ends (at sunset once again, as with both previous films) — is his fight with the charismatic Sasaki Kojiro; both of them have been developing swordplay techniques which are put to the test here. The surprise for me has been quite how immersive and enjoyable this series has been, despite not being much aware of it beforehand. Inagaki has every bit the technical mastery of his more famous compatriots, and a sure sense of storytelling that still allows for plenty of character development. It’s a fine way to end an excellent run of films.

Criterion Extras: As a result of this project, I’ve been buying a lot of Criterion editions of the films, but it would surely be almost impossible (or would probably bankrupt me) to watch every film in its Criterion edition. However, where I have, I will add a note about the extras. I’ve mentioned already the beautiful colours of the film, and of course, as you’d expect, these have been rendered wonderfully by Criterion. As far as the extras go, all we have on the Samurai Trilogy are the original trailers, along with some short (c. 8-10 minute) video pieces in which an academic discusses the historical context for the real character of Musashi. These are all perfectly informative, if hardly up to Criterion’s usual standard.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Hiroshi Inagaki 稲垣浩; Writers Inagaki and Tokuhei Wakao 若尾徳平 (based on the novel 宮本武蔵 Miyamoto Musashi “Musashi” by Eiji Yoshikawa 吉川英治, and the play by Hideji Hojo 北条秀司); Cinematographer Kazuo Yamada 山田一夫; Starring Toshiro Mifune 三船敏郎; Length 105 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 28 December 2014.

Criterion Sunday 15: 続宮本武蔵 一乗寺の決闘 Zoku Miyamoto Musashi: Ichijoji no Ketto (Samurai Trilogy II: Duel at Ichijoji Temple, 1955)

Like many second films in trilogies, this second instalment of Inagaki’s story of 17th century swordfighter and cultural hero Musashi Miyamoto seems to lack a focus, although unlike the first film it heads towards something of a cliffhanger. Musashi travels to Kyoto to pick a fight against a samurai school that is home to his former friend Matahachi, calling out the school’s sensei, though the men there are at first dismissive of Musashi’s talents, drawing him into a massed battle scene once again reminiscent of the denouement of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. The film also introduces a challenger to his position of swordfighting dominance with Sasaki Kojiro (Koji Tsuruta), a matinee idol of a man who intitially just follows Musashi warily, intent only on observing him. However, despite the increased number of battle scenes, the heart of the film remains his relationship with the women, primarily Otsu (Kaoru Yuchigusa), who continues to follow him, as well as the younger Akemi, who had tried to tempt him (unsuccessfully) in the first film. Finally, the style changes a little, and though the colours are still vibrant, there seems to be a rather darker tone, not to mention a studio-set feel to proceedings, slightly more stylised than had been the case in the first film. Still it keeps Musashi’s education moving forward, and sets up the third and final instalment nicely.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Hiroshi Inagaki 稲垣浩; Writers Inagaki and Tokuhei Wakao 若尾徳平 (based on the novel 宮本武蔵 Miyamoto Musashi “Musashi” by Eiji Yoshikawa 吉川英治, and the play by Hideji Hojo 北条秀司); Cinematographer Jun Yasumoto 安本淳; Starring Toshiro Mifune 三船敏郎; Length 103 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 28 December 2014.