Criterion Sunday 601: Неотправленное письмо Neotpravlennoye pismo (Letter Never Sent, 1960)

Of Soviet directors working in the 1960s, you hear plenty about Andrei Tarkovsky (and for good reason), but even compared to him there are not many directors that have the kind of visual bravado that Mikhail Kalatozov deployed in his features (like The Cranes Are Flying of a few years earlier). Letter Never Sent is fairly laconic in terms of its dialogue — it follows three geologists and their guide Konstantin (Innokenty Smoktunovsky) as they search for diamonds in a far-flung stretch of Siberia — but you really get the sense of this environment, with elemental forces (fire, earth, snow) competing with one another for primacy over the image. The actual quest itself hardly seems as important as the relationship between these four humans and the impossibly deserted land they find themselves in, and there’s even a bit of critique of the Soviet system, as their work soon gets derailed and they have trouble getting in touch with headquarters. Still, it’s nail-biting thriller territory for the most part, and Kalatozov’s camera gets the most out of its struggle-against-nature narrative.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • This is one of the more bare bones releases Criterion has ever done, with no additional features aside from a booklet essay. Would that there were more resources detailing the making of this film though, because it must have made for a fascinating story.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Mikhail Kalatozov მიხეილ კალატოზიშვილი; Writers Grigory Koltunov Григорий Колтунов, Valery Osipov Валерий Осипов and Viktor Rozov Виктор Розов; Cinematographer Sergey Urusevksy Серге́й Урусевский; Starring Innokenty Smoktunovsky Иннокентий Смоктуновский, Tatiana Samoilova Татья́на Само́йлова, Vasily Livanov Василий Ливанов, Yevgeni Urbansky Евгений Урбанский; Length 96 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Thursday 29 December 2022.

Criterion Sunday 583: The Four Feathers (1939)

Look I don’t know, I feel like even attempting a critique is to invite the ire of the ‘political correctness gone mad’ brigade (who are nowadays known as the ‘cancel culture wokification’ mob or some such similar word salad). After all, there’s plenty cinematically to appreciate in this derring-do story of a man confronting his own lack of nerve and doing right by his friends. It’s filmed, in colour, in some spectacular desert settings that although in Academy ratio wouldn’t be bettered until Lawrence of Arabia, and there are some solid central themes. And yet! I’m sorry! But it is extremely difficult to watch plummy-voiced English toffs play dress-up at colonial war doing all their rah-rah isn’t British military discipline great and haven’t we (unironically) brought up some fine fellows with the merest patina of anti-war gesturing and then an entire sub-plot about how one of them pretends to be a disabled Arab, affecting a dead-eyed dullard expression under heavy beard and makeup to properly fit in with the imperialist view of the local riff raff, and accept it. For all that I can admire certain aspects of the film, it’s aggressively “of its era” to an extent that makes it difficult to really put up with.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Zoltan Korda; Writers R.C. Sherriff, Lajos Biró and Arthur Wimperis (based on the novel by A.E.W. Mason); Cinematographer Georges Perinal; Starring John Clements, Ralph Richardson, C. Aubrey Smith, June Duprez; Length 115 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Saturday 29 October 2022.

Criterion Sunday 544: Head (1968)

If one of the best-known aspects about Bob Rafelson’s debut as a director — and the first (and last) outing of manufactured music group The Monkees onto film — is that it was a massive commercial flop, that’s also probably the least interesting thing about it. After all, being a failure is sort of built into its very genetic code: it was designed to be a wholesale razing of The Monkees’ image, perhaps to allow them to go onto other things. However, it’s not like it’s designed to be bad, it’s just so scattershot and weird as to be basically unwatchable in a strictly narrative sense. But it’s certainly not lacking in interest either. Some of it remains very much of its era, and some of the ways it interrogates contemporary culture are less successful than others (just showing footage of an execution from the Vietnam War alongside screaming fans at a Monkees gig seem a little bit simplistic). But Rafelson and company — including co-screenwriter/producer Jack Nicholson — are throwing so much at the screen that at least some of it still maintains the power to perplex and astonish as it does to cause concern. It’s a series of setpieces and ideas that probably seemed more fully-formed when the makers were on acid (which is both evident and also documented), but still manages to be silly and serious in almost equal measures, a predecessor to what Adam McKay does now but if it were done to challenge rather than entertain the audience.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • One extra is a recent interview with director/co-writer Bob Rafelson, who had helped to create The Monkees as a TV show (and thereby a band), who is lucid and very entertaining talking about the genesis of this film and how things worked out for everyone. It’s almost half an hour, but an entertaining one.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Bob Rafelson; Writers Rafelson and Jack Nicholson; Cinematographer Michel Hugo; Starring The Monkees (Peter Tork, David Jones, Micky Dolenz, Michael Nesmith); Length 85 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 11 June 2022.

Criterion Sunday 481: Made in USA (1966)

Godard always had a way of making films really quickly, especially in his mid-60s career pomp, and most seemed to be either stark black-and-white films about a woman (often Anna Karina), or widescreen saturated-colour genre riffs (often with Anna Karina). Made in USA, as its title implies, is very much one of the latter, and the genre it’s playing off is the detective film, via a novel by the creator of the Parker character (very much unofficially at that, hence the film’s relative unavailability in the US until this release, due to threats of legal action). The plot itself makes very little sense at a casual acquaintance, and this is surely the point: it’s more about using the tropes and the visual language of detectives, spies, gangsters and the like to create some nifty juxtaposition of colour, sound and image that throws up a critique of the capitalist West and its innate corruption. Anna Karina is fetching as ever in the lead role of Paula Nelson, while everyone else sports character names based on Godard’s favoured directors (the film is dedicated to Sam Fuller and Nick Ray, after all). His resulting movie has energy to spare, with all the little tics Godard was known for, layering multiple texts with jarring sound effects, only further obscuring the machinations of the plot. It feels like a heady formal exercise, and it rather paved the way for later films like Week End (1967) that Le Gai savoir (1968) that lead towards abandoning such bourgeois affectations altogether.

(Written on 8 January 2016.)


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jean-Luc Godard (based on the novel The Jugger by Donald E. Westlake [as “Richard Stark”]); Cinematographer Raoul Coutard; Starring Anna Karina, Jean-Pierre Léaud, László Szabó; Length 85 minutes.

Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT2), London, Thursday 7 January 2016.

Criterion Sunday 451: Fanfan la Tulipe (1952)

You can’t go into this 18th century swashbuckling romance with any kind of expectation of realism, for this is surely as silly as they come. A young man played by the dashing Gérard Philippe is given a prophecy by a fortune teller (Gina Lollobrigida) that he takes to heart, even as it’s swiftly revealed to be an army recruitment scam for her dad during the Seven Years’ War. The setting may be redolent of Barry Lyndon but this has the dashing spirit of The Princess Bride with more than a little mid-century European comedic flavour that may not be to everyone’s taste, but it’s hardly offensive. Just extremely silly, as sabre fights make way to horseback chases, the King’s daughter Henriette, the King himself (Louis XV), romantic trysts and honestly, I sort of lost track about two-thirds of the way in.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Christian-Jaque; Writers René Wheeler, René Fallet, Christian-Jaque and Henri Jeanson; Cinematographer Christian Matras; Starring Gérard Philippe, Gina Lollobrigida, Olivier Hussenot, Noël Roquevert; Length 99 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Tuesday 27 July 2021.

Criterion Sunday 431: The Thief of Bagdad (1940)

The Criterion release of this film has a commentary by Scorsese and Coppola, and you can understand when you watch it what might appeal to them. Would that every era of cinema had such a colourful and inventive spectacle and I can see that children exposed to this in the 1940s or 50s might have had little to compare it to in terms of the effects it achieves. There’s a gloriously saturated colour scheme in the filming and the production design and costuming that heightens the magical wonder of the storytelling. It’s just that watching now makes for a more problematic experience and it’s not that I’m out here calling for any ‘cancellations’ or whatever your term du jour is when you read this for the idea that maybe art has certain responsibilities. After all, things that seem a bit racist now (or orientalist or just a bit misguided, depended on your point of view) might have been equally so back then, it’s just that there was an unexamined expectation that putting dark makeup on very white English actors and having them enact Middle Eastern-set stories was perfectly fine and nothing to be concerned about. Of course, compared to some contemporary films, there was certainly worse racism in othering depictions of such parts of the world and their people, but that doesn’t excuse what at best just seems a little painful now, however well-meaning it might have been. There’s plenty to enjoy here, and those who find it easier to tap into the childlike spirit at play will be rewarded more handsomely than those hatchet-faced killjoys like myself who’d rather not watch fully-grown and very English gentlemen (along with a German, an Indian and an African-American) play dress-up as Arabs.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors Ludwig Berger, Michael Powell and Tim Whelan [as well as Alexander Korda, Zoltan Korda and William Cameron Menzies, uncredited]; Writers Lajos Biró and Miles Malleson; Cinematographer Georges Périnal [as “George Perinal”]; Starring Conrad Veidt, John Justin, Sabu, June Duprez, Miles Malleson; Length 106 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Thursday 27 May 2021.

Criterion Sunday 415: The Naked Prey (1965)

The idea of a man on the run for his life reminds me a bit of an early Criterion Collection film, The Most Dangerous Game (1932), although this is much less camply genre-inflected. After all, it seems to be rehearsing some form of colonial politics, albeit as seen by the white guy at its centre (writer/director/actor Cornel Wilde). For an international co-production set in Africa in the 1960s, I could say it’s not as racist as I had feared, but that’s not to say it’s not deeply problematic, just that I’ve seen much worse (sadly; another Criterion film, Sanders of the River, comes to mind). Visually it has a sort of National Geographic view of tribal rituals, and while it allows its tribespeople the dignity of some agency, and credits them prominently, there’s still a slightly leering view of half-naked people, and the lack of subtitles for their speech puts it at some remove from their point of view. Still, it integrates the local musical traditions quite nicely, and there’s a certain degree of thrill in the chase, even if it all stays fairly firmly on the side of the colonialists.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Cornel Wilde; Writers Clint Johnston and Don Peters; Cinematographer H.A.R. Thomson; Starring Cornel Wilde, Ken Gampu; Length 95 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 11 April 2021.

Finding ‘Ohana (2021)

I feel as if my themed week of Netflix has just made the case that they are good at formulaic, brightly-coloured confections, and if so today’s review won’t change that opinion. Maybe it’s true. There is some good, nuanced, interesting stuff on there too (they’ve added a bunch of Youssef Chahine films, and now some Swedish silents I gather), so who knows maybe one day it’ll be a great service for everyone. In the mean time, there’s Mubi if you like austere arthouse and Amazon if you like to support the exploitation of workers (also they have some good content of their own), so really it’s a great time for online streaming.


Unlike the Netflix film I reviewed yesterday, the Chinese movie Monster Run, which felt a bit like a kids’ film, this very much is a kids’ film. There’s little point in me complaining some of the child acting is a bit lacking in nuance (that would be absurd) or that the plotting can be silly. After all, when we get the flashbacks to the ye olde times white explorers, it’s narrated in a Drunk History style, and they’re played by Chris Parnell and Marc Evan Jackson, so clearly silliness is the point. The set design feels like a Disney theme park version of Hawai’i and the film ends up basically being an advert for the place, but that’s certainly forgivable too. These are all intentional choices and they make sense for this film. It’s a likeable, brightly-coloured reimagining of The Goonies in Hawai’i and while it’s unlikely to have that film’s enduring (cult?) appeal, it does everything it’s supposed to do and has its heart in a good place.

Finding 'Ohana film posterCREDITS
Director Jude Weng 翁菲菲; Writer Christina Strain; Cinematographer Cort Fey; Starring Kea Peahu, Alex Aiono, Lindsay Watson; Length 123 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), Wellington, Thursday 18 February 2021.

Okja (2017)

Okay for my science-fiction week I’m going to have concede the ‘foreign-language’ aspect is really that most of them are from non-English-speaking directors or produced in other countries, because this is largely an American production, albeit by the noted Korean director Bong Joon-ho (whose rather more famous recent film Parasite will eventually come up in my Criterion Sunday series).


Tonally, this film is very odd. There’s an almost childlike sentimentality around animals and farming, which is altogether too clean (the genetically mutated pig-like creature at the film’s heart never seems to be caked in sh!t like real pigs usually are). And then there’s the corporate satire, all gurning faces and ridiculous over-the-top performances by Jake Gyllenhaal as a TV scientist and Tilda Swinton as the evil company CEO, going several steps beyond Gilliam to full comic book. Indeed, I’d say this is the closest film has got to capturing the feeling of one of Roald Dahl’s children’s books, although by virtue of visually depicting the nasty stuff adults get up to, its 15 classification puts it rather beyond children. It heartens me to see this much mainstream attention paid to the way animals are treated by the meat industry, though this is hardly vegetarian propaganda. And if ultimately it’s an emotional story about a country girl and her animal best friend, it’s an affecting and effective one with some excellent CGI.

Okja film posterCREDITS
Director Bong Joon-ho 봉준호; Writers Bong and Jon Ronson; Cinematographer Darius Khondji داریوش خنجی‎; Starring Ahn Seo-hyun, Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano, Jake Gyllenhaal, Byun Hee-bong, Steven Yeun; Length 120 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Friday 10 July 2017.

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).