Criterion Sunday 608: Harold and Maude (1971)

Having not been much of a commercial (or indeed, critical) success at the time of its release, like a lot of the New American cinema of the 1970s, this film has attained a certain cult status. It’s easy perhaps to see why, with its unconventional story of the odd, cherubic-faced, yet morbidly death-obsessed young Harold (Bud Cort) falling in love with the elderly Maude (Ruth Gordon) after meeting at funerals which they’ve been in the habit of crashing. As we see in the early part of the film, Harold has a flair for staging elaborate suicide scenes for the benefit (well, not ‘benefit’ exactly) of his status and image-obsessed mother (Vivian Pickles). Indeed their grand home is not unlike a mausoleum, with its rich mahogany surfaces and elaborate ornamentation. I can’t be entirely sure I like the resulting film, though it surely has its moments, and the romance (such as it is) is treated fairly obliquely. The two characters have contrasting, but complementary, personalities, as Maude seeks to teach Harold something about why life is worth living, and there’s a gratuitous shot of a fading tattoo on her forearm near the end just to drive that point home. But for the most part this is a pleasantly agreeable little black comedy about an odd couple, and made with assured directorial flair by Hal Ashby.

(Written on 30 December 2014.)


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Hal Ashby; Writer Colin Higgins; Cinematographer John Alonzo; Starring Ruth Gordon, Bud Cort, Vivian Pickles; Length 91 minutes.

Seen at ICA, London, Sunday 28 December 2014.

The Banshees of Inisherin (2022)

Following up the reviews of my favourite films of 2022 (full list here) and this post falls into two themes already identified: (1) unexpected pleasures; (2) Colin Farrell as a fine actor. I would not have imagined the latter 20 years ago when he was starting out as a fairly generic pretty dude in big budget films, and the former is the case for a lot of films on my list this year. Most years, they’re unexpected because they are directors or projects unknown to me. However, this one, just about the last film I went to see in 2022, is by a director I know and have not liked the films of, plus with the general Oirishness of the enterprise (deedly-dee music, whimsical religious irreverance, and cute animal friends), I was primed to dislike it intensely. But I didn’t.


This makes for an odd note to end a year of film watching at the cinema, but it’s not a bad film by any means. I’ve often been a bit suspicious of McDonagh’s cinema, and haven’t liked most of the stuff that people have been big fans of, but this hits a very honest note in dealing with some pretty deplorable behaviour in a way that makes it clear what’s gone wrong. Colm (Brendan Gleeson) just wants to be left alone to work on his fiddle music in silence without the tiresome chatter of his buddy Padraic (Colin Farrell), a nice yet dull local cow herder; the film throws us straight into Colm’s decision, but it’s easy to take on trust how this longstanding friendship went by in a haze of stout down the local pub. The film captures their interactions, and those of the local characters, by focusing on the simmering tensions of rural life, and though it does ratchet things up a bit towards the end, it’s a commentary on people getting far too mired in their ideals to notice what it’s doing to them as people. Thus, there’s a sort of bleakness built in there — the confrontation with a person’s life and the worth they derive from it at the end — but the film works hard to ensure that it keeps us just teetering on this side of that particular abyss very ably. There’s a bleakness of course, that goes with the 1920s civil war setting, and the craggy glowering landscape, but it’s a bleakness primarily expressed by the way the characters end up, making this a sort of parable about paying attention to what matters when the world is falling apart (a parable for our times).

The Banshees of Inisherin (2022) posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Martin McDonagh; Cinematographer Ben Davis; Starring Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, Kerry Condon, Barry Keoghan; Length 114 minutes.
Seen at Light House Cuba, Wellington, Saturday 31 December 2022.

Criterion Sunday 506: Dillinger è morto (Dillinger Is Dead, 1969)

I watched this a week ago and it’s lucky that it stays with me because I completely forgot to write it up at the time. In a way it’s like a movie perfectly suited to our pandemic times, albeit made decades ago. Our lead character is, of all things, a designer of gas masks (Michel Piccoli) — and certainly the question of living our lives in masks comes up, along with a sense of alienation that grows from that. He comes home to his wife (Anita Pallenberg), but his dissatisfaction is evident in both her and the meal that’s waiting for him, so he starts to cook another. Things move on from there, but the film is an accretion of details in a vaguely absurdist style that heightens his sense of disconnectedness from the world, and the revolver he finds wrapped up in newspaper clippings about the titular Chicago gangster only fuels that sense of disappointment with life. I suppose it could be said to satirically represent a man’s desire for a new life, even if it ultimately feels very masculine in the way he believes he can move out of his present circumstances (there’s a lot of performatively macho swaggering, and Piccoli bears his hairy chest once again after Le Mépris a few years earlier). There are certainly some ideas here that feel prescient, and a claustrophobic sense of space and time as he moves around his apartment, though I found it stylistically very much of its era in a way that was difficult to fully embrace.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Marco Ferreri; Writers Ferreri and Sergio Bazzini; Cinematographer Mario Vulpiani; Starring Michel Piccoli, Anita Pallenberg, Annie Girardot; Length 95 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Thursday 10 February 2022.

NZIFF 2021: Shiva Baby (2020)

Moving into the second week of Whānau Mārama – New Zealand International Film Festival last month, I went to another fairly commercial film that I hope will be back here on big screens, though it’s already been released in most of the rest of the world. It’s a jolly American indie film with a single setting and that makes the most of its expressive actors.


The lead character Danielle (Rachel Sennott) is a mess, as a lot of people still at university in their early-20s tend to be, but this is exacerbated by the pressure and anxieties of being at a shiva (a mourning gathering) with her extended family and some strained former friends and lovers. In certain ways — the intense anxiety the film captures, by sticking to a lot of close-ups, moving through tight spaces with the threat of elderly relatives jumping out at any moment like a horror film, but most of all from the scraping dissonant score — this reminded me of Uncut Gems, but unlike that film, the cushion of family and the setting means there’s no real sense of physical danger as there is there. Still, there’s very much a sense of things unravelling at every turn, so the fact that it wrings plenty of laughs and humour from this situation is testament to the writing and the performances, from familiar stalwarts like Fred Melamed or the younger newcomers (I definitely want to see more of the actor who plays Maya, Molly Gordon). The characters might be confused and messy, but the film feels carefully controlled.

Shiva Baby (2020)CREDITS
Director/Writer Emma Seligman (based on her own 2018 short film); Cinematographer Maria Rusche; Starring Rachel Sennott, Molly Gordon, Danny Deferrari, Fred Melamed, Polly Draper; Length 78 minutes.
Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Thursday 11 November 2021.

NZIFF 2021: @zola (2020)

The first film I saw at Whānau Mārama – New Zealand International Film Festival is probably the most ‘commercial’ of the lot, though it still fits in a lot of darkness to its otherwise gaudily-toned story of… well, of Florida. It’s a setting that’s been done many times before (think Magic Mike for a start), but I can’t deny that there’s an energy to this setting that energises plenty of films, this one no less than any other.


Nobody’s really out there adapting Twitter threads and I can only applaud the ways the filmmakers here find to transfer some of that era-specific energy (Twitter, Facebook and… Tumblr all get a mention, because of course). There are bravura touches (a lot of toilet-focused exposition that’s revealing without being gross), a lot of humour (Cousin Greg!! sorry I mean Nicholas Braun, best known for his role in Succession) and the constant presence of Taylour Paige as Zola, being cool under pressure and rolling her eyes back into her head at Riley Keough’s character Stefani. Keough has played this type before but yet I didn’t recognise her; Stefani feels like a different character and a very specific one. It’s not all jolly laughs — there’s some very credible terror and some nasty men (okay those things are somewhat related) — but it is pulled through by the narrative voice and a sense of self-mythologising that’s ongoing and inherent to the narrative itself.

@zola (2021)CREDITS
Director Janicza Bravo; Writers Bravo and Jeremy O. Harris (based on the Rolling Stone article “Zola Tells All: The Real Story Behind the Greatest Stripper Saga Ever Tweeted” by David Kushner and the original tweets by Aziah King); Cinematographer Ari Wegner; Starring Taylour Paige, Riley Keough, Nicholas Braun, Colman Domingo; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Friday 5 November 2021.

Criterion Sunday 469: The Hit (1984)

Stephen Frears directed his first movie at the start of the 70s and then spent most of the next decade working in TV, though this is the era when Ken Loach and Alan Clarke were creating distinctive visions on the small screen, so by the time Frears returns with The Hit, you can’t really accuse him of not having some style. It’s set in Spain, so it doesn’t lack for beautiful light and arresting backdrops; at times Frears seems to be going maybe even a little bit too hard on the quiet, empty shots of these locales, though he matches it with striking framings (such as an unexpected overhead shot during one tense encounter). Still, there’s a lot that feels very 80s here, and it’s not just Tim Roth being a young hard man (not as fascist as in Alan Clarke’s Made in Britain, perhaps, but still a thug) but also some of the patronising attitudes (towards women, for example, or the Spaniards they encounter). Of course, that’s as much to do with the characters, who are after all small time criminals. Terence Stamp isn’t a million miles from Ray Winstone’s retired criminal in Sexy Beast, a man who may be retired but is aware he’s never going to be fully out of the racket, and when John Hurt pops up to carry out the titular action, he puts across a weary indefatigability. Ultimately this is a strange blend of genres, with black comedic elements and a strong road movie vibe (a saturated Spanish version of what Chris Petit or Wim Wenders were doing in monochrome, perhaps). I admire it more than I love it, but it has its moments.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Stephen Frears; Writer Peter Prince; Cinematographer Mike Molloy; Starring Terence Stamp, John Hurt, Tim Roth, Laura del Sol; Length 98 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Monday 11 October 2021.

Criterion Sunday 459: El ángel exterminador (The Exterminating Angel, 1962)

It’s difficult to imagine from the plot summary how this is going to play out, given the set-up is fairly thin: a bourgeois group of high society socialities go for a slap-up dinner after the opera and find themselves unable to leave the home they’re in. But Buñuel, of course, knows what he’s doing, and mixes jabs at the aristocrats, at complacent bourgeois values, and at the church itself (the ending is bitterly directed and something he developed further in Simon of the Desert and Viridiana, amongst other works). It’s a psychological horror of sorts, at least in the way its structured: there’s an invisible force seeming to prevent them from leaving, but this seems to be a deeply-ingrained sense of decorum. At the end it feels like they are able to leave when the correct formula of words is uttered: the entrapment is very much a social one, as everyone is constrained by their own sense of what’s allowed, what’s considered polite, and it’s that in the end which is their tragedy, the pathetic sadness of this entire class of people. It’s all beautifully acted and staged, and ends up — in a low-key way — being perhaps Buñuel’s strongest film.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Luis Buñuel; Cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa; Starring Silvia Pinal, Enrique Rambal; Length 93 minutes.

Seen at the National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 18 August 1999 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, April 1999, and most recently on YouTube streaming at home, Wellington, Sunday 12 September 2021).

Criterion Sunday 424: Mafioso (1962)

The tropes of the mafia film may have been largely set out a decade later for American viewers, but clearly by 1962 they were already familiar enough in Italy for this broadly comic take. Alberto Sordi plays Nino, a Sicilian man doing a dull factory job in Milan, in the north of Italy, who returns to his home village with his wife and finds himself sucked into nefarious activities on behalf of Don Vincenzo (Ugo Attanasio). Much of the film is interested in the set-up to this apparent inevitability, as his gregarious character (exemplified by his jaunty moustache) and his desperate need to be liked and respected makes him the natural mark for the Don; it hardly hurts either that he seems to be a really good shot at fairground attractions, and so eventually he finds himself unable to refuse a favour for the Don, which turns out to be in New York. In truth there’s not really a whole lot of plot, just this small town family drama along with a bit of local tension over his northern wife (Norma Bengeli), who’s perceived to be snobby, but Sordi’s deft character work makes the film zip by pretty quickly.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Alberto Lattuada; Writers Rafael Azcona, Bruno Caruso, Marco Ferreri, Agenore Incrocci and Furio Scarpelli; Cinematographer Armando Nannuzzi; Starring Alberto Sordi, Norma Bengeli, Ugo Attanasio; Length 102 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), Wellington, Saturday 8 May 2021.

Criterion Sunday 391: if…. (1968)

After recently watching Spice World and 1933’s The Invisible Man, I feel I already have a sense of how small, insular and close-minded an island Britain can be. Perhaps those weren’t the lessons to be learned from those particular films, but an assessment of the British (or English) character is somewhat in the background, and it’s the same here in a portrayal of the kind of education our ruling classes get in the UK. It’s a satire of course, but even when it’s going over-the-top (there’s a priest in a drawer! there’s an entire stash of weaponry!) it’s never particularly untethered from the reality — or at least how I imagine it to be (though the writers of this film were certainly drawing on lived experience). Even the very removed microcosm of school life I endured showed some of the hallmarks of the society depicted here, though obviously never nearly as brutal. It’s also rather awkward watching this in the era of incels and domestic terrorism, as you get the feeling that what Mick (Malcolm McDowell) and his compatriots are doing isn’t so far removed from that paradigm either. Still, given the system they’re rebelling against here, there is still an underlying level of sympathy for Mick, and the satire remains pointed. It’s no wonder it caused such a stir at the time, given the nature of politicised student violence and the incipient revolution in the air back in 1968, but there’s still a revolutionary zeal to it watching even now, alongside that black comedy.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Lindsay Anderson; Writer David Sherwin; Cinematographer Miroslav Ondříček; Starring Malcolm McDowell, Richard Warwick, David Wood, Robert Swann, Christine Noonan; Length 112 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Friday 22 January 2021 (and on VHS at home at some point in the distant past).

Criterion Sunday 390: Sweet Movie (1974)

This may well be a masterpiece of piercing bourgeois complacency and for some people it clearly is, but I think I just have trouble connecting with the carnivalesque sense of polymorphous perversity. It almost feels more coherent than his 1971 W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism, though it’s still a blend of elements (including some very unsettling footage of WW2 atrocities being uncovered, although ones committed by the Soviet forces being brought to light by Nazis). The rest of the film involves a lot of people debasing themselves for various causes, and surely that’s the point of the film — starting with the valorisation of virginity presented as an American style talent contest, and moving through both women and men debasing themselves, being humiliated, acting out and generally being pariahs, and all in the name of the film’s satirical targets. I find it wearying where others revel in its warped sensibilities, though I imagine that making the likes of me feel a bit worn out is probably an achievement the film should be perfectly happy with.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Dušan Makavejev; Cinematographer Pierre Lhomme; Starring Carole Laure, Anna Prucnal, Pierre Clémenti; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 17 January 2021.