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.

Land (2021)

Part of getting films into cinemas after a period of closure is that there are still a number of titles that probably would have gone straight to streaming which are still getting a shot, and this feels like one of those. Still, it looks good on the big screen, whatever other shortcomings it may have.


There’s stuff in this film that feels a bit programmatic and well-trodden, and when the script does get to the emotional sharing (right at the very end) it suddenly starts to feel like too much, but that’s because the rest of the film is an exercise in restraint that is made more precise and affecting by the quality of Robin Wright, the star and director, in this role. She has retreated to the wilds of Wyoming after some unnamed tragedy, but it quickly becomes clear it has to do with a death close in her family, and pursues a solitary life to varying success, eventually settling in. This process forms the bulk of the film as time slips away unnoticed until she becomes reacquainted, in a small way, with the comfort of fellow humans (in the form of Mexican actor Demián Bichir). The way that her isolated life and his incursion is played out is very nicely done, and it feels almost like a step too far that the script feels the need to wrap it up with a little moral lesson but even that feels earned by the slow, but never boring, pacing.

Land (2021)CREDITS
Director Robin Wright; Writers Jesse Chatham and Erin Dignam; Cinematographer Bobby Bukowski; Starring Robin Wright, Demián Bichir, Kim Dickens; Length 89 minutes.
Seen at the Penthouse, Wellington, Friday 21 May 2021.

Cruella (2021)

My week of newish cinema releases continues with this film, directed by the dude who did I, Tonya (2017). Again, I didn’t review that on here, but I quite liked it? It had some good performances. This film is equally stylised, and very silly, and probably not Good. I expect there are people out there who hate it, but I try to be positive and, well, it looks good. Jenny Beaven did the costume design, who I laud below as the auteur at work here.


This is not, I suppose a ‘good’ film in the traditional sense, but it is in the sense that most films that seem to get made these days are: big and showy and well-designed and just so, with big performances. It’s fun, is what it is, but it has no depth. They clearly spent an enormous amount on the music, but I don’t think it’s used very inventively — it’s largely all 60s music for a film set on the cusp of punk with a lead character who has a sort of Vivienne Westwood chic but even her central fashion show is soundtracked by Iggy and the Stooges (though perhaps that’s a commentary in itself on the reliance of British punk on American archetypes). Anyway, too many of the cues seem too obvious, and then the plot in general is also really quite stultifyingly straightforward. (Quite aside from having us believe that an actress as distinctive as Emma Stone playing a character as singular as this could play an alter ego without detection, though I assume there’s a Shakespearean level of suspension of disbelief happening here.) But Stone and Thompson camp it up, Paul Walter Hauser is excellent as a villainous Cockney sidekick (with a wandering accent) and the real auteur here is the costume designer, clearly. This is a film about frocks: great gowns, beautiful gowns.

Cruella (2021)CREDITS
Director Craig Gillespie; Writers Aline Brosh McKenna, Kelly Marcel and Steve Zissis (based on the novel The Hundred and One Dalmatians by Dodie Smith); Cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis; Starring Emma Stone, Emma Thompson, Joel Fry, Paul Walter Hauser, Mark Strong; Length 134 minutes.
Seen at the Penthouse, Wellington, Monday 7 June 2021.

Criterion Sunday 432: Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985)

I think there are a lot of opinions one could hold about the films of Paul Schrader as about the art of Yukio Mishima, and though I’ve read a novel of his and enjoyed it at the level of writing, you don’t have to dig very deep into his life to get profoundly concerned. He’s the kind of man who would probably in our modern age have connected far more readily with the army he was looking for, and perhaps we can be glad of the times he lived in that this didn’t happen. He wanted to roll back post-war changes in Japanese society that he detested and restore Japan to its rightful place of honour, or something along those lines. And Schrader’s own work has been so boldly sadomasochistic and masculinist at times that it feels that matching the two might make for discomfort, and yes it’s certainly not easy to watch this story, either as a character study of a man fixated on honour and death, but also at a formal level it can be challenging to follow. After all, as the title suggests, it’s split into four chapters but is further fractured by various re-enactments of his works (shot in luridly saturated colours) as well as flashbacks in black-and-white to foundational moments in Mishima’s development, as played by Ken Ogata. Still, it remains a beautiful work, with gorgeous lighting and framing and a transcendent Philip Glass score which for a change doesn’t overwhelm the film (mainly because the filmmaking has a strong enough visual look and narrative structure to withstand Glass’s hammering and repetitive musical cadences). I will surely never feel any kinship with Mishima’s ideas but the film does give a visceral sense of his strange relationship to his society, and the fact that this is made by an American creates a strange thematic connection to some other contemporary titles in the Criterion Collection, like The Ice Storm (a quintessential suburban white American story as told by a Taiwanese filmmaker) or The Last Emperor (in which Chinese political history is interpreted by an Italian).


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Paul Schrader; Writers Leonard Schrader and Paul Schrader; Cinematographer John Bailey; Starring Ken Ogata 緒形明伸; Length 120 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Tuesday 25 May 2021.

Criterion Sunday 430: Le Feu follet (The Fire Within, 1963)

I think you could probably construct a small cinematic canon of works that deal with characters who are profoundly depressed and suicidal, but I don’t think there are a huge number which confront it head on. And by ‘head on’ I do mean that this is a film entirely about a man adrift. The protagonist moves around Paris, from a clinic in Versailles where he’s trying to clean up his alcoholism, into town where he tries — disconsolately, lackadaisically — to meet up with former friends and acquaintances. He seems to be seeking something, some connection that will convince him not to kill himself, but he’s also pretty set on not finding it, and that makes for uncomfortable watching. Don’t get me wrong, as played by Maurice Ronet, Alain Leroy is charismatic and can be good company, but it becomes increasingly clear that he is adrift and that things aren’t going to work out for him. The filmmaking matches his mental disarray at times, and underpins his emotions with the similarly desolate piano work of Erik Satie (which is too often misused in films in my opinion, but works rather well here).


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Louis Malle (based on the novel [also translated as “Will O’ the Wisp”] by Pierre Drieu La Rochelle); Cinematographer Ghislain Cloquet; Starring Maurice Ronet; Length 108 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Monday 24 May 2021.

Criterion Sunday 429: Les Amants (The Lovers, 1958)

This was something of a cause célèbre of its time — ridiculously, it went as far as the Supreme Court to rule on whether it was, in fact, “obscene”, not something that anyone watching today (or surely, to those responding in good faith, then) would label it. In any case, it has Jeanne Moreau as a bored upper-middle-class bourgeois wife who finds herself tempted by the charms of a number of men who pass through her charmed life of villas and polo matches. Even a man who gives her a lift when her car breaks down (Jean-Marc Bory) turns out to be related to the bored rich people, and part of what makes him interesting to her is the way he turns his back on those people. Ultimately, though, it feels a bit mean, being about a woman with little internal life who finds herself unfulfilled by affairs, and by the end isn’t even committed to her affair because you get the sense that nothing in her life would make her happy. And wonderful as Jeanne Moreau is to watch, and as well shot as the film is generally, it’s difficult to really care about her or about any of these characters in a film that lacks the lightness of the Nouvelle Vague filmmakers who were getting started around the same time.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Louis Malle; Writer Louise de Vilmorin (based on the novel Point de lendemain by Dominique Vivant); Cinematographer Henri Decaë; Starring Jeanne Moreau, Jean-Marc Bory, Alain Cuny, José Luis de Villalonga; Length 90 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Monday 17 May 2021.

Criterion Sunday 428: Blast of Silence (1961)

A pretty taut and bleak film noir which distils a lot of the generic conventions down to the kind of format in which they’d be parodied for generations to come: the hard-boiled voiceover, the heavy sense of existential angst, the bleak futility of all actions, the duplicity of men (and women), all exemplified by a heavy-set tough guy. In this film, the tough guy is played by the director and this is all firmly in the finest low-budget moulds, with plenty of location shooting in New York City, including a climactic pursuit filmed during a hurricane, which certainly helps with the sense of overcast threat. The whole film has a great sense of place, and a deft way with moving its hero through the plot in such a way as to maintain momentum even as we know, right from the start, that he is surely and certainly doomed.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Allen Baron; Cinematographer Merrill Brody; Starring Allen Baron, Molly McCarthy; Length 77 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Saturday 15 May 2021.

Criterion Sunday 417: This Sporting Life (1963)

The idea of watching one of these 60s British ‘kitchen sink dramas’ never really thrills me, but yet they have often been really compelling. Billy Liar showcases Tom Courtenay, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning does the same for Albert Finney, and here we have Richard Harris as Frank, a typically laddish rugby player (though, being from Yorkshire, he’s less posh than many who play the game in the south of England). His performance has that Brando swagger to it, as he punches his way through early scenes, told in flashback from a dentist’s chair as he gets his teeth extracted following a particularly vicious blow on the field. He recalls his life and ascent to rugby stardom (of a sort, a very local kind of stardom), which also lay bare his difficulty with women — part of which you suspect just comes down to the very poor role models he must have had, and certainly the rather leering sporting life he leads doesn’t help much — and a fundamental emptiness at his heart that the film’s end seems to suggest is just going to continue.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • Among a few of Anderson’s short films is Wakefield Express (1952), a modest half-hour film, a documentary in the old style (where scenes seem a little more staged for the camera) about a local Yorkshire newspaper putting together its pages. The first half largely puts across a sort of mythical vision of small-town England, with idealistic reporters getting out and about, picking up local gossip and interacting with all the main sources of news in their community (in the pub, flagging down the postie, chatting to the priest, a bus driver with a fondness for budgerigars). It’s the later sequence of the newspaper being put together which seems particularly alien now, all those typesetters and proofreaders, hot lead type and moulds being poured in an environment far more like a foundry. It’s a real insight into just what a lot of work it was to put out even a small regional newspaper.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Lindsay Anderson; Writer David Storey (based on his own novel); Cinematographer Denys Coop; Starring Richard Harris, Rachel Roberts, Alan Badel, Vanda Godsell, William Hartnell; Length 134 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Saturday 17 April 2021.

Criterion Sunday 411: Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980)

Not really sure where to start with this one, but of course it must be understood that it’s a TV series, not a movie; it’s not designed to be watched as a single unit, and indeed I watched it in five sittings over the past week and a half. That said, it feels like a full expression of director Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s vision, with the carnivalesque, the nasty and bitter, the rank misogyny of desperate men, and the endless forbearance of easily discarded women.

Its setting is late-20s Berlin, and though the rise of the Nazi Party is somewhere in the background and is rarely far from the viewer’s mind (not least because the entire enterprise is sort of a state of the diseased nation piece in allegorical miniature), it’s rarely explicitly mentioned in the film. The set design drips with brown sepia tones, mostly being set in a series of slummy apartments and a bar where recently-released criminal Franz Biberkopf (Günter Lamprecht) consorts with odious types like Gottfried John’s Reinhold and Frank Buchrieser’s Meck. For the first half he avers the criminal life, trying on a series of ‘respectable’ professions like selling shoelaces or hawking newspapers (albeit the Völkischer Beobachtung, the Nazi paper), until eventually he is ground down enough by fate to find himself pulled back into the work of the criminals he’s surrounded by — that much is hardly a surprise. He remains, however absurdly it may seem, attractive to women and a number of them (the actors all familiar from Fassbinder’s other films) move through his life, as we learn of the reason he was in prison in the first place, and the repeated insistence on his crime (the murder of an earlier girlfriend), makes it clear that he is not only no saint, but also that part of this world is a toxic misogyny that is normalised as part of the operation of society. That doesn’t exactly make it easy to watch, though, however much it may be clear this is Fassbinder’s point (and presumably of Döblin, the original author).

Visually, though, it’s quite something. Aside from the set design, there are many bravura pieces of filmmaking, long takes choreographing actors entering and exiting the frame almost balletically, or shots through cages and tracking around subterranean settings. It sweeps you up in this bitter, nasty world very easily and pulls you through what amounts to almost 15 hours of a descent into madness, made literal in the final epilogue episode, as all the incipient drama in Franz’s life become a whirling mess of hallucinatory drama soundtracked by fragments of music from across the canon (from Leonard Cohen and Kraftwerk to snatches of opera). It’s certainly an achievement of sorts, however little it feels like something I’d want to revisit in a hurry, and it’s worth the time.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Rainer Werner Fassbinder (based on the novel by Alfred Döblin); Cinematographer Xaver Schwarzenberger; Starring Günter Lamprecht, Gottfried John, Franz Buchrieser, Barbara Sukowa, Hanna Schygulla, Brigitte Mira; Length 902 minutes (in 14 episodes).

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Thursday 4 March [episodes 1-2], Friday 5 March [episodes 3-6] and Thursday 11 March [episodes 7-9], and at a friend’s home (YouTube streaming), Friday 12 March [episodes 10-12] and Sunday 14 March 2021 [episodes 13-14].

Vai (2019)

This film was released in this country last year, but I’ve only just arrived and needless to say it hasn’t been out many other places — not that I think it wouldn’t do well, just that I suppose an eight-part portmanteau about versions of the titular character, seen at various stages of life on various Pacific Islands, isn’t the most marketable. It’s great though, in my opinion, the best kind of thing you can do with the format.


As a progression from 2017’s Waru (which was by the same production company), this Polynesian portmanteau film makes a lot of sense. In a way it’s less narratively tight because it’s not following a single storyline through all its short films, but in many ways it’s more interesting, because there are themes reflected in each of the separate pieces which broaden the story. It still ties everything together neatly by having the same cinematographer work on all of them (Drew Sturge), who shoots almost all as a single unbroken take. That’s not to say there aren’t any specifics, because each of the sections has its own sense of space, and the title cards make it clear that these are set on different islands, so we can’t take all of the rituals and customs we see as part of a single continuity. That said, they do very much work together, and I imagine there are some common roots across the region in, say, the prominence of fishing as a rite of passage (the “Solomon Islands” section is set entirely in a canoe as our 16-year-old Vai desperately tries to get her bait on the line) or the importance of ancestors (seen most clearly in “Samoa”, where Fiona Collins’s Vai leads what appears to be a funerary procession and literally witnesses her ancestors join in from beside their graves, one of the more moving moments in the whole film).

So it tells a generational story, from the young kid in “Fiji” through to Hinetu Dell reflecting on mortality as the film closes, but it’s also based around themes of the sea and water, which makes sense given its pan-Pacific Islands perspective. If Waru was land-based (and land rights have by necessity been a key theme in Māori history), then Vai is about the power of the ocean. This means that the “NZ Born Samoan” section is probably the weakest thematically, but in a sense the political point it’s making about the academy and about the colonising influence of (white, European) priorities suggests that the drama of the character there is her very lack of connection to the sustenance of the ocean. Conversely in “Tonga”, though our young characters are surrounded by water, they have trouble sourcing any which they can safely drink, and its sustenance is threatened by industrial fishing in “Kuki ‘Airani”. All these stories around a similarly-named titular character become in a sense stories of the same person but as they might be shaped in each of these spaces, but for all this, there’s an underlying hopefulness that comes through clearly, the hope provided by continuity with one’s roots, and which I think marks an advance on Waru.

Vai film posterCREDITS
Directors/Writers Nicole Whippy, Sharon Whippy, ‘Ofa-Ki-Levuka Guttenbeil-Likiliki, Matasila Freshwater, Amberley Jo Aumua, Mīria George, Marina Alofagia McCartney, Dianna Fuemana and Becs Arahanga; Cinematographer Drew Sturge; Starring Ro Mereani Adi Tuimatanisiga, Ar-Ramadi Longopoa, Betsy Luitolo, Agnes Pele, Evotia-Rose Araiti, Fiona Collins, Maliaga Erick, Hinetu Dell; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Wednesday 23 December 2020.