Criterion Sunday 611: Being John Malkovich (1999)

I can’t really be considered part of the cult following of Charlie Kaufman. The tone of his work just doesn’t resonate with me so much, and there’s a lot here too, in what must surely be considered his foundational work, that leaves me a little cold (though it clearly works for a lot of people). That said, like plenty of classic comedies (albeit with an ironic 90s tone), this film throws so much at the screen that plenty of it does hit, and some of it really is quite affectingly off the wall. Specifically, the way that the film utilises Cameron Diaz is very much against type, and Catherine Keener too has never been more striking (usually those two actresses would be playing these roles the other way round, you feel), but together they create an emotional bond via the mediation of the titular figure that almost erases John Cusack’s puppeteer from the film entirely. By the final third, things have been put in motion that pull the film off in all kinds of weird directions, and the constant accrual of detail makes for a rather rich and perplexing series of thematic explosions that have a cinematic pyrotechnic value at the very least, though some even achieve emotional resonance. It remains a film I still admire more than fully love, but that’s on me; it’s a singular American achievement both coming out of the 1990s and drawing a line under it for a new decade.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Spike Jonze; Writer Charlie Kaufman; Cinematographer Lance Acord; Starring John Cusack, Catherine Keener, Cameron Diaz, John Malkovich, Orson Bean; Length 113 minutes.

Seen at the Penthouse, Wellington, Saturday 27 May 2000 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Sunday 29 January 2023).

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.

Turning Red (2022)

The full list of my favourite films of 2022 is here but I’m posting fuller reviews of my favourites. There aren’t too many animated films in there, because I don’t go to so many of those anymore, which it turns out is fine because Disney is barely making an effort to get them into cinemas, so most need to be watched via their streaming service. Hence this one, which I gave a shot to because it seemed to come from a more interesting perspective than fairytale princesses, and it is indeed very lovely.


It’s somewhat sad to me that Pixar films are so rarely nowadays shown in cinemas, because the attention to detail in the design and the animation that shows in films like this, or the previous year’s Soul, deserve the big screen but instead we have to subscribe to Disney+, which somehow lessens them. It also leads to factoids like it being the biggest money loser for a cinematic release (even though I’m fairly certain it was barely placed in any cinemas worldwide).

However, Turning Red still strikes me as one of the better recent crop of animated films, which both tells a discernable story from a specific perspective (a young girl from a Chinese background growing up in Toronto, voiced by Rosalie Chiang), but makes it both metaphorically rich and also cartoonishly cute at the same time. A lot of elements feel familiar from any coming of age/high school American movie, with its cliques of friends and confected schoolyard drama, but there’s a real strength to its focus on the setting, the details of the family temple such that even the supernatural plot twist (and I think the posters and marketing make it fairly clear that a large anthropomorphic red panda is involved) feels grounded in an authentic expression of familial ties and Chinese-Canadian culture.

Turning Red (2022) posterCREDITS
Director Domee Shi 石之予; Writers Julia Cho, Shi and Sarah Streicher; Cinematographers Mahyar Abousaeedi and Jonathan Pytko; Starring Rosalie Chiang, Sandra Oh 오미주, Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, Ava Morse, James Hong 吳漢章; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at home (Disney+ streaming), Wellington, 2 July 2022.

Licorice Pizza (2021)

Just kicking off some reviews of my films of 2022 (see my full list here) with a film that was released in January here in NZ but which made a lot of 2021 best-ofs, as well as getting quite a few brickbats thrown at it (I think for good reason). I know my mum hated it, for a start. But not me, I wanted it to keep going.


As a hangout movie with a bunch of likeable characters, a bunch of slightly odd ones, and a general vibe of positivity, I like this film a lot. Still, it’s up there with, say, Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some!! as a very dude-centric movie, or at least one that seems to be putting across that particular point of view, of a young man in the 1970s already starting to imagine his life as an adult. Not all the scenes are focused on him — and indeed Alana Haim probably ends up being the strongest and most interesting character in the film, and that’s certainly to the film’s credit — but you feel as if Cooper Hoffman (Philip Seymour’s son) as teen actor/grifter Gary Valentine is the perspective the film is written from, so perhaps some of what happens may be construed as a teenage fantasy. Because whatever its defenders say, it certainly is problematic in the way that the relationship plays out (specifically the age difference). It feels hard to defend, although you can see that his being still young enough to be childish in certain ways and her not quite old enough to be entirely unable to tap into the same feeling, is part of what the film is about. It just sits oddly that there is this convincing, palpable and undeniably at times sexual chemistry between the two of them. That aside (along with John Michael Higgin’s restaurateur character’s weird — pathetic and obviously offensive — racism, which doesn’t even really match much of the rest of the film’s tone), this film is still one my favourites I’ve seen this year. It conjures, in so seemingly simple a way, such a very specific vibe, of the early-70s, the hazy, grainy look of LA in the movies, the slightly grungy (and even verging on ugly) prettiness of its leads, and a picaresque narrative that is happy to take novelistic detours but never strays far from the feeling between Alana and Gary. For all its faults, which are ingrained deeply and may even be necessary to the film’s appeal, I loved it.

Licorice Pizza (2021) posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Paul Thomas Anderson; Cinematographers Michael Bauman and Anderson; Starring Cooper Hoffman, Alana Haim, Bradley Cooper, Sean Penn, Benny Safdie, Tom Waits; Length 133 minutes.
Seen at Penthouse, Wellington, Thursday 27 January 2022.

Criterion Sunday 606: Blithe Spirit (1945)

Unexpectedly — for a David Lean film — this story of spiritual mediums and the haunting presence of a dead ex-wife, is very silly. Still, it’s very much in writer Noël Coward’s line, I suppose, with a brittle comedy of manners amongst very middle-class people set at a pleasant home in the country, where Rex Harrison’s novelist Charles wants to research a crime plot involving a séance. This introduces us to Margaret Rutherford’s Madame Arcati, who very much steals the entire film with her flamboyant performance, and thus to the novelist’s recently-deceased ex Elvira (Kay Hammond) who trades barbs with him while Charles’s current wife Ruth (Constance Cummings) looks on, concerned for his mental health and upset that he seems to be rekindling his relationship with the glamorous dead woman. I’m not sure what deeper thing it says about the English, but it’s pleasant enough as a silly divertissement and has some lovely use of Technicolor.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • The extras include a 1992 episode of the long-running arts show The South Bank Show dedicated to Noël Coward. It strings together archive footage of Coward himself talking about his life as a way of bringing together his upbringing and artistic career, as well as his later years in Jamaica and a bit about his public and private life as a gay man in 20th century England. There is some good footage they’ve unearthed of him as a young man, and as a stage actor, as well as little clips from the making of some of his works, and some interviews with collaborators like John Gielgud and John Mills. It may not dig really deep but it gives you a good overview of the man.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director David Lean; Writers Lean, Ronald Neame and Anthony Havelock-Allen (based on the play by Noël Coward); Cinematographer Ronald Neame; Starring Rex Harrison, Constance Cummings, Kay Hammond, Margaret Rutherford; Length 96 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 8 January 2023.

Criterion Sunday 592: Design for Living (1933)

There’s not much of Noël Coward’s text here in Ben Hecht’s screenplay, but I think there’s a spirit that certainly seems to define something of the pre-Code Hollywood output. “No sex,” disclaims Gilda (pronounced with a soft ‘g’, and played by the ever delightful Miriam Hopkins) — and none of course is seen — but the film fairly drips with hints of it, in its story of a love triangle between Gilda and two men she meets on a train to Paris (painter Gary Cooper and playwright Fredrich March). After a bit of comical to-do, first silently and then in French at the start, they realise they’re all American and so we quickly move into the snappy repartee in which the two bohemian artist men woo and fall for Gilda, or rather perhaps it would be more accurate that she’s the one in love and just trying each one out. There’s also Edward Everett Horton in a supporting role, playing his usually prissy company man, whose idea of romance is far different from those of the bohemian boys, and all of them will by the end come to a realisation — one which is made without anyone seriously suffering. This is, after all, a comedy, both in many of the quips but also in the grand sense — the threesome that the film proposes as a design for living becomes a reality for Gilda, and there are few protagonists in this era of Hollywood cinema you more want things to work out for. Ernest Lubitsch is of course the director and has a strong hand in what works about the film, steering clear of anything too outrageous, but still leaving in hefty hints of licentiousness in the set-up. It all looks great and zings along, coasting on the fine performances and the evocation of an era — one that perhaps never quite existed this way, though the film certainly makes you want to believe it did.

(Written on 18 August 2020.)

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • Alongside the feature is presented “The Clerk”, a short film directed by Lubitsch extracted from the omnibus film If I Had a Million (1933). It’s an exceedingly high concept, running at just over two minutes. Lubitsch slowly follows the clerk of the title, played by Charles Laughton, from receiving an enormous check in the mail (this is part of the overarching structure of the original film), to travelling up the stairs and through the various offices to that of his boss, to whom he delivers a final gesture. The comedy isn’t so much in what happens, because you kinda know what’s coming, as in the extended set-up to the gag. It’s a simple one, but effective nonetheless.
  • There’s also a presentation by film historian Joseph McBride, who speaks quickly but compellingly about the production circumstances of the film, particularly the nature of its adaptation from Coward’s original. It’s an interesting piece and very good at helping to understand how Ben Hecht got involved, what remained of Coward’s original, how the three primary authorial voices on the film intersected, and what Coward thought of the whole thing.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Ernst Lubitsch; Writer Ben Hecht (based on the play by Noël Coward); Cinematographer Victor Milner; Starring Miriam Hopkins, Gary Cooper, Fredric March, Edward Everett Horton; Length 91 minutes.

Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Saturday 31 May 2014 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Monday 17 August 2020).

Criterion Sunday 570: Zazie dans le Métro (1960)

I do know that I’ve read Raymond Queneau’s 1959 novel — the man who the following year would go on to found Oulipo, a collective known for their playful experimentation with narrative form — and surely what Malle has done with this film adaptation is to translate Queneau’s inventiveness and wit, and his particular glee in coining new words (certainly something that the subtitles are keen to capture). Whether it will be to your taste is another matter, and I found the non-stop “zaniness” of the whole enterprise was a little grating to me. That’s less to do with the young girl at the heart of the film (Catherine Demongeon, who’s not nearly as abrasive as the poster image would have you believe) and more the way that Malle has put it all together, with frequent recourse to sped-up sequences playing at a manic knockabout pace, quick cuts that violate time and space and create a certain level of magic (albeit not the same kind of magic that Rivette would dabble with the following decade in Céline and Julie Go Boating), and an exhaustingly inexhaustible energy from all its leads. There’s also a underlying weirdness about the way men respond to Zazie which seems somehow inappropriate but also difficult to pin down (I suppose one could write it off as ‘of its time’, except that Malle was often of another time when it comes to young women in his films). Still, I can’t fault the energy on display, and while it may not be for me, it has its definite charms.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Louis Malle; Writers Malle and Jean-Paul Rappeneau (based on the novel by Raymond Queneau); Cinematographer Henri Raichi; Starring Catherine Demongeot, Philippe Noiret, Hubert Deschamps; Length 92 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 18 September 2022.

Criterion Sunday 566: Insignificance (1985)

I’m not honestly sure where the comedy is in this, except that it’s a fantasy scenario. Not unlike the more recent One Night in Miami…, it’s a theatrical production which imagines four historical figures gathering together in a single hotel room to talk over various ideas of interest to the playwright/screenwriter. None of these figures is identified by name but it’s clear who they’re supposed to represent (Marilyn, Joe DiMaggio, Einstein and Senator Joseph McCarthy), and over the course of the night various ideas are discussed. There’s some exploration of Marilyn’s inner life, of sex and hypocrisy, of the American state’s interest in foreign individuals like Einstein (even if it does see McCarthy acting more like an FBI agent), and some kind of fantasy nuclear apocalypse scenario in which Marilyn dances through the fire, the hotel room exploding like the end of Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point. It’s a lot to take in, and given its origin, it’s rather talky, but there’s plenty to like, plus watching Tony Curtis play McCarthy here makes me wonder how many other actors have starred in films with both the real person and someone doing an impersonation of them.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Nicolas Roeg; Writer Terry Johnson (based on his play); Cinematographer Peter Hannan; Starring Theresa Russell, Michael Emil, Tony Curtis, Gary Busey; Length 108 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 28 August 2022.

Criterion Sunday 565: The Great Dictator (1940)

This is the film in which Chaplin finally takes on that other notable world figure with the same moustache. And, suitably, he comes to him with comedy, and it is certainly always worthwhile ridiculing fascism. There are indeed some fine laughs in this film, well-constructed little asides that resonate with some darker undertow while also keeping the film fairly light on its feet — whether it’s Chaplin as a Jewish barber, dazed from being struck with a frying pan, doing a little dance up and down a street with boarded shops daubed with the stark words ‘JEW’, or Chaplin as the dictator Hynkel presiding over underlings demonstrating new technological advances that end up (somehow, comedically) killing them. As I’ve seen other critics note, the horror comes across effectively in these fleeting moments. Elsewhere it’s absurdity that he uses to undercut Adenoid Hynkel with his speeches (in some kind of mock-German) and his posturing, though the broadest pure comedy performance is reserved for Jack Oakie as the Mussolini stand-in, Benzino Napaloni, a true buffoon. It’s all approached with a deep earnestness, and I can appreciate that — the end has a touching quality to it that’s hokily undeniable — but the existential threat of fascism doesn’t ever really feel as if it’s captured, and the comedy never achieves more than just isolated moments of greatness. But that’s only my opinion; those who love it have purer hearts.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Charlie Chaplin; Cinematographers Karl Struss and Roland Totheroh; Starring Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard, Jack Oakie; Length 125 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 27 August 2022.

Criterion Sunday 563: Something Wild (1986)

I can only assume there’s an element of nostalgia to the way people view this film. It’s good fun, for sure, and perhaps setting it against much of what passed for mainstream entertainment in the 1980s is enough to rate it highly. I can respect that, but this feels like a messy film. It’s certainly a film about messy people living their lives, and that’s going to get messy, but just structurally there are plenty of longueurs where the film feels aimless, the way Charlie is trying to put his life together, or Audrey/Lulu is trying to figure out her identity. All I know is that Ray Liotta adds a necessary element of danger to a story that could easily get bogged down in new wave 80s quirkiness, like its angular soundtrack (which is nevertheless pretty solid). There’s a sense in which these characters feel like a throwback, and Melanie Griffith is somehow both iconic — a manic pixie dream girl avant la lettre — and deserves a better written character, but she knows exactly how to pitch herself against Jeff Daniels’s rather dull NYC corporate salary man. It’s a bold, colourful film brimming with ideas, not all of which work, but I’m glad Demme found an outlet for them.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jonathan Demme; Writer E. Max Frye; Cinematographer Tak Fujimoto; Starring Melanie Griffith, Jeff Daniels, Ray Liotta; Length 113 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Wednesday 24 August 2022.