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).

Dumplin’ (2018)

A quick bonus post for the week of Netflix films for another recent Netflix original, and a very sweet and charming one at that. This kind of thing — the comedic coming-of-age — goes with the pastel-hued romcom (often with a seasonal theme) and the stand-up comedy special as one of Netflix’s staples, and they do it well. I have no doubt that future weeks will see me turn to other streaming services or sources of stay-at-home film-watching content for obvious reasons, and perhaps I’ll be back with Netflix again soon enough.


There are obviously limits to auteurism, and most mainstream cinema traditions are fairly effective at proving those limits; sure, Anne Fletcher is the director credited with helming one of my least favourite films that I’ve seen (2015’s Hot Pursuit, though I don’t daresay there are a million worse ones and I only watched that particular film because it’s by a woman director), but in most such cases, it’s the screenplay where one should be focused. In this case, the source material and its adaptation by Kristin Hahn is almost entirely on point — in no small way abetted by another fine and subtle writer on the soundtrack, Dolly Parton — and Dumplin’ thus exudes a genuine warmth. There are a few clichés of the genre, but all of them are in service to a message — about body positivity and personal growth — that avoids preachiness and shaming, and doesn’t allow its characters the cop-outs of success by the usual metrics of the genre (winning a prize, fitting in with the cool girls, getting the boy… well, to a certain extent, anyway). Millie, for example (my favourite character, played by Maddie Baillio), is never depicted as hating herself, or having a secret dark side behind her omnipresent smile, or as being in any way less than perfectly confident in who she was (albeit in need of a bit of coaching for a beauty pageant), and that was great. The ‘drag queens teaching the outsider girls to be more femme’ was a bit more stock, but overall I think the film creates enough of a positive feeling, and the actors put enough into it, that even that I think wasn’t too jarring.

Dumplin' film posterCREDITS
Director Anne Fletcher; Writer Kristin Hahn (based on the novel by Julie Murphy); Cinematographer Elliot Davis; Starring Danielle Macdonald, Jennifer Aniston, Odeya Rush, Maddie Baillio; Length 110 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Tuesday 11 December 2018.

Julie & Julia (2009)

As long as we’re watching films on Netflix, there is a rich seam of upbeat, rosy-tinted content, whether banal seasonal movies, romcoms, stand-up specials or the singular work of American master Nora Ephron, whose last film was this curious tale of two women divided by time but united by a love of very fatty food.


I am decidedly not someone who is ever going to eat any of the food seen on-screen in this film; of all the major world cuisines, I sometimes feel as if classical French cooking is about the least likely to get in my belly (at this point in my life, now that I’m vegan). However, like growing up atheist in a nominally Christian country, you can’t help but avoid its influence over your everyday life, and what’s more everyday than eating? Julia Child is, of course, one of the key figures in popularising French cooking in the English-speaking world (well, in America; you could make a case that Elizabeth David was more influential in the UK), but it’s her presence on TV that probably holds the most appeal to an actor as expressively imitative as Meryl Streep. Truly her scenes — ably supported by an always-watchable Stanley Tucci — are the backbone of this film, with all due respect to Amy Adams and Chris Messina, who are also likeable but aren’t Meryl and Stanley. Of course, true life stories aside, Nora Ephron is the key creative woman in this enterprise, and her filmmaking can be divisive, but I have always broadly liked her films, and this one is no exception. It’s a soufflé, a warmly-coloured confection with glowing kitchens to match any in a Nancy Meyers movie, but it’s also a film with a generous warmth towards its subjects and which is every bit as incisive about upper-middle-class New York marriages as anything else you can find on Netflix right now, and probably more easily rewatchable too.

Julie & Julia film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Nora Ephron (based on the memoir by Julie Powell, and the autobiography My Life in France by Julia Child and Alex Prud’homme); Cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt; Starring Meryl Streep, Amy Adams, Stanley Tucci, Chris Messina; Length 123 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Tuesday 10 December 2019.

Челове́к с бульва́ра Капуци́нов Chelovek s bulvara Kaputsinov (A Man from the Boulevard des Capucines, 1987)

Usually I like for my Friday review to be of a new release, to honour something that’s also newly out in cinemas (which this week is fantastic new Georgian film And Then We Danced), but I haven’t seen any recent ex-Soviet films. Therefore to fit with perhaps the musical qualities (if nothing else) of this week’s new release, here’s a film I saw earlier this year for the first time, as part of Kino Klassika’s sidebar to the BFI Musicals seasons (which also gave us Cherry Town). It’s a “Red Western” about the birth of cinema, made by the Soviet Union but set in the Old West of the United States, satirically of course.


I certainly can’t fault this film for giving me something I haven’t seen before, which is to say a Soviet musical ‘Western’ set in an imagined California (a town called Santa Carolina) at the birth of cinema — hence the title, which references the location of the Lumière brothers’ first public screening of their films. In it, a man called Johnny First (Andrei Mironov) arrives in an unruly town and brings them the magic of cinema, which soon converts them from lawlessness into docile respectability, but the dream is undermined by the saloon owner and the local priest — which already suggests a certain Communist critique of Western values and power structures, while still respecting the power of the moving image. Women, too, have a strong role in this film directed by a woman, and get plenty of opportunities to show their greater engagement with the social good and willingness to fight and win. The racial elements — caricatures of both Mexican and Native American people — have perhaps aged rather less well, but just seeing such stereotypes in a Soviet context is immediately odd, and while certainly racist, seem to work in different ways from what has become familiar from the American films this one is mimicking. Nevertheless, the core of the film remains with the filmmaker character and his audience, making it a self-reflexive satirical film, enlivened by some amusing recreations of early films, overblown fight scenes, and a bit of musical japery.

A Man from the Boulevard des Capucines film posterCREDITS
Director Alla Surikova Алла Сурикова; Writer Eduard Akopov Эдуард Акопов; Cinematographer Grigori Belenky Григорий Беленький; Starring Andrei Mironov Андрей Миронов, Aleksandra Yakovleva Александра Яковлева, Nikolai Karachentsov Николай Караченцов; Length 99 minutes.
Seen at Ciné Lumière, London, Wednesday 22 January 2020.

Наследный принц Республики Naslednyy prints respubliki (Crown Prince of the Republic, 1934)

I’m still on holiday this week, but Friday in the UK sees the release of one of my favourite films of last year, the Georgian dance-based drama And Then We Danced, which I exhort everyone to go see. Therefore this week, I’m doing a week devoted to the Soviet Union and its former republics, starting with the silent era.


Of all the films I saw at the Il Cinema Ritrovato festival in 2018, I had perhaps the fewest expectations about this one, and it ended up being thoroughly delightful. It’s a very late silent film made in the USSR about a wayward father (Pyotr Kirillov) who shirks responsibility for raising his son — in a particularly excellent scene, he avers strongly that he’ll leave if his partner (Yevgeniya Pyryalova) goes through with having a baby, grabbing an empty suitcase for show and leaving loudly (“I WILL LEAVE”, “I AM LEAVING!”, “I have left…”) while she looks on impassively and with very little interest in him sticking around. And that’s reasonable, for he is no good, and ends up in a bachelor apartment with a bunch of architects designing the glorious Soviet communal future. Moving forward in time, when (for reasons too silly to elaborate) his baby is separated from its mother and brought to the bachelor pad, they all take turns raising it while searching for its mother. It has a snappy sense of style, some beautiful photography, and a lithe central performance in the character of Andrey (Apsolon), who is first seen along the wharves of Leningrad, like a young Gene Kelly about to launch into a tap routine (though sadly there’s no dancing). It largely maintains its comic pace, and even if one hopes perhaps for an ending wherein the woman raises her kid with the four bachelors (minus the deadbeat dad), at the very least it has a happy outcome.

Crown Prince of the Republic film posterCREDITS
Director Eduard Ioganson Эдуард Иогансон; Writers Boris Chirskov Борис Чирсков, Ioganson, Rafail Muzykant Рафаил Музыкант; Cinematographer Georgi Filatov Георгий Филатов; Starring Pyotr Kirillov Пётр Кириллов, Yevgeniya Pyryalova Евгения Пырялова, Andrei Apsolon Андрей Апсолон; Length 68 minutes.
Seen at Cinema Lumière (Sala Scorsese), Bologna, Friday 29 June 2018.

Hannah Gadsby: Nanette (2018)

Usually on Thursdays I try to post reviews of older films (perhaps newly-restored, but perhaps just vintage) and in my Australian women directors theme week, I fear I’m running low on content. I could have posted a few sentences I wrote about Proof a few years ago, but instead I will take us all back to another era entirely, back when literally everybody seemed to have an opinion about this stand-up show. I will take us back to 2018.


It’s fair to say that this hour-long comedy special on Netflix is getting a lot of buzz at the moment [NB July 2018 when I wrote this], and I think it’s for fairly good reasons. Visually, it’s not groundbreaking — it’s an hour-long stand-up comedy special, and it cleaves to those conventions fairly closely, i.e. a few behind-the-scenes shots as the performer takes the stage, and then just cutting between close-ups and wide views of the auditorium. No, I think it’s fairly clear that what’s most interesting here is the content, which is broadly comic but then takes a turn and starts to play with and draw attention to the form itself, as part of a critique of gendered violence and standards of behaviour that largely define cis white male attitudes towards (gay) sexuality. Hannah Gadsby is Australian, and a lot of her humour and her attitudes are located within that context, but the points she makes about the way that male arbiters of culture are treated (via a lengthy digression into her art history education, and particularly on modern art and Picasso) is very much on the money and can apply to plenty of other artists and filmmakers. By the end, hers is an angry voice — albeit still within the context of a stand-up comedian, so she makes a lot of play with the tension and release of that format — but it feels necessary, and that undoubtedly explains some of that buzz.

Hannah Gadsby: Nanette film posterCREDITS
Director Jon Olb and Madeleine Parry; Writer Hannah Gadsby; Cinematographers Steve Arnold and Thom Neal; Starring Hannah Gadsby; Length 69 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Sunday 8 July 2018.

Emma. (2020)

I’m on holiday in New Zealand this week. I’m not exactly sure what’s coming out in cinemas here (it’s not a priority right now) and I don’t want to be sad about what I’m missing out on in London (I think Portrait of a Lady on Fire is out, and if it is, go see it). However next weekend I am going to a wedding, so I am doing a themed week about relationship movies, not all of them about weddings or romances, but I’ll try to fit in a few. Luckily, just about half of all popular culture is about romantic entanglements, so there should be plenty of pick from. First up is this film, the sad yet comical story of a matchmaker.


One wonders sometimes at the need to remake certain films. Clueless (1995) is such an enduring classic that it feels odd to have this updated version, which for reasons best known to the makers they’ve relocated to England in the 19th century. However, I have to admit it’s been 25 years since that previous film, so perhaps the time is ripe, and there is a very picturesque quality to these locations (almost too pastel-coloured at times, though captured with gorgeous clarity by Kelly Reichardt’s regular cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt).

One of the sad losses due to the change of setting is in some of the diversity of the cast: there are no gay characters, and all the principals (in fact, all of everyone) remain very firmly white. However, I can’t pretend there isn’t some joy to be had in the dialogue and the characters, all the same. It’s reaching for a Love & Friendship vibe, and the actors are all very capable at finding the comic potential (not just the noted comedic actors like Miranda Hart and Bill Nighy, but Josh O’Connor as the insufferable Elton, and of course Anya Taylor-Joy as the almost alien-looking title character, whose self-regarding exceptionalism seems to exude from her throughout the film).

For all that the title emphasises a certain finality of execution with its full stop, I do still think the canonical version of this text has already been made. However, this is a pleasant divertissement with little digs at the absurdities of class distinctions, and at Emma’s haughty attitudes. Also, as with every Austen adaptation, the dance sequences are expertly choreographed.

Emma film posterCREDITS
Director Autumn de Wilde; Writer Eleanor Catton (based on the novel by Jane Austen); Cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt; Starring Anya Taylor-Joy, Johnny Flynn, Mia Goth, Bill Nighy, Josh O’Connor, Miranda Hart; Length 124 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Victoria, London, Monday 17 February 2019.

Criterion Sunday 293: Francesco, giullare di Dio (The Flowers of St Francis, 1950)

Watching a film about a 12th century religious figure makes you realise how thin the line is between devout religious belief and the kind of behaviour that would get you locked away nowadays, or at least given a hard stare on the bus (certainly development with regards to mental health doesn’t always demonstrate a clear line of improvement over the centuries). In any case, there are plenty of lessons we can all take from the simple and unaffected titular saint in this film (though as with Pasolini’s film about Matthew, he isn’t sainted in the original language title; indeed he is described as “God’s jester”). That Italian language title gives you a better flavour, though, of the vignettes, which largely revolve around a very cheerful if ascetic approach to the tribulations of life, many of which revolve around Brother Ginepro (Juniper), who more than once returns to Francesco/Francis’s order half-naked without his tunic after giving it away, and engages in acts of simple naive faith that shake even a local warlord, Nicolaio (Aldo Fabrizi, clad in a suit of armour that puts Bresson’s clanking knights to shame, and only emphasises this film’s latent comedy, reminding me as such of The Seventh Seal). Ginepro (Severino Pisacane) and the equally simple peasant Giovanni (Esposito Bonaventura) come across as the film’s unlikely heroes, although Francis himself (Nazario Gerardi) gets plenty of opportunity to teach his message of tolerance, such that what initially seems a little camp becomes by the end even something approaching spiritual — a feeling not hampered by some truly stunning black-and-white cinematography.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Roberto Rossellini; Writers Rossellini and Federico Fellini; Cinematographer Otello Martelli; Starring Nazario Gerardi, Severino Pisacane, Esposito Bonaventura, Aldo Fabrizi; Length 89 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 9 February 2020.

Criterion Sunday 292: Unfaithfully Yours (1948)

One of those classic Hollywood comedies where you’re not quite sure where the tone of the film is intended to be. It starts out filled with detail and incident, such that I had a hard time following what exactly was going on, before settling down to be a story of a jealous husband who must deal with his cheating wife. It swerves into a detective story and then there’s a stretch of screwball nonsense, but for me it’s held together by Rex Harrison as the husband, who somehow sells these wild mood swings. There’s a lovely repeated camera move zooming into his eye to introduce a number of fantasy sequences — which once again after the recent Criterion film Divorce Italian Style is about a husband imagining the death of his wife — all of which comes to fruition in the final bit of knockabout comedy. Preston Sturges was capable of great things, and this is a fine introduction to his style, though The Lady Eve remains my favourite of his works for being more distilled and compact somehow.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Preston Sturges; Cinematographer Victor Milner; Starring Rex Harrison, Linda Darnell, Rudy Vallée; Length 105 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Friday 10 January 2020.

The Breaker Upperers (2018)

The New Zealand film industry isn’t exactly prolific (it’s not a huge market after all) so they generally only put out a small handful of films each year, very few of which see any kind of international distribution. However, there’s a bit of a market for NZ comedies given the success of the Flight of the Conchords and the films of Taika Waititi, so some of these titles have made it as far as Netflix, like the film today. I admit I watched it at home late at night, and possible a little tipsy, which may be the best way to experience a comedy. I apologise if my review lacks some nuance as a result.


A broadly likeable New Zealand comedy about two women running a service to help couples break up. It focuses on their friendship, as one falls in love and develops a conscience about the effect she’s having on people. It’s fairly gentle as far as the humour goes, mining more of that quirky deadpan so beloved of NZ comedians, and the lead actors (also the co-directors and writers) are good company for the film’s concise running time.

The Breaker Upperers film posterCREDITS
Directors/Writers Madeleine Sami and Jackie van Beek; Cinematographer Ginny Loane; Starring Madeleine Sami, Jackie van Beek, James Rolleston, Celia Pacquola, Rima Te Wiata; Length 80 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Friday 15 February 2019.