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.

Fire Island (2022)

Not all the best new films are released to cinemas, especially not if it’s screening on Disney+ because they really don’t like to get their films onto big screens anymore, which is a real shame because there’s no reason why this comedic retelling of Pride and Prejudice shouldn’t be a wider hit (though to be fair it’s not soft-pedalling the gay comedy here like similar 90s films might have done).


I feel like we had that great era of classic texts being revamped — and indeed, there’s even a brief throwaway reference to Clueless (1995) at one point in this film — and why not, because at this point it’s those films I’m pegging any remakes to rather than the original texts. But if Emma. (2020) and its ilk have been trying to take the classics back to their period settings, Fire Island proves that there’s still a lot of value in finding contemporary resonances. Imagining the Bennet sisters as a ‘family’ of gay men on a final summer holiday to the titular destination of their hedonistic youth turns out to be a pretty great twist, and productive too. There’s all the finely-nuanced character work drawn from the original with a wealth of sly references to modern culture and socialising added in, but if this were all just a studied ‘spot the reference’ competition it would quickly become boring. Luckily star/writer Joel Kim Booster and his co-lead Bowen Yang really bring the pathos along with the jokes. Yang, for all his other memorable turns, is still best known to me for being a breakout star on recent seasons of Saturday Night Live but here, fabulously, his level of party-killer/boring dorky dude is set via the detail of his recapping memorable SNL skits for people who couldn’t really care less. And while the rest of the cast are largely unknown to me, I look forward to all of them guiding the future of comedy, because there’s scarcely a dull performance amongst the group.

Fire Island (2022)CREDITS
Director Andrew Ahn; Writer Joel Kim Booster 조엘 킴 부스터; Cinematographer Felipe Vara de Rey; Starring Joel Kim Booster, Bowen Yang 楊伯文, Conrad Ricamora, James Scully, Margaret Cho 조모란, Matt Rogers; Length 105 minutes.
Seen at home (Disney+ streaming), Wellington, Friday 1 July 2021.

Criterion Sunday 552: Broadcast News (1987)

This news satire, in which Holly Hunter’s TV news producer Jane opens the film arguing desperately against the erosion of news journalistic standards in chasing entertainment value and glossy smarmy hosts, already tells a story that is nostalgic, depicting a lost era when there still seemed to be some possibility to tell true stories of the world. That said, in pegging this change to Jane’s lovelife — the way she is pulled between two men, the earnest, intelligent yet abrasive journalist Aaron (played by Albert Brooks) and the unctuous, slightly vapid yet still sincere Tom (William Hurt) — is extremely likeable. As you’d expect from a veteran of television like writer/director James L. Brooks, this is both pretty incisive stuff that understands its milieu well, but also written with an eye to the funny. From an era when a lot of the most lauded films are pretty unwatchable now (and certainly Joan Cusack’s fashion choices here haven’t aged brilliantly), this makes a case for being one of the decade’s best and most watchable films and even if it’s still a product of its times, there’s a real glow from watching Holly Hunter being competent and professional.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer James L. Brooks; Cinematographer Michael Ballhaus; Starring Holly Hunter, William Hurt, Albert Brooks, Joan Cusack; Length 132 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 10 July 2022.

Global Cinema 36: China – Embrace Again (2021)

Well, I’ve reached the largest country in the world (by population), and it’s hardly a slouch cinematically either. The idea of trying distill a country’s history and geography into a paragraph is ridiculous enough under usual circumstances, but China merits more than most in this respect so this will be very selective. For the film choice, though — eschewing famous names from over a century of cinematic artistry — I’ve gone with a popular film from late last year (released here in January) which deals with perhaps the most significant global event of this decade, and one inextricably linked with China.


Flag - ChinaPeople’s Republic of China (中华人民共和国 Zhōnghuá Rénmín Gònghéguó)
population 1,412,600,000 | capital Beijing (北京市) (19.2m) | largest cities Shanghai (24.3m), Beijing, Guangzhou (13.9m), Shenzhen (13.4m), Tianjin (11.8m) | area 9,596,961 km2 | religion none/folk (75%), Buddhism (18%), Christianity (5%) | official language Standard Chinese aka Mandarin (现代标准汉语) | major ethnicity Han Chinese (91%) | currency Renminbi (元) [RMB] | internet .cn

Aside from being the world’s most populous country, it also shares the second most land borders (14, after Russia), has five time zones (and a huge variation in climate and topography) and in Shanghai has the largest city in the world (though Tokyo and Delhi come out larger when you include wider metropolitan areas); it’s also one the world’s earliest civilisations so there’s plenty of history to cover too. The name used in the west can be traced back to Persian and ultimately a Sanskrit word used in ancient India and appears in English by the 16th century; the shortened Chinese word Zhongguo means “central state”. Archaeological evidence for hominids stretched back 2.25 million years, with early Homo erectus “Peking Man” dating to ~700,000 years ago. Writing began around the seventh millennium BCE and the earliest historical dynasty (the Xia) to around 2100 BCE, though the Shang (following in the 17th century) are the first attested in contemporary records. The imperial system began with the Qin in 221 BCE followed by the Han, whose dominance is reflected in the ethnic name for native Chinese. The territory was expanded in this period, but further fragmentation occurred after their fall, reunited somewhat by the Sui in the 6th century, followed by a cultural renaissance under the Tang and Song dynasties. Military weakness was exploited by the Mongol empire, who established the Yuan dynasty, overthrown by the Ming in the 14th century, another golden age of culture and economy. The final dynasty was the Manchu-led (northern Chinese) Qing, which fell to the Xinhai Revolution of 1911-12 that established the Republic of China under Sun Yat-sen of the Kuomintang (KMT), and was stabilised somewhat by Chiang Kai-shek. The Communist People’s Liberation Army fought a Civil War in the 1920s and again in the 1940s, gaining power in 1949 under Mao Zedong and pushing the KMT to Taiwan. Social reform programmes like The Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution created upheaval and internal strife, blamed on the Maoist Gang of Four. The country was stabilised again under Deng Xiaoping, moving the country towards a mixed economy with an increasingly open market. The current one-party state has a President (with no term limit) elected by the National People’s Congress.

Introduced to the country in 1896, the first native cinematic production was in 1905, at a time when the industry was centred in Shanghai. This industry was severely curtailed by the Japanese invasion in 1937, with many filmmakers moving to Hong Kong and Chungking amongst other places. A new golden age was inaugurated by films like Spring in a Small Town (1948), though the Cultural Revolution severely restricted the industry and it wasn’t until the 1980s that a new generation of filmmakers emerged, notably the “Fifth Generation” of Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou, who were succeeded in the 1990s by filmmakers working outside the mainstream, though there’s still a large popular state-sanctioned cinema including films like Mermaid (2016).


穿过寒冬拥抱你 Chuanguo Handong Yongbao Nillende (Embrace Again, 2021)

It’s interesting that there hasn’t really been any kind of big budget film from Hollywood that reckons with the current pandemic. I don’t doubt it will happen in time, but so far we’ve just been told audiences wouldn’t want to see that. Well, here’s one from China, set almost exactly two years ago in Wuhan, and it’s a multi-strand narrative of various people on the frontlines, whether doctors and nurses or delivery drivers and restaurant owners, though let’s be clear: this stops some way short of any kind of documentary purpose. It’s sweetly sentimental to a fault, but it’s a film that’s as much about some of the strange kinships and communities that developed out of the pandemic and lockdown, as people who wouldn’t ordinarily meet come into contact. One the leads is Jia Ling, the director/star of last year’s big hit Hi, Mom, and she again radiates warmth, as indeed do many of the actors, having to convey a lot even while wearing face masks for half of the film (as indeed they should). Still, I’ve never before been so attentive as to when characters in a film aren’t wearing their masks or are handling or fitting them incorrectly, so I’m surprised some of them make it through. Along the way there is love and, of course, there is loss — an extended stretch of the movie towards the end is basically just an old-fashioned tearjerker, though at least not everyone you think might die actually dies (and that’s all I’ll say of that) — but mostly this is a film about the resilience of a city (and by extension a country, but don’t tell me Hollywood doesn’t also do propaganda).

Chuanguo Handong Yongbao Nillende (Embrace Again, 2021)CREDITS
Director Xiaolu Xue 薛晓路; Writers Xue, Liu Qing 柳青, Zhang Bolei 张铂雷, Hao Zhe 郝哲 and Yue Wang 王越; Starring Huang Bo 黄渤, Jia Ling 贾玲, Zhu Yilong 朱一龙, Xu Fan 徐帆; Length 125 minutes.

Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Saturday 8 January 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 543: Modern Times (1936)

I am, if I’m being realistic, more than halfway through my life, which for someone who watches as many films as I do, is late to be getting into Charlie Chaplin. Of his features, I’ve only seen A Countess from Hong Kong (1967), which is probably not considered the classic way to start (his last film, although it’s certainly interesting for its era). But Modern Times holds up: a lot of its critiques of workplace relations and management pressure hardly seem to have aged at all, even if some of the technology it imagines is rather fanciful. The comedy is focused mostly into those sequences with the machines — Chaplin’s Tramp on the assembly line, getting sucked into the cogs, and doing a variety of pratfalls around the factory. However, it does feel far more strongly as if Chaplin is interested in social commentary, as well as finding an emotional thread with his relationship with the similarly marginalised Paulette Goddard’s “Gamin” character (she’s also Chaplin’s real-life wife of the time, and though 20 years younger than him is at least in her 20s for a change, even if she’s playing a juvenile delinquent). Overall it has a clarity to its comedic setups that focuses attention on the mistreatment of labour and the fallout of the Depression on people in America, with an undercurrent of poverty and desperation that I think sharpens some of the satire. I think it will take me a little while to deepen my appreciation of Chaplin, though, and so I look forward to seeing more of his classics as my Criterion project goes on.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Charlie Chaplin; Cinematographers Ira H. Morgan and Roland Totheroh; Starring Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard; Length 87 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 12 June 2022.

Criterion Sunday 540: The Darjeeling Limited (2007)

I certainly was not expecting much in revisiting this film by Wes Anderson, not that I have bitter memories of disliking it, but just that it never really stuck out from his other films — though they are very much all of a piece — just that I assumed it would not have aged well. Indeed, as much as you expect something made by a white American guy (a bunch of them indeed) that’s largely set in India to be a little bit tone-deaf — and certainly Adrien Brody hasn’t exactly avoided controversy in his time for, shall we say, culturally inappropriateness — it turns out that this largely train-set movie is actually quite delightful. I’m not sure how it plays to actual Indians, though it doesn’t seem to me that it’s making fun of or trying to ape the culture, so much as it being a different palette for Wes Anderson to utilise in his usual fastidious set designs. So yes there’s a bit of exoticism to it, but under it all, it’s a story of three siblings who have been a bit bruised by their upbringing struggling to move forward. So if this all recalls familiar shades of The Royal Tenenbaums (complete with a small role for Anjelica Huston), that’s not entirely a bad thing.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • The main bonus is the short film Hotel Chevalier, made (and presented here) as essentially a 13-minute prologue to the feature, preceding its action in time. It’s set at the titular hotel in Paris when Jack’s ex (Natalie Portman) comes to visit briefly. It does a good job of setting up these characters within the constraints of the setting with a bit of withering wit as well.
  • There is one deleted scene and two alternate takes of scenes, just a small insight into the creative journey. One wonders that there was not a lot more left on the cutting room floor (but perhaps most of that is just shots that needed more exact framing).
  • There’s a cute little American Express ad that was clearly made around the same time, and somehow manages to express even more of Anderson’s peculiar aesthetic, except with him as the star rather than Owen Wilson.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Wes Anderson; Writers Anderson, Roman Coppola and Jason Schwartzman; Cinematographer Robert Yeoman; Starring Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, Jason Schwartzman; Length 91 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 29 May 2021 (and earlier at some point at home, London, late-2000s).