Criterion Sunday 613: Sommarlek (Summer Interlude, 1951)

One of Bergman’s earlier films, he’s finding his way to some of his most enduring themes here, via the story of a traumatic past haunting the present for a ballerina, Marie (Maj-Britt Nilsson). But it’s not just trauma: there are truly happy moments that seem to mock her from the past, as she labours in misery with a rather priggish and accusatory boyfriend (Alf Kjellin). Of course, her first love Hendrik (Birger Malmsten) had his faults too, but the past scenes, teenage years by a lake, lit brightly, with an effervescence to them, feel like a different film (despite the actors being the same). They pick wild strawberries, they go for a swim, there’s a joy that’s clearly lacking in the present day scenes. But light and darkness are intermingled, and the memories of the past can bring respite to us, though as ever in Bergman the solaces of religion are of variable quality.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Ingmar Bergman; Writers Bergman and Herbert Grevenius (based on a story by Bergman); Cinematographer Gunnar Fischer; Starring Maj-Britt Nilsson, Birger Malmsten, Alf Kjellin; Length 96 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Tuesday 17 January 2023.

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 609: ¡Alambrista! (aka The Ilegal, 1977)

For all that this is from a different era of filmmaking — when earnest, socially engaged white men made films about the immigrant and Black experience (the director of this film was also writer and cinematographer for the excellent 1964 Nothing But a Man) — this also feels like a prescient film, and a contemporary one too. It’s about a young Mexican man who goes to America to get work to help feed his family, and there becomes entangled with forces intent on preventing him from working, cops and traffickers (including a memorable small role for Ned Beatty) and such. It’s a film that without making any grand speeches, eloquently lays bare the way that migrant workers (who may have illegally entered but are so clearly necessary for many industries) are treated and the lack of rights afforded to them. At some point, these kinds of stories became less trendy to depict, perhaps, and nowadays the creative talent behind the cameras would likely have the personal experiences of those on screen, but this is a fantastic bit of engaged 1970s filmmaking that deserves a wider audience. It must surely be one of the more overlooked standalone Criterion titles.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Robert M. Young; Cinematographer Tom Hurwitz and Young; Starring Domingo Ambriz, Trinidad Silva, Linda Gillen, Ned Beatty; Length 96 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 21 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.

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 605: This Happy Breed (1944)

There is a certain strain of English cinema (and it does seem very precisely English, maybe even Home Counties England) of which Noel Coward was an expert purveyor. He was from a fairly dowdy background but he perfected a certain kind of genteel middle-classness that is exemplified of course in Brief Encounter but seems to inform all his films that I’ve seen, not least this one set in the very plain, working class London suburb of Clapham (not that you’d get much of that these days in Clapham). I am, however, quite a sucker for London stories, so despite my reservations, my attention was held throughout this generational tale.

Coward’s perspective can come across as slightly condescending at times, and I’m not quite sure where he sat politically but it all seems a bit small-c conservative, given the attitudes towards the socialist partner of one of the family’s daughters. It was also made during wartime so it naturally has a bit of that patriotic perspective to it. Still, there’s an everyday feeling to it, of several members of a family over the interwar period, living their lives and getting on with things while the big events of the day are telegraphed via newspaper headlines and conversations over tea. In short, yes, it’s very English, very much from a certain perspective, but I still found myself very much liking it.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director David Lean; Writers Lean, Anthony Havelock-Allen and Ronald Neame (based on the play by Noël Coward); Cinematographer Ronald Neame; Starring Robert Newton, Celia Johnson, Kay Walsh, John Mills, Stanley Holloway, Eileen Erskine; Length 111 minutes.

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

Criterion Sunday 604: In Which We Serve (1942)

A solidly crafted flag-waving exercise in wartime uplift, about the way a diverse (well, diverse from a class-based background at least, if literally nothing else) group of fighting men on a navy ship come together through adversity. The film is largely told in flashback as the HMS Torrin lies crippled and sinking after the Battle of Crete, as some of the surviving crew reflect on how they came to be there. Turns out this is a fairly effective narrative strategy, allowing both for the setbacks of war (the sinking of the ship, the loss of life) to intertwine with the duty and service that motivate these men, most of whom are lifelong Royal Navy crewmembers, and the wives and children that wait for them back in England — and indeed, given the fairly limited screen time, it’s the women who give some of the film’s best performances. Writer and co-director Noël Coward himself plays the ship’s captain, which makes sense given his own leading involvement in getting the film made, and he acquits himself well enough, in the soulful vein of a by-the-book type who nevertheless has great admiration for all his crewmembers (except for a baby-cheeked Richard Attenborough, who abandons his post in one memorable vignette), but it’s the emotional story between John Mills and Bernard Miles which is most satisfying. All in all, this is well-made and probably the film for its time, but it’s still pretty boilerplate as a wartime fighting film.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors Noël Coward and David Lean; Writer Coward; Cinematographer Ronald Neame; Starring Noël Coward, John Mills, Bernard Miles, Celia Johnson, Kay Walsh, Joyce Carey; Length 114 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 1 January 2023.

Criterion Sunday 603: “David Lean Directs Noël Coward”

This box set brings together four collaborations between the director David Lean and the writer (and occasional actor) Noël Coward, starting with Lean’s debut — which is also Coward’s only credited film as a director — the wartime propaganda movie In Which We Serve (1942). Another wartime story from a couple of years later is This Happy Breed (1944), taking us into the London suburbs but also into Technicolor. The following year’s Blithe Spirit takes a swerve in terms of content and tone into something rather more theatrical, but it’s in the magnificent Brief Encounter (1945) — already released on the Criterion Collection but now included here — where all of that comes together, back in black-and-white again, but combining both the unspoken difficulty of wartime life with the yearning of unfulfilled romance and a certain theatricality.

Criterion Sunday 602: The War Room (1993)

Every successive behind-the-scenes politics documentary I’ve seen, I’m prompted to new questions about ‘what did the filmmakers get access to and what did they not?’ Partially that’s just an increasing awareness of the media landscape and the possibility of spin that every new generation has about politics, but I think you can start to see things shift with this documentary. Not in the sense that they are baring all — there is plenty of very interesting stuff here — but in the sense that they are very aware of how stories are made and how much access to give to camera crews. Given that it was never going to be released at the time of the actual election, they were probably more comfortable letting them into the so-called ‘war room’ but, even so, certain key figures don’t appear (like the campaign manager, or indeed very much of one William Jefferson Clinton). In a sense that’s what our leading figures (James Carville and George Stephanopoulos) were there for, to react to stories and spin them mercilessly in order to favour Governor Clinton, and that’s what a lot of the discussion is about. I’m not sure there was ever a ‘golden’ period of guileless political campaigning, but if there ever were it certainly wasn’t 1992. So there’s a fascination to watching this all unfold, but even with that wariness about what might not be being shown, you still get a lot of those key conversations around the major events, along with hints of behind-the-scenes dramas like that between Carville and Bush’s deputy campaign manager (whom he married the following year), or even with the other candidates, whether in the primaries or in the main election (Ross Perot, anyone?). It all makes for an interesting insight into modern politicking, which even now feels a bit quaint.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker; Cinematographers Pennebaker and Nick Doob; Length 96 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Friday 30 December 2022 (and earlier on VHS in the university library, Wellington, May 1998).

Criterion Sunday 601: Неотправленное письмо Neotpravlennoye pismo (Letter Never Sent, 1960)

Of Soviet directors working in the 1960s, you hear plenty about Andrei Tarkovsky (and for good reason), but even compared to him there are not many directors that have the kind of visual bravado that Mikhail Kalatozov deployed in his features (like The Cranes Are Flying of a few years earlier). Letter Never Sent is fairly laconic in terms of its dialogue — it follows three geologists and their guide Konstantin (Innokenty Smoktunovsky) as they search for diamonds in a far-flung stretch of Siberia — but you really get the sense of this environment, with elemental forces (fire, earth, snow) competing with one another for primacy over the image. The actual quest itself hardly seems as important as the relationship between these four humans and the impossibly deserted land they find themselves in, and there’s even a bit of critique of the Soviet system, as their work soon gets derailed and they have trouble getting in touch with headquarters. Still, it’s nail-biting thriller territory for the most part, and Kalatozov’s camera gets the most out of its struggle-against-nature narrative.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • This is one of the more bare bones releases Criterion has ever done, with no additional features aside from a booklet essay. Would that there were more resources detailing the making of this film though, because it must have made for a fascinating story.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Mikhail Kalatozov მიხეილ კალატოზიშვილი; Writers Grigory Koltunov Григорий Колтунов, Valery Osipov Валерий Осипов and Viktor Rozov Виктор Розов; Cinematographer Sergey Urusevksy Серге́й Урусевский; Starring Innokenty Smoktunovsky Иннокентий Смоктуновский, Tatiana Samoilova Татья́на Само́йлова, Vasily Livanov Василий Ливанов, Yevgeni Urbansky Евгений Урбанский; Length 96 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Thursday 29 December 2022.