Criterion Sunday 154: The Horse’s Mouth (1958)

Having never heard of it before it popped up on our Criterion watching project, this is a perfectly likeable colour film about a colourful character who paints colourful works of art and injects a bit of épater into those bourgeois lives he drifts through (well, more upper-class really), but I’m not sure what deeper meaning it really captures. The one the filmmakers presumably intend — that art is valuable, damn everything — comes through clearly though, and Alec Guinness in the lead as dishevelled painter Gulley Jimson is as ever reliable, not unlike the Meryl Streep of his day, all accents and imposture in the service of wit and well-crafted journeyman material. It has its diversions, and is pleasing on the eye.

Criterion Extras: There’s a short interview with Ronald Neame from before he died (around when the DVD was released, presumably), who is a genial host and tells of the film’s production. There’s also a trailer. However, the standout extra is a short film which was shown with the feature at its original New York run in the late-1950s, a short film by D.A. Pennebaker called Daybreak Express. For all its five minutes running time, it is far the superior work. It’s a jaunting work of jazzy cinematic propulsion, like a city symphony made my Soviet constructivists with a penchant for Duke Ellington. Rich and resonant colours, bold modern architecture, a train ride from the city to suburbs both exceeding that experience but also encapsulating it.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Ronald Neame | Writer Alec Guinness (based on the novel by Joyce Cary) | Cinematographer Arthur Ibbetson | Starring Alec Guinness, Kay Walsh | Length 97 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 23 April 2017

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Criterion Sunday 153: Général Idi Amin Dada: Autoportrait (General Idi Amin Dada, 1974)

An odd documentary, with a double focus. On the one hand this is the Ugandan dictator’s film, as he gives directions to the camera and stages scenes, rambles on about his political philosophy and shows all the strings to his bow — political speechmaker, military commander (in a particularly underwhelming run-through of a prospective attack on Israel), tour guide to the African wildlife, and even accordion player. The other side of the film is Barbet Schroeder’s inserts, a pre-credits sequence of mass killings, a mention during a particular grumpy meeting that Amin holds with the foreign ministry that the minister was found dead a few weeks later, questions about his views on Hitler after producing a letter sent to the IOC following Munich. It’s chilling in its way, this genial fool and the damage and death he caused, but always relevant.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Barbet Schroeder | Cinematographer Néstor Almendros | Length 90 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 16 April 2017

Criterion Sunday 152: George Washington (2000)

I really like this spare, fugue-like elegy for the dispossessed in all its overtly Malickian sensibilities. Perhaps seeing it at a film festival when it was released, before a lot of other filmmakers had jumped on that particular ride (and the one who made this had very much jumped off), was more surprising but there’s still beauty and warmth, in those magic light colours of a place where the South meets the rust belt, and the feeling in the non-professional actors. A really vivid take on the coming of age that does most of its thematic work in little vignettes of community life and almost throwaway dialogue, preferring stretches of contemplative reflection of quiet desuetude.

Criterion Extras: Besides a trailer, there’s also quite a few interesting extras, most notably two student short films by Green, Pleasant Grove (1997) and Physical Pinball (1998). Both share quite a few similarities with George Washington, which lifts the first’s story of a boy with a stray dog who can’t take it home as a little detail for George. While this first one is a sweet slow little film that sets up some ideas that would be progressed by the feature, the second feels more fully rounded. It’s about a father-daughter relationship (both actors would return for the feature), and has a nice sense of how out of his depth the father is after his wife has passed.

Along with these is A Day with the Boys (1969), a short by actor Clu Gulager, a wordless film with a hazy nostalgic tone, all slo-mo running set to plaintive trumpet (very much of its era), jazzed up with all kinds of visual touches. It all turns a bit Lord of the Flies, as I suppose many days with the boys will, but it’s a diverting mood piece.

Aside from this there’s a Charlie Rose interview with a (very young!) David Gordon Green, which covers a few of his influences, not to mention some insights about how he cast and shot the film, though it is quite short. A deleted scene of a town hall meeting imparts a sense of some of Green’s verité reference points, as the camera does quick zooms and pans in the style of those fly-on-the-wall documentaries from the 60s. Finally, there’s a short piece interviewing its child stars a year after release in 2001, as they expound on how it was to make the film, and some of their aspirations.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer David Gordon Green | Cinematographer Tim Orr | Starring Candace Evanofski, Donald Holden | Length 89 minutes || Seen at Te Papa, Wellington, Friday 20 July 2001 (and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 7 May 2017)

Criterion Sunday 151: Traffic (2000)

Well, first up, I can’t really deny Soderbergh is a skillful director. He has a way with cinematic narrative that puts him up there with that other sibilant Steven of Hollywood preeminence. Despite a two-and-a-half-hour running time, Traffic (like the British television mini-series it’s based on) is never boring; it’s well-paced, tightly structured and it has plenty of fine performances (not least from Soderbergh regulars like Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman as a pair of cops investigating a mid-level drug dealer, Miguel Ferrer — also excellent). It’s just, at a fundamental level, I’m not sure at some of the hand-wringing arguments being made here about drugs, not least the racialised aspect of it. I mean quite aside from the Mexicans (they’re all corrupt, all of them), there’s the weirdly morally judgmental descent of Michael Douglas’s daughter (played by Erika Christensen) — he’s a high-flying government drugs czar, she’s privately-educated (and hangs out with Topher Grace of all people), her nadir apparently being sleeping with a black drug dealer. I mean maybe I’m reading too much into it, though I found the attitude towards the teenagers generally a little condescending. Also, Soderbergh was deep into his own addiction to coloured lens filters (Cincinatti is BLUE, Mexico is YELLOW, and at least DC and LA are sort of normal), which gets trying too. Anyway, it’s enjoyable enough, but I wouldn’t call it his masterpiece.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Steven Soderbergh | Writer Stephen Gaghan (based on the television miniseries Traffik by Simon Moore) | Cinematographer Steven Soderbergh [as “Peter Andrews”] | Starring Benicio del Toro, Michael Douglas, Don Cheadle, Catherine Zeta-Jones | Length 147 minutes || Seen at Manners Mall Cinema, Wellington, Sunday 25 March 2001 (and again on Blu-ray at home, London, Thursday 13 July 2017)

Criterion Sunday 150: Bob le flambeur (1956)

There’s style here undoubtedly: its tale of a down-on-his-luck gambler looking for one last big score by staging a heist has been cribbed for so many subsequent films that it can’t help but feeling like cliché. The plot’s not all that later filmmakers (not least early Godard and all his fanboy imitators) would take — the use of music, the laid-back style, the pop culture references (all those film posters; Breathless really did owe a lot to Melville). The problem is — and I concede this may just be because I’ve seen all its imitators first — I wasn’t grabbed by it. It looks great but these guys all feel like empty archetypes, and the young woman’s ​characterisation appears to be undressing in various men’s apartments.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jean-Pierre Melville | Cinematographer Henri Decaë | Starring Roger Duchesne, Isabelle Corey | Length 102 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 26 March 2017

Criterion Sunday 149: Giulietta degli spiriti (Juliet of the Spirits, 1965)

An attractive film to look at admittedly, made with an all-too-self-consciously flamboyant camera in some sequences, this still manages to leave me cold. It may be Fellini’s masterpiece, though, if we consider him a stylist of characters in hectic motion, a carnival of oddity, feeling, spirits, nostalgia and feminine charms. The plot can’t really be summed up easily — it’s about Giulietta Masina’s eponymous title character and her feelings, to a certain extent about her husband’s fidelity, though even that seems slightly beside the point — and instead we get 135 or so minutes of great sets, costumes, hair, camerawork, and an almost babble of manic expressionist madness.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Federico Fellini | Writers Federico Fellini, Tullio Pinelli, Ennio Flaiano and Brunello Rondi | Cinematographer Gianni Di Venanzo | Starring Giulietta Masina | Length 137 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Wednesday 12 April 2017

Criterion Sunday 148: Ballada o soldate (Ballad of a Soldier, 1959)

It seems to me that f you’re going to do an “anti-war” film, this is the best kind of template. Without any speechifying or overt statements, Ballad of a Soldier makes its position clear about how wrenching and difficult war can be, by the simple expedient of its unadorned story. A simple country lad (Vladimir Ivashov), thrust into a pan-European conflict, travels back home just to hug his mother for one last time. It’s sweet without being sentimental, and affecting without being bleak or angry.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Grigori Chukhrai | Writers Valentin Yezhov and Grigori Chukhrai | Cinematographers Vladimir Nikolayev and Era Savelyeva | Starring Vladimir Ivashov, Zhanna Prokhorenko | Length 88 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday

Criterion Sunday 147: Huayang Nianhua (In the Mood for Love, 2000)

There’s a lot of stuff you can latch onto in this film, but yet it feels so difficult to pin down or talk about because it is so fraught. It’s about people being evasive, who don’t want to be seen to be doing the wrong thing and who, at a certain level, live their lives within the frame the narrative creates for them and the camera allows them — I’m not sure if they can exist beyond these 90-something minutes and I’m not sure if I want them to. Anyway I’m being a bit vague because I can’t really pin down how I feel but when I first saw this 16 years ago I wasn’t married, and who knows what it’ll be like in another 16, but I’m fairly sure I’ll still love it, and maybe I’ll even have a deeper sense of it. In any case, Wong is clearly infatuated with Godard but luckily that doesn’t determine the course of the film: this is very much its own thing. Doomed romance, that yearning soundtrack, Maggie Cheung’s high-necked cheongsam dresses, the rain, the endless food being dished up, the smoke, the empty corridors. All of it.

Criterion Extras: There’s a short film called Huayang de Nianhua made up of archival clips, beguiling images of old (and to me, unknown) Chinese actresses, like a hint at what Wong was thinking about while making his feature.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Wong Kar-wai | Cinematographers Christopher Doyle and Mark Lee Ping-Bin | Starring Maggie Cheung, Tony Leung | Length 98 minutes || Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Tuesday 24 July 2001 (and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 5 March 2017)

Criterion Sunday 146: Letyat zhuravli (The Cranes Are Flying, 1957)

It’s worrying to recall that I’ve put off seeing this film for so long (a couple of decades since I studied film and first learned about it) because I just thought it looked a bit dull and earnest, in a typically propagandistic Soviet sort of way. Anyone who’s seen it will know this is totally the wrong idea to take of such a glorious work of almost pure cinema. Indeed, it far more presages the French New Wave in its lyrical flights of fancy, its crisp editing and remarkable monochrome cinematography. It’s a love story set against the backdrop of World War II — familiar enough — but it fights shy of any too obvious symbolism, and though you can somewhat predict how things will go, it also confounds some of those expectations. It really is a masterpiece.

Criterion Extras: Simply nothing, except an essay in the booklet. I’ve been critical of these bare-bones releases in the past (the sort of thing one imagines they started the Eclipse imprint to do), but it’s such a startling and beautiful film it almost needs nothing aside from a clean transfer of the print — which it has.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Mikhail Kalatozov | Writer Viktor Rozov (based on his play) | Cinematographer Sergey Urusevsky | Starring Tatiana Samoilova, Aleksey Batalov | Length 97 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 26 February 2017

Criterion Sunday 145: Hoří, má panenko (The Firemen’s Ball aka The Fireman’s Ball, 1967)

This seems a very slight premise — the volunteer firemen in a small town throw a ball to honour a former chairman stricken with cancer — but it builds to quite a comic evisceration of small-town bureaucracy, small-minded men or, perhaps, an entire dysfunctional government, if you want to follow it through that way. In any case, it builds plenty of gags on its thin premise, as things get ever more absurd and those red-faced old men are shown up for the ineffectively authoritarian fools they are.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Miloš Forman | Writers Miloš Forman, Ivan Passer and Jaroslav Papoušek | Cinematographer Miroslav Ondříček | Starring Jan Vostrcil | Length 71 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 19 February 2017