Criterion Sunday 450: Bottle Rocket (1996)

This is, of course, Wes Anderson’s debut feature and we all now know how his career went after this. In retrospect it’s easy to glean hints of what would become central to his style, which due to the budget is not so much in the production design, but certainly there are quirks of costume and staging that are quintessentially of this filmmaker. What’s striking is the non sequitur style of comic writing that he and Owen Wilson already have perfected by this stage, but also the musical cues that add energy to these madcap comic heist sequences (my favourite naturally being the Proclaimers). I think a lot is in place here from a filmic perspective, and there’s a certain something extra that comes from being a first-time director, a certain almost amateur energy at times which I especially appreciate given how incredibly controlled and perfected Anderson’s vision would become over time, but this remains an enjoyable caper.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Wes Anderson; Writers Anderson and Owen Wilson; Cinematographer Robert Yeoman; Starring Luke Wilson, Owen Wilson, Robert Musgrave, James Caan; Length 91 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 25 July 2021 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, December 1999).

Criterion Sunday 419: La Pointe-Courte (1955)

Varda’s debut is this strikingly prescient film suggesting a lot of threads of European art cinema throughout the middle of the 20th century, the alienation of the central couple, the almost documentary-like depiction of this poor fishing community, the constant counterpoint provided by the melancholy musical score, and plenty else besides. There is a sense in which, being her first feature, there’s a slightly mannered mise en scène, with shots of the couple rigorously symmetrical, or strikingly framed against the landscape in ways that suggest the eye of a photographer, which would make way to the more lyrical feeling of her masterpiece, Cléo from 5 to 7. Still, this is a gorgeous film for its low-budget origins, and gains hugely from the location footage of the locals, not to mention the plentiful roaming cats.

Rewatching this a few years after my first viewing reinforces what a striking film debut this is, and formally rather interesting even if it somehow feels a little bit stilted. Set against the documentary depiction of the fishing village there is a mannered and very French story of lovers (the only real actors in the film, Philippe Noiret and Silvia Monfort) who speak in a poetic philosophical register as they grapple with their fading romance. The two strands are almost separate and seem set against each other, but there’s a beautiful sense of place to the film in its depiction of this village and the sturdy people who live there, who seem to find the lovers’ struggles almost absurd.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There are two interviews with the director about the film, one in which she invites over Mathieu Amalric to talk about his debut film, although obviously the bulk of the discussion is about hers (she whips out some nice framed photos of her on set), while the other is direct to camera talking about the making of the film. She mentions The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner as a touchstone for the narrative style, in the sense of interleaving two unrelated storylines. She also mentions the copious help she received and the sheer luck that was required to make the film, her being so young and inexperienced, as well as the help given her by the editor, Alain Resnais.
  • Another extra is an eight-minute excerpt from a 1964 episode of Cinéastes de notre temps, in which a young and very serious Varda (quite different from the playful persona she would come to cultivate) talks about her work up to that point (just before Le Bonheur).

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Agnès Varda; Cinematographers Paul Soulignac and Louis Stein; Starring Silvia Monfort, Philippe Noiret; Length 80 minutes.

Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, 13 August 2018 (and on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Sunday 25 April 2021).

Criterion Sunday 417: This Sporting Life (1963)

The idea of watching one of these 60s British ‘kitchen sink dramas’ never really thrills me, but yet they have often been really compelling. Billy Liar showcases Tom Courtenay, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning does the same for Albert Finney, and here we have Richard Harris as Frank, a typically laddish rugby player (though, being from Yorkshire, he’s less posh than many who play the game in the south of England). His performance has that Brando swagger to it, as he punches his way through early scenes, told in flashback from a dentist’s chair as he gets his teeth extracted following a particularly vicious blow on the field. He recalls his life and ascent to rugby stardom (of a sort, a very local kind of stardom), which also lay bare his difficulty with women — part of which you suspect just comes down to the very poor role models he must have had, and certainly the rather leering sporting life he leads doesn’t help much — and a fundamental emptiness at his heart that the film’s end seems to suggest is just going to continue.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • Among a few of Anderson’s short films is Wakefield Express (1952), a modest half-hour film, a documentary in the old style (where scenes seem a little more staged for the camera) about a local Yorkshire newspaper putting together its pages. The first half largely puts across a sort of mythical vision of small-town England, with idealistic reporters getting out and about, picking up local gossip and interacting with all the main sources of news in their community (in the pub, flagging down the postie, chatting to the priest, a bus driver with a fondness for budgerigars). It’s the later sequence of the newspaper being put together which seems particularly alien now, all those typesetters and proofreaders, hot lead type and moulds being poured in an environment far more like a foundry. It’s a real insight into just what a lot of work it was to put out even a small regional newspaper.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Lindsay Anderson; Writer David Storey (based on his own novel); Cinematographer Denys Coop; Starring Richard Harris, Rachel Roberts, Alan Badel, Vanda Godsell, William Hartnell; Length 134 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Saturday 17 April 2021.

Criterion Sunday 408: À bout de souffle (Breathless, 1960)

I’m sure we’ve all seen Breathless a lot of times (I’ve already reviewed it at greater length on this blog). Sometimes it feels like — though it’s not — the first truly modern film, mainly because of its place at the head of the French New Wave, one that may not have even created that template (improvisational, street shooting, up-front love for American genre cinema), but certainly popularised it and had the most cool of those early works (works by Varda, Chabrol and Truffaut have better claims to being earlier). Watching it for the nth time (maybe the fifth, maybe the eighth, I’m not sure), it strikes me that I don’t remember a lot of the shots and the scenes because it’s very much not about plot. It’s about attitude and style, about the jump cuts, and the posing that Belmondo does at the shrine of Bogart and the other tough guys of cinema (also, er, Debbie Reynolds it seems, with those exaggerated facial gestures she does in Singin’ in the Rain), echoing this bravado with hollow quips about women’s fecklessness — even though he’s the one that can’t stay still or keep any money on him. So all these guys with European names who drift through, details about a crime (he’s on the run for killing a cop), just become background to a rehearsal of celebrity by Belmondo and Seberg, looking glamorous and catching the camera’s light as they try to out-run the plot’s machinations.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There’s a series of five contemporary interviews from French TV, a couple with Godard, and one each with Belmondo, Seberg and Jean-Pierre Melville. It’s striking how much more confrontational the one with Seberg is, as the interviewer constantly harps on at her career ups and downs, at a period in rehab, and just keeps on having a go at her, which seems unfair. Belmondo weirdly does his surrounded by sculptures, while Godard dons his customary sunglasses.
  • A more recent interview from 2007 with assistant director Pierre Rissient, and the DoP Raoul Coutard, as well as another with Donn Pennebaker, who talks about working with Godard himself later in the 60s, as well as the impact of Breathless. All add a little to an understanding of quite how Godard’s working processes were, and how they were so different from what was accepted as usual at the time.
  • Mark Rappaport contributes a 20-minute piece about Jean Seberg. He made his own feature-length biopic, From the Journals of Jean Seberg, so he has plenty of research to draw on. She had a fascinating life, truly, which accounts for the several films that exist about her, but it seems like her early experiences with Otto Preminger weren’t the most positive, and may have been a bad way to start out.
  • One of the many extras is a 10 minute visual essay written (but not spoken) by Jonathan Rosenbaum which picks up on just a few of the visual cues and links this work in with his earlier writing as a critic. For some reason the voiceover guy insists on saying “Irish shots” instead of “iris shots” or maybe I’m just mishearing him? Anyway, that’s what I took from it.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jean-Luc Godard; Writers Godard and François Truffaut; Cinematographer Raoul Coutard; Starring Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jean Seberg; Length 90 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Friday 19 March 2021 (and several times before, first on VHS at home, Wellington, August 1997 and at university, Wellington, May 1998, and later on Blu-ray at home, London, Tuesday 27 August 2013).

Criterion Sunday 407: Mala Noche (aka Bad Night, 1986)

Gus Van Sant’s feature debut, and I suppose it fits loosely into the era’s “New Queer Cinema”, though it stands apart but not having quite the same counter-cultural self-consciousness perhaps, by which I mean this is loose and poetic and less political in nature. It’s about this one guy, Walt (Tim Streeter), a real person upon whose autobiography it’s based, who happens to be chasing a young man (Johnny, played by Doug Cooeyate). For a low-budget film it uses its lack of resources well, creating a monochrome aesthetic heavy on the pools of light and shadow, with an evocative sense of style in these little moments snatched from something of a Nouvelle Vague feeling. That said, its protagonist is this struggling young guy running a shop who seems to have a big opinion about himself and his pursuit of younger Mexican guys, whom he isn’t even sure are 18, is callously objectifying. A lot of the film is in Spanish, but Walt doesn’t much seem to care about his enamorado Johnny, so much as about the chase. It makes for a film that’s about race and class and power in ways that aren’t always comfortable, and don’t always feel fully examined, because they’re the politics of young men looking for sex.

NOTE: The Criterion edition lists this as 1985, though it appears from IMDb that its earliest public appearance at festivals was in 1986 but those dates may not be exhaustive.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Gus Van Sant (based on the novel by Walt Curtis); Cinematographer John J. Campbell; Starring Tim Streeter, Doug Cooeyate, Ray Monge; Length 78 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Saturday 13 March 2021.

My Wedding and Other Secrets (2011)

I covered Roseanne Liang’s most recent film Shadow in the Cloud (2020) yesterday, and this is her debut feature, though she has a 2008 short called Take 3 (which is included on the NZ DVD, and is particularly excellent). It hits a lot of the elements that you find in many romcoms and also casts the prolific Cheng Pei-pei as the mother, so you can’t really go wrong.


I think this would do pretty well as a Netflix original movie, given the lightness with which it plays out its romcom elements, along with the serious culture-clash drama of familial expectations that’s an undercurrent of the central romance. It coasts by on a fair deal of charm, though its lead actor Michelle Ang is very capable at delivering just the right level of adorable yet quirky that the script demands. This is especially notable given that her on-screen boyfriend is written as such a demanding asshole at times, and while I imagine she is supposed to be equally difficult (what with her avoidance of revealing her relationship to her parents), Ang’s skill at comedic delivery makes her seem far more reasonable — but then again, the romcom genre has always been adept at covering up behaviour that would be awful in any other circumstance. It also doesn’t hurt that the immortal Cheng Pei-pei plays her mother. As a whole it can be a little clunky at times, but there’s an exuberance to the story that belies its presumably small budget (what other level of budget do NZ films even have, that one beardy guy aside).

My Wedding and Other Secrets film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Roseanne Liang; Cinematographer Richard Harling; Starring Michelle Ang, Matt Whelan, Cheng Pei-pei 郑佩佩, Kenneth Tsang 曾江; Length 88 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Tuesday 23 February 2021.

Finding ‘Ohana (2021)

I feel as if my themed week of Netflix has just made the case that they are good at formulaic, brightly-coloured confections, and if so today’s review won’t change that opinion. Maybe it’s true. There is some good, nuanced, interesting stuff on there too (they’ve added a bunch of Youssef Chahine films, and now some Swedish silents I gather), so who knows maybe one day it’ll be a great service for everyone. In the mean time, there’s Mubi if you like austere arthouse and Amazon if you like to support the exploitation of workers (also they have some good content of their own), so really it’s a great time for online streaming.


Unlike the Netflix film I reviewed yesterday, the Chinese movie Monster Run, which felt a bit like a kids’ film, this very much is a kids’ film. There’s little point in me complaining some of the child acting is a bit lacking in nuance (that would be absurd) or that the plotting can be silly. After all, when we get the flashbacks to the ye olde times white explorers, it’s narrated in a Drunk History style, and they’re played by Chris Parnell and Marc Evan Jackson, so clearly silliness is the point. The set design feels like a Disney theme park version of Hawai’i and the film ends up basically being an advert for the place, but that’s certainly forgivable too. These are all intentional choices and they make sense for this film. It’s a likeable, brightly-coloured reimagining of The Goonies in Hawai’i and while it’s unlikely to have that film’s enduring (cult?) appeal, it does everything it’s supposed to do and has its heart in a good place.

Finding 'Ohana film posterCREDITS
Director Jude Weng 翁菲菲; Writer Christina Strain; Cinematographer Cort Fey; Starring Kea Peahu, Alex Aiono, Lindsay Watson; Length 123 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), Wellington, Thursday 18 February 2021.

Criterion Sunday 397: Ива́ново де́тство Ivanovo detstvo (Ivan’s Childhood, 1962)

Andrei Tarkovsky evolved something of a heavily image-based cinema, which favoured the grandest of visual representations for his ideas, or at least that’s the only way I can explain how so many of the shots in his films remain so indelibly in my mind years later. Which is why I was rather surprised to revisit this film, which has not much lingered in my mind, and realise there’s plenty of jaw-droppingly beautiful camera setups here too, though none stays with me like Masha (Valentina Malyavina) being held over a trench and kissed, as a sort of swooningly romantic yet somehow treacherous and bleak poetic image. There’s a lot to commend this first feature film of Tarkovsky’s, and clearly he would continue to refine and grow his craft (his second feature was the epic Andrei Rublev), but there’s still something very Russian about the sensibility, shared with other contemporary depictions of war like Ballad of a Soldier and The Cranes Are Flying, where war is nothing glorious (and, largely here, unseen) but instead a perilous backdrop to a story of a childhood lost, derailed by the conflict and which never really stood a chance. The visual quality doesn’t detract from the story but it makes it somehow just a little bit bearable to watch.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Andrei Tarkovsky Андрей Тарковский; Writers Andrei Konchalovsky Андре́й Кончало́вский and Mikhail Papava Михаил Папава (based on the short story Иван “Ivan” by Vladimir Bogomolov Влади́мир Богомо́лов); Cinematographer Vadim Yusov Вади́м Ю́сов; Starring Nikolai Burlyayev Николай Бурляев, Valentin Zubkov Валенти́н Зубко́в, Valentina Malyavina Валенти́на Маля́вина; Length 95 minutes.

Seen at Filmhouse, Edinburgh, Tuesday 5 August 2003 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Thursday 4 February 2021).

Criterion Sunday 393: おとし穴 Otoshiana (Pitfall, 1962)

You get the sense of what director Hiroshi Teshigahara is about from this film, his debut feature, which has the bleak monochrome landscapes and the sense of alienation from the rest of society that marks his most famous work The Woman in the Dunes. This is partly a supernatural ghost story, but that comes from its mining village setting, where lives are hard, faces caked in sweat, and murder and corruption abounds (embodied by a lethally white-suited manager type). It’s not always clear what exactly is happening, but you know enough that what’s happening is bad and it’s the lowest in society who are being screwed over. It makes for a fascinating study.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Hiroshi Teshigahara 勅使河原宏; Writer Kobo Abe 安部公房 (based on his television play 煉獄 Rengoku); Cinematographer Hiroshi Segawa 瀬川浩; Starring Hisashi Igawa 井川比佐志, Sumie Sasaki 佐々木すみ江, Kunie Tanaka 田中邦衛; Length 97 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Monday 5 October 2020.

Baden Baden (2016)

Another Franco-Belgian co-production is this excellent film about a young woman returning to her home (also the director’s home, Strasbourg) to sort out her life. It’s not a coming of age, exactly, because the protagonist is in her 20s, but it definitely deals with a similar sort of malaise and aimlessness. That shouldn’t make it particularly compelling but I really liked it.


Trading on all those classic elements of the cinema of self-indulgent continental introspection — a young woman returns home to her ailing grandmother to tidy up shattered plans, creating new messes to tidy, and reopening some fresh wounds — but it’s done with such verve, such control of the medium, and such fine performances in the lead roles that what initially sounds like it might be drab and unengaging is really compelling. Sure, Ana’s life may or may not be going anywhere (whose is?) but right from that first extended shot of her driving a star to a film set only to be bawled out by the producer, it shows a sure sense of what is cinematic. There are ways I’m reminded of British film Adult Life Skills in its themes, but here put across with at times an elegiac grace — little dreamlike interstices, a careful regard for small details, holding the shot just a little longer than is comfortable at times. It’s also got plenty of downbeat humour, no little thanks to its lead actor, Salomé Richard. (I didn’t even mention her delightful DIY determination to remodel her gran’s bathroom, which the titular use of a famous spa town may obliquely be referring to?)

Baden Baden film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Rachel Lang; Cinematographer Fiona Braillon; Starring Salomé Richard, Claude Gensac, Swann Arlaud, Zabou Breitman; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at Ciné Lumière, London, Tuesday 27 September 2016.