Criterion Sunday 166: Down by Law (1986)

One of Jarmusch’s early minimalist existentialist black-and-white films, structured around a fairly genre setup (crimes, trials, imprisonment, escape) without bothering to show any of the mechanics, just the interpersonal relationships of its three leads. It really looks gorgeous thanks to Jarmusch cannily recruiting Wim Wenders pre-eminent DoP of the 1970s, Robby Müller, and the style works well within that high-contrast black-and-white frame. The New Orleans/Louisiana setting is used well for its expressive architectural and natural possibilities, though the film is a little less sure-footed when it comes to race, which you’d think would be a bigger part of a story from that part of the world. But what it does do, it does with exemplary finesse, that same spare deadpan storytelling that Jarmusch would continue to deploy throughout his career. There’s also a memorable comic turn from Roberto Benigni, a figure who would become far more grating in the following decade.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jim Jarmusch | Cinematographer Robby Müller | Starring John Lurie, Tom Waits, Roberto Benigni | Length 107 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 6 August 2017

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Criterion Sunday 164: Solaris (1972)

Undoubtedly ponderous in its pacing, for me this still feels like Tarkovsky’s weakest film — which is to say, a lot better than most other films, but somehow thin, especially in comparison to his later science-fiction Stalker (1979). That said, it’s a film about grief and memory that happens to be partially set in space, as astronaut/psychologist Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis) is sent to figure out what’s going wrong on board the space station orbiting the title planet. It is beautifully shot, and it’s not even the pacing which mars it for me, so much as the sense of it being this choreography of people walking into and around the frame while grappling with some portentous metaphysics. Give me a few more decades on this one and I may come round.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Andrei Tarkovsky | Writers Fridrikh Gorenshtein and Andrei Tarkovsky (based on the novel by Stanisław Lem) | Cinematographer Vadim Yusov | Starring Donatas Banionis, Natalya Bondarchuk | Length 166 minutes || Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Thursday 23 December 1999 (also before that on VHS at home, Wellington, June 1999, and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 9 July 2017)

Criterion Sunday 163: Hopscotch (1980)

It’s difficult in our techno-spy thriller era to take seriously such a bumbling joking character as Walter Matthau’s CIA agent here, Miles Kendig. He’s running rings around his bureaucratic superiors (most notably Ned Beatty antagonist Myerson), but I’m not sure it is always believable. It’s more akin to a comedic farce really, likeable I suppose and impossible to really hate, but very much of its time.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Ronald Neame | Writers Bryan Forbes and Brian Garfield (based on the novel by Garfield) | Cinematographer Arthur Ibbetson and Brian W. Roy | Starring Walter Matthau, Glenda Jackson, Sam Waterston, Ned Beatty | Length 104 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 2 July 2017

Criterion Sunday 160: À nous la liberté (1931)

A fine early sound film which deploys its synched sound only sparingly and has a sort of musical structure to it. The plot is convoluted, but revolves around two friends who attempt a prison escape together, are separated and thereafter take a different path through life. Its key conceit seems to be that prison and factory work are pretty much interchangeable, and for something billed as a comedy, it’s comic in only the most cosmic sense as there’s little that’s really uplifting in the plot and paves the way to Tati’s own later satires on modernisation.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer René Clair | Cinematographer Georges Périnal | Starring Henri Marchand, Raymond Cordy | Length 104 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 11 June 2017

Criterion Sunday 159: Akahige (Red Beard, 1965)

Undoubtedly one of Kurosawa’s stronger films, the central drama in Red Beard (named for Toshiro Mifune’s defining facial accoutrement, even if the film itself is in black-and-white) isn’t introduced with any big flourishes or self-aggrandising camerawork. The focus remains on the small events, inside a clinic where Mifune’s Dr Niide schools a cocky young intern (Yuzo Kayama as Dr Yasumoto) on what it means to be a compassionate doctor. Yasumoto’s journey towards caring about his fellow people is moved forward by a number of encounters with patients, which unfold slowly without any big setpieces (though Mifune dispatching a town of hooligans is the closest to that), just the riveting human drama of one man’s education. Fundamentally decent.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Akira Kurosawa | Writers Masato Ide, Ryuzo Kikushima, Akira Kurosawa and Hideo Oguni (based on the collection of short stories Akahige shinryotan by Shuguro Yamamoto) | Cinematographer Asakazu Nakai | Starring Toshiro Mifune, Yuzo Kayama | Length 185 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 4 June 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 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 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