Criterion Sunday 595: Il momento della verità (The Moment of Truth, 1965)

This mid-60s film from the Italian director of such politically-engaged Italian classics as Salvatore Giuliano and Hands Over the City went to Spain for his next film, although his characters continue to speak in Italian because this is, still, an Italian film. Despite that, I think it does capture something of what makes bullfighting appealing alongside plenty of what makes it utterly objectionable. It’s fair to say it’s a film that really immures you in the blood and corporeality of this sport, and there’s no shortage of shots featuring bleeding, dying bulls, bulls being killed, all for the name of the elegance and machismo of this contest. Yet at its heart, it’s a story of a poor young man with very few opportunities in life, seizing on something that he is good at, as a means of dragging himself out of poverty. The drama in the ring, as he starts to master his vocation, adds to the texture of the film, which I think captures well this kind of existence, a transient life on the road chasing the money from bullfights in small towns, fights for money but not the glory of the huge arenas in Barcelona and especially Madrid. The bulls aren’t the only ones brutalised by this life, and theirs is not the only blood you see, but the film doesn’t look away from the horrifying reality of this sport and that’s probably enough to put off some viewers (as it should).

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • This is one of the thinnest packages of extras for any modern Criterion film released on Blu-ray, with just a single 13-minute interview with Rosi, conducted many decades later, as he reflects on the making of the film. His recollections aren’t uninteresting, but you expect more from Criterion.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Francesco Rosi; Writers Pedro Beltrán, Ricardo Muñoz Suay, Pere Portabella and Rosi; Cinematographers Pasqualino De Santis, Gianni Di Venanzo and Aiace Parolin; Starring Miguel Mateo “Miguelín”; Length 107 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Friday 2 December 2022.

Criterion Sunday 594: ゴジラ Gojira (Godzilla, 1954)

You could probably argue that this monster movie is a bit too straightforward in its message — the dangers of a nuclear world can unleash terrifying consequences! — but given the context for the film, it’s pretty understandable. There’s a sub-plot about the moral qualms attendant on technological progress in the field of mass destruction, and at no point is it ever unclear what the reasons for all this hand-wringing are, so you can understand why it was heavily recut on original release for the non-Japanese market, given it hits perhaps a little close to home. Still plenty of other movies of the 50s were trading on the fears of an atomic age, including a number of the most prominent American sci-fi and horror features (along with noir gems like Kiss Me Deadly), so it’s not such a big gap to this Japanese film. Of course, the effects now look pretty dated, but the human drama is clear (this isn’t the only film of 1954 from the Criterion Collection that allegorises Japan’s place in the world and stars Takashi Shimura in a leading role, and it may be my favourite of those) and the sense of night-time Tokyo is strong.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Ishiro Honda 本多猪四郎; Writers Takeo Murata 村田武雄 and Honda; Cinematographer Masao Tamai 玉井正夫; Starring Akira Takarada 宝田明, Momoko Kochi 河内桃子, Takashi Shimura 志村喬; Length 96 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 3 December 2022.

Criterion Sunday 593: Belle de Jour (1967)

This is likely a film that grows over repeated viewings, but on first viewing for me, it has a (presumably quite deliberate) quality of being very carefully controlled at a rather lugubrious pace. Nobody really emotes strongly, nobody moves quickly, there’s an unrushed quality that’s at odds with the lewdness of the setup, as if Buñuel, having drawn people into a sex film about bondage and control, wants to keep that as far away from the screen as possible. Instead, what we have are hints at the interior life of Sévérine (Catherine Deneuve), little flashes from growing up that hint at some trauma (without, crucially, making anything so plain as to give words to it), her fantasies of sexual domination, and then her move into working for a brothel during the days her husband is away at work (hence the name the brothel’s madam, played by Geneviève Page, gives her, also the film’s title). But the pacing allows the film’s hints to seep into her character, played by Deneuve as a sort of unemotional tabula rasa, and suggest, perhaps slyly, some idea possibly of liberation (or equally a chauvinist desire to see women subjugated; it’s never really clear whose point of view we’re truly seeing). However, it shares all the visual hallmarks of late Buñuel, an almost matter of fact depiction of surreal and subversive ideas by characters who seem rather dull and conformist.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Luis Buñuel; Writers Buñuel and Jean-Claude Carrière (based on the novel by Joseph Kessel); Cinematographer Sacha Vierny; Starring Catherine Deneuve, Jean Sorel, Michel Piccoli, Geneviève Page, Pierre Clémenti; Length 100 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 26 November 2022.

Criterion Sunday 592: Design for Living (1933)

There’s not much of Noël Coward’s text here in Ben Hecht’s screenplay, but I think there’s a spirit that certainly seems to define something of the pre-Code Hollywood output. “No sex,” disclaims Gilda (pronounced with a soft ‘g’, and played by the ever delightful Miriam Hopkins) — and none of course is seen — but the film fairly drips with hints of it, in its story of a love triangle between Gilda and two men she meets on a train to Paris (painter Gary Cooper and playwright Fredrich March). After a bit of comical to-do, first silently and then in French at the start, they realise they’re all American and so we quickly move into the snappy repartee in which the two bohemian artist men woo and fall for Gilda, or rather perhaps it would be more accurate that she’s the one in love and just trying each one out. There’s also Edward Everett Horton in a supporting role, playing his usually prissy company man, whose idea of romance is far different from those of the bohemian boys, and all of them will by the end come to a realisation — one which is made without anyone seriously suffering. This is, after all, a comedy, both in many of the quips but also in the grand sense — the threesome that the film proposes as a design for living becomes a reality for Gilda, and there are few protagonists in this era of Hollywood cinema you more want things to work out for. Ernest Lubitsch is of course the director and has a strong hand in what works about the film, steering clear of anything too outrageous, but still leaving in hefty hints of licentiousness in the set-up. It all looks great and zings along, coasting on the fine performances and the evocation of an era — one that perhaps never quite existed this way, though the film certainly makes you want to believe it did.

(Written on 18 August 2020.)

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • Alongside the feature is presented “The Clerk”, a short film directed by Lubitsch extracted from the omnibus film If I Had a Million (1933). It’s an exceedingly high concept, running at just over two minutes. Lubitsch slowly follows the clerk of the title, played by Charles Laughton, from receiving an enormous check in the mail (this is part of the overarching structure of the original film), to travelling up the stairs and through the various offices to that of his boss, to whom he delivers a final gesture. The comedy isn’t so much in what happens, because you kinda know what’s coming, as in the extended set-up to the gag. It’s a simple one, but effective nonetheless.
  • There’s also a presentation by film historian Joseph McBride, who speaks quickly but compellingly about the production circumstances of the film, particularly the nature of its adaptation from Coward’s original. It’s an interesting piece and very good at helping to understand how Ben Hecht got involved, what remained of Coward’s original, how the three primary authorial voices on the film intersected, and what Coward thought of the whole thing.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Ernst Lubitsch; Writer Ben Hecht (based on the play by Noël Coward); Cinematographer Victor Milner; Starring Miriam Hopkins, Gary Cooper, Fredric March, Edward Everett Horton; Length 91 minutes.

Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Saturday 31 May 2014 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Monday 17 August 2020).

Criterion Sunday 591: 12 Angry Men (1957)

This is one of those perennial classic films that always shows up on lists that I’ve contrived never to have seen until now, but I have to say it certainly does hold up — albeit perhaps not legally. However, I do love a chamber drama, and this one, as the title suggests, features twelve men, fairly indistinguishable on the surface though as the film goes on we get to know each one for obviously — this is a basic screenwriting requirements, one imagines — they have quite different personalities. This could be just a writer’s exercise, but it comes alive in the telling thanks to the taut dialogue, the fine, expressive acting (far more the latter for Lee J. Cobb), and sinuous long take camera movements that really serve to open up this claustrophobic and (both literally and figuratively) overheated space. There’s not much reason this should work, but it does so and with excellent economy.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Sidney Lumet; Writer Reginald Rose (based on his play Twelve Angry Men); Cinematographer Boris Kaufman Бори́с Ка́уфман; Starring Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, Ed Begley, Martin Balsam; Length 96 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 19 November 2022.

Criterion Sunday 590: Trois coleurs : Rouge (Three Colours: Red aka Three Colors: Red, 1994)

I think even at the time of its release, this was widely thought to be the best of the trilogy and it holds up. There’s still something about Kieślowski’s style that seems overly fussy, overly attentive to the right image, the right idea, expressed in the perfectly written way that nevertheless feels a bit over-rehearsed somehow? But it all comes together in this third part, focused on the idea of “fraternité” and suffused, truly suffused, with the colour red (not in the way of say Cries and Whispers, mind, but the colour is consistently a presence throughout the narrative). It’s about the way people come together — or almost do so, with missed connections throughout the film, only emphasised by the focus on telecommunication (those opening shots tracking telephone cables, and phonecalls — including the eavesdropping thereon — being a running motif throughout). Irène Jacob, of course, is every bit the model in the central role of Valentine, but she also ties things together with her slightly lost look — that look that’s on her poster, and repeated in that final image — like the lost dog she comes across that kickstarts the narrative, or the puppies it gives birth to, a lost look also imitated by Jean-Louis Trintignant’s ex-judge Joseph, or Auguste (Jean-Pierre Lorit) — the man you sense may be Jacob’s life partner, whose path never quite meets hers until, eventually, surprisingly, it does. And for all this seems engineered to be satisfying, it is also quite satisfying, a fitting conclusion both to this trilogy and to Kieślowski’s career.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Krzysztof Kieślowski; Writers Krzysztof Piesiewicz and Kieślowski; Cinematographer Piotr Sobociński; Starring Irène Jacob, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Jean-Pierre Lorit; Length 99 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Friday 18 November 2022 (and first on VHS at home, Wellington, in the mid-1990s).

Criterion Sunday 589: Trois coleurs : Blanc (Three Colours: White aka Three Colors: White aka Trzy kolory. Biały, 1994)

Revisiting again the site of my early exposure to world cinema, I think I liked White more than Blue on first exposure, but partly that was me responding to the comedy inherent in the setup (a man is left by his wife and feels compelled to reinvent himself in order to win her back). However upon rewatching there’s a certain rather nasty edge to this humour (which is dealing with the “egalité” of the French flag and national motto), and Julie Delpy is placed in a rather thankless position by the story. This is, after all, her ex-husband’s story, and Zbigniew Zamachowski has a clownish sense to his despondency. The colour palette isn’t as suffused in the film as the other two episodes so perhaps that also means it doesn’t stand out visually, though it has its moments. Primarily, what I love is Preisner’s score, which has a jauntiness while also incorporated some of the more traditional Polish motifs of his work. It’s a solid film, but Blue has the edge, while Red is the one that endures I think.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • Once again the disc includes two earlier, short works, both of these by Kieślowski. The first is Siedem kobiet w róznym wieku (Seven Women of Different Ages, 1979). The loose seven day structure allows Kieślowski to focus on different participants in a ballet class and performance, who as the title suggests are of different ages. We get the young girls and women doing their practice, then another performing on stage, an older ballerina hanging around looking disappointed at not getting much work, and then a ballet instructor teaching the young girls we saw on the first day. It really emphasises, through these little glimpses of them at work, just how much of an effort it is to be a ballet dancer, the constant rehearsal, the pointed comments from the teachers, and the physical exertion (one of the days is soundtracked almost entirely by the ballerina’s heavy and belaboured breathing).
  • The other short film is Gadające głowy (Talking Heads, 1980). There’s a fairly simple concept at work here, as Kieślowski interviews people about what they want from life, moving from younger to older respondents (with their birth year listed in the lower left hand corner). You can track a certain greater reflectiveness as the ages tick up of course, but there’s a core of hopefulness and wisdom that the film is tapping into, even if you could hardly call these brief snippets of interviews particularly enlightening on an individual level. This is about people across society, from all ages, reflecting on what they want from the world.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Krzysztof Kieślowski; Writers Krzysztof Piesiewicz and Kieślowski; Cinematographer Edward Kłosiński; Starring Zbigniew Zamachowski, Julie Delpy, Janusz Gajos, Jerzy Stuhr; Length 91 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 13 November 2022 (and first on VHS at home, Wellington, in the mid-1990s).

Criterion Sunday 588: Trois coleurs : Bleu (Three Colours: Blue aka Three Colors: Blue, 1993)

I don’t think it would be overstating the case to say that this trilogy of films largely compromised my introduction to ‘world cinema’ back in the mid-1990s. I was too young (or rather not sufficiently precocious) to have seen them in the cinema, but a year or two later on VHS at home, and they do make for a good introduction. Even now, rewatching so many years later, this film is much as I remember it: very consciously constructed, with bold use of colour (in the camera filters, in the scenery and set design, in expressive lighting choices), striking symbolism and the kind of directorial vision that makes it very clear — even to a young cinema neophyte such as myself 25 years ago — that every camera movement, every detail and every choice within the frame is very much intentional. I found this a little overbearing at the time, and I still don’t believe this is my favourite of the trilogy, but there is such an assured style that I can’t help but be impressed by it, lugubrious and mournful as the subject matter can be (a woman dealing with the death of her husband and child, in a peculiar twist on the concept of “liberté”). Moreover, there’s Juliette Binoche in the lead role, who is an undeniable force and even in the depths of her character’s grief and sadness makes her compellingly watchable.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • Two of the extra features are short films from the director’s film school days. His own is Tramwaj (Tramway, 1966), with the kind of throwaway premise that a lot of short movies have — in this case, a boy sees a girl on a tram and then realises he must chase after her. Still, there’s something to how it’s made despite the complete absence of sound, not that you’d have made the link between this and the director of Three Colours: Blue right away.
  • The other short film is Twarz (The Face, 1966), included not because he directed it (it was one of his fellow students, the otherwise unknown Piotr Studzinski) but because he stars in it. Indeed, it’s a fair bit more enjoyable than Kieślowski’s own student effort, with a cutting humour to its portrayal of the self-involved artist disgusted at his own face (which he has nevertheless used obsessively in his own art).
  • There’s a short featurette of interviews with various collaborators, including Binoche and the cinematographer Idziak, as well as some film writers (Geoff Andrew, Annette Insdorf), discussing the film and its creation, and how the director put it together, which is all fairly informative.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Krzysztof Kieślowski; Writers Krzysztof Piesiewicz and Kieślowski; Cinematographer Sławomir Idziak; Starring Juliette Binoche, Benoît Régent, Florence Pernel, Charlotte Véry, Emmanuelle Riva; Length 98 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 13 November 2022 (and first on VHS at home, Wellington, in the mid-1990s).

Criterion Sunday 586: Island of Lost Souls (1932)

Given when this was made, this remains a fairly terrifying film, but one that nevertheless retains a certain empathy (like the contemporaneous Freaks to a certain extent). That’s not to say it’s entirely unproblematic to modern audiences, but there’s a consistent theme within the film that actually the monsters of the film (its “lost souls”, if you will) are worth protecting and fighting for, as our hero does at several points, much to the annoyance of Charles Laughton’s gentleman scientist who is actually — perhaps itself a commentary on the myth of the enlightened colonial project — quite clearly a monster. Anyone who knows The Island of Dr Moreau knows how this plays out, and it suffers a little from its early sound era origins at times (seeming almost too quiet and slow for our modern tastes), but it’s a great and fascinating early horror movie.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Erle C. Kenton; Writers Philip Wylie and Waldemar Young (based on the novel The Island of Dr Moreau by H.G. Wells); Cinematographer Karl Struss; Starring Richard Arlen, Charles Laughton, Kathleen Burke, Leila Hyams, Bela Lugosi; Length 70 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Friday 4 November 2022.

Criterion Sunday 584: 藪の中の黒猫 Yabu no Naka no Kuroneko (Kuroneko, 1968)

Kaneto Shindo also directed Onibaba, and both are supernatural stories that lean heavily on the quality of the filmmaking for their effect. It’s a film dominated by dark shadows and silence, scenes of great stillness that effectively convey the ghostly conceit of its title characters, avenging angels after a fashion, seeking cosmic redress against all samurai for the misdeeds of a group of them. Like any revenge, this takes its toll on both those doing the revenging as against their victims, but there’s a sense of justice to the punishments they mete out all the same. It ends as mysteriously as it begins but the atmosphere it evokes never falters and it remains a fine example of the ghost horror movie.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Kaneto Shindo 新藤兼人; Cinematographer Kiyomi Kuroda 黒田清己; Starring Kichiemon Nakamura 二代目中村 吉右衛門, Nobuko Otowa 乙羽信子, Kiwako Taichi 太地喜和子; Length 99 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Tuesday 1 November 2022.