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).

Turning Red (2022)

The full list of my favourite films of 2022 is here but I’m posting fuller reviews of my favourites. There aren’t too many animated films in there, because I don’t go to so many of those anymore, which it turns out is fine because Disney is barely making an effort to get them into cinemas, so most need to be watched via their streaming service. Hence this one, which I gave a shot to because it seemed to come from a more interesting perspective than fairytale princesses, and it is indeed very lovely.


It’s somewhat sad to me that Pixar films are so rarely nowadays shown in cinemas, because the attention to detail in the design and the animation that shows in films like this, or the previous year’s Soul, deserve the big screen but instead we have to subscribe to Disney+, which somehow lessens them. It also leads to factoids like it being the biggest money loser for a cinematic release (even though I’m fairly certain it was barely placed in any cinemas worldwide).

However, Turning Red still strikes me as one of the better recent crop of animated films, which both tells a discernable story from a specific perspective (a young girl from a Chinese background growing up in Toronto, voiced by Rosalie Chiang), but makes it both metaphorically rich and also cartoonishly cute at the same time. A lot of elements feel familiar from any coming of age/high school American movie, with its cliques of friends and confected schoolyard drama, but there’s a real strength to its focus on the setting, the details of the family temple such that even the supernatural plot twist (and I think the posters and marketing make it fairly clear that a large anthropomorphic red panda is involved) feels grounded in an authentic expression of familial ties and Chinese-Canadian culture.

Turning Red (2022) posterCREDITS
Director Domee Shi 石之予; Writers Julia Cho, Shi and Sarah Streicher; Cinematographers Mahyar Abousaeedi and Jonathan Pytko; Starring Rosalie Chiang, Sandra Oh 오미주, Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, Ava Morse, James Hong 吳漢章; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at home (Disney+ streaming), Wellington, 2 July 2022.

Catherine Called Birdy (2022)

The full list of my favourite films of 2022 is here but I’m posting fuller reviews of my favourites. I recently covered Lena Dunham’s breakthrough feature film Tiny Furniture in my Criterion Sunday supplement (which led to her getting the Girls TV show), and in some ways she still struggles as an artist with growing up. Hence we get this feature in which she really throws herself into childhood, but with a middle ages twist, and it’s rather sweet really: almost brutal when it needs to be, but never really getting bogged down in the filth, at least not too much.


Lena Dunham directed (and wrote and produced) this adaptation of a young adult novel, but she isn’t in it at all, which is something worth pointing out to the sadly numerous anti-fans of hers. And though it may seem quite different from artsy studenty metropolitan lives, perhaps its mediæval setting isn’t so far removed from that spirit of creative jouissance she usually tries to cultivate. It’s certainly not far from the darker and more depressive concerns because for all its lightness of touch, quirky colour and spirited performances, there’s an underlying grimness to life itself which haunts the film. Of course the key is that for the most part the characters don’t dwell on this (perhaps because it’s something they can never escape), but it adds something grounding to what could otherwise come across as altogether too twee. There are memorable turns from all kinds of supporting actors, not least Andrew Scott (unsurprisingly) as Birdy’s father, or Paul Kaye as “Shaggy Beard” (some kind of Yorkshire nouveau riche), as well as from Bella Ramsey in the lead role who gets across her childish energy as she is thrust into an altogether more adult world (or rather, perhaps there is no such distinction; certainly there was no concept of being a teenager, and that’s part of what the film gets across well: you’re a child until you’re not).

Catherine Called Birdy (2022) posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Lena Dunham (based on the novel by Karen Cushman); Cinematographer Laurie Rose; Starring Bella Ramsey, Andrew Scott, Billie Piper, Lesley Sharp, Joe Alwyn, Sophie Okonedo; Length 108 minutes.
Seen at home (Amazon streaming), Wellington, Thursday 20 October 2022.

The Green Knight (2021)

I listed my favourite films of 2022 here but I’m trying to post fuller reviews of them as well. One that was again a 2021 favourite was one that showed up on streaming probably some time early in 2022 (maybe the year before, I don’t know; streaming seems so vague in terms of release dates), so I only caught up belatedly though in truth I was hoping for some cinema screenings. Fat chance I guess. Maybe one day in a retrospective, or if some enterprising soul does a season of mediaeval-set movies.


I think it’s fair to say that this film has divided opinion — although we are now fairly far from its release, and therefore hopefully people are able to come to it without preconceptions now. Presumably, though, that’s partly due to the way it endeavours to film a 14th century chivalric romance. After all, the way that such texts were written doesn’t much fit with the modern conception of psychological motivations and naturalism, and I think trying to find a way to visualise a story told in a different mode has guided many of the choices here. As one example, text frequently shows up on screen, giving the whole an episodic feel, as our hero Sir Gawain (Dev Patel) tries to make sense of, well frankly, his whole life.

There is throughout an undertow of inevitable death which probably fits pretty well with the period, especially for a (wannabe) knight such as him, who must face all kinds of dangers, and in the final reckoning his quest is as much a question of morality, of doing good and being virtuous and finding where that line lies. It’s also very interesting the way that the finality of death is not presented as the end of life; beheaded characters walk away with their heads, a vision of a skeleton gains flesh and vice versa, those who are dead also converse with the living — and presumably that is led by the storytelling tradition.

In all, I think the film effectively preserves the mystery of life and death and puts across a compelling alternative vision of storytelling itself. However, I would one day love the chance to see this on the big screen, as I do not think that our TV was able to cope with the various shades of darkness that are employed throughout the film, and the film seems designed to look better the bigger the screen.

The Green Knight (2021) posterCREDITS
Director/Writer David Lowery (based on the anonymously authored poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight); Cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo; Starring Dev Patel, Alicia Vikander, Joel Edgerton, Sarita Choudhury; Length 130 minutes.
Seen at home (Amazon streaming), Wellington, Saturday 12 February 2022.

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 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.