Criterion Sunday 558: Topsy-Turvy (1999)

I’m not sure if this is his first period drama, but it’s certainly now a strand of filmmaking that Mike Leigh fairly regularly pursues, and he has a meticulous approach. I daresay some may construe it as boring — and I certainly did with Peterloo (2018) — though here his approach draws out a drama of artistic creation, which has a self-reflective aspect, especially as W.S. Gilbert (Willie, or “Schwenk” to his family) ruminates on how he will conceive his next project, while steadfastly refusing to engage with his audience. Jim Broadbent’s Gilbert is the highlight, bringing a finely tuned comic quality to a man who didn’t seem to find anything funny and certainly seems like an unpleasant person to have been around. Allan Corduner as the rather more boisterous and pleasant Arthur Sullivan, along with the rest of the cast, does sterling work, and there’s a lot of joy to be had in each of these performances. It’s the backstage work, the rehearsals and performances, the bickering and pettiness of the actors as they apply makeup and run their lines, which provides the heart of this endeavour, and I found the time flew by for much of these scenes.

I found too that Leigh was fairly successful in avoiding the rather large elephant in the room, which is to say the latent racism of the entire premise and execution of The Mikado, by focusing on the extremely shortsighted nature of the Englishmen and women who put it all together, along with a subtle critique of colonialist exoticism on the part of a cohort of people who never had any personal engagement with any of the places brought back to them in the imperial capitals (lauding questionable military heroes like Gordon of Khartoum in one scene, as well as the patriotic puffery of a young Winston Churchill in another passing reference). It also feels important that Leigh included a scene where a group of Japanese women could barely contain their confusion when presented with the ‘three little girls’ of The Mikado in person, as Gilbert tried to mine them for some expressive tips. For all that I don’t personally find a great deal to enjoy in the work of Gilbert and Sullivan, I can still appreciate some of its appeal, but this is a story of putting on a show and it really lives in the details of that shared endeavour, a shared madness and folly at too many points.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Mike Leigh; Cinematographer Dick Pope; Starring Jim Broadbent, Allan Corduner, Lesley Manville, Ron Cook, Timothy Spall, Martin Savage; Length 160 minutes.

Seen at the Penthouse, Wellington, Sunday 20 August 2000 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Saturday 30 July 2022).

Criterion Sunday 553: Fish Tank (2009)

Watching this is very much an exercise in looking for the glimmers of hope and possibility in a story about people whose lives (all of them, really) have been derailed or sidelined, and who have turned to anger and sarcasm to get them through their lives (well those as well as drinking, lashing out, the usual kinds of things). It’s a film set in East London, not the trendy cool bit, but the Essex bit, out in Dagenham and Barking and beyond, stuck in a place where there doesn’t seem to be much of a way out. There’s an emaciated horse, the hope of five pounds stashed away to buy a few cans of super strength cider, dancing in parking lots with your friends, a sunny day away to a reservoir. Still, Andrea Arnold keeps it all moving along, just on the right side of hopelessness as our teenage protagonist Mia (Katie Jarvis) struggles to find some way to connect; Michael Fassbender as her mum’s boyfriend Conor seems to offer some hope for their family to come together, but then it turns out he’s just another rotten one, perhaps the worst, but yet somehow catalyses some feeling of change for Mia. You don’t want to watch it at times, but it hurtles forward with the brash energy of youth.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • Three of Andrea Arnold’s early short films are included. The first is her debut Milk (1998), about a woman coping with the death of her baby during childbirth, but it has one of those scenarios that only seems to happen in short films. Still it gets to an emotional core, and there are some nice shots of derelict suburban life.
  • The next is Dog (2001), which pretty convincingly does in 10 minutes what far longer films fail to do: give a sense of a life, who she is, where she’s come from, where she can expect to end up. Kinda brutal in its way (not least for the title character, a teenage girl played by Joanne Hill).

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Andrea Arnold; Cinematographer Robbie Ryan; Starring Katie Jarvis, Michael Fassbender, Kierston Wareing; Length 122 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 17 July 2022.

Criterion Sunday 488: Howards End (1992)

I feel it’s fairly easy to be sniffy about the period costume drama of much British cinematic and TV production. After all, the heritage industry is omnipresent in the UK and does seem to contribute a lot to the economy, though it contributes less that’s valuable to Britain’s perception of itself and its history, as most of these productions are focused on something glorious and golden about the past. I certainly lapse into an easy disdain for the costume drama, even as I love to go and see each new one and see how it tries to extend or adapt or even maybe undermine that (now tedious, to me) cultural narrative. As far as these productions go, Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, along with screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, were among the most adept, and I think in some ways this adaptation of an E.M. Forster novel — one of their later productions — maybe also be their finest.

It’s a handsomely mounted Edwardian period production, replete with all the fashions and details of the era, but it tells a story about class and wealth, which touches slightly on colonialism even — as when we see Anthony Hopkins’s rubber trader Henry Wilcox in his office named for Africa, but which Emma Thompson’s Margaret Schlegel notes has nothing that might suggest that continent. The two of them fall in love after the death of his wife Ruth (Vanessa Redgrave), who had become friends with Margaret, and even between these two families, the class divides are strong, roughly Tory vs Labour politically, bankers vs artisans. Into that mix, the story also throws the working class Leonard Bast (Samuel West), eagerly trying to better himself, but the way all these three families intersect creates tension, conflict, a bit of tragedy and a lot of shifting ethical dynamics. The film cannily compares the interaction between Leonard and Margaret’s younger flighty sister Helen (Helena Bonham Carter) with that between Henry and Margaret, and shows the hypocrisy of classism. But all the while, those who long for bucolic countryside, period dresses and the trappings of English heritage cinema will find plenty to their taste also.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director James Ivory; Writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (based on the novel by E. M. Forster); Cinematographer Tony Pierce-Roberts; Starring Emma Thompson, Anthony Hopkins, Helena Bonham Carter, Samuel West, Vanessa Redgrave; Length 142 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Friday 17 December 2021 (and a long time ago, probably on VHS at home in Wellington in the 1990s).

Criterion Sunday 483: Repulsion (1965)

This is a dark, atmospheric horror film, or perhaps more a psychological terror film, because much of the pain and panic we see is inside Catherine Deneuve’s heroine Carole. She seems traumatised by something, and while it’s not something that we ever see or is ever explained, it seems fairly clear that it goes back some way into her past, causing her to move through the world as if in a fugue state. That’s what the film’s camera is attempting to capture, along with a jarring score, that constantly fixates on small details that take on something greater, something horrific in the way that it all cuts together. And while nothing particularly shocking happens outwardly — though there are some deeply unpleasant men (even if a lot of their behaviour is just that of 60s London) — the accretion of details mount up to something tense, putting us inside Carole’s mind, inflicted by a constant state of terror. As an English-language outing from its director (Roman Polanski, who would go on to greater renown and of course infamy) it has a peculiar focus and a power that follows on from his (Polish language) debut Knife in the Water.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Roman Polanski; Writers Polanski, Gérard Brach and David Stone; Cinematographer Gilbert Taylor; Starring Catherine Deneuve, Ian Hendry, Yvonne Furneaux, John Fraser; Length 105 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 28 November 2021.

Cruella (2021)

My week of newish cinema releases continues with this film, directed by the dude who did I, Tonya (2017). Again, I didn’t review that on here, but I quite liked it? It had some good performances. This film is equally stylised, and very silly, and probably not Good. I expect there are people out there who hate it, but I try to be positive and, well, it looks good. Jenny Beaven did the costume design, who I laud below as the auteur at work here.


This is not, I suppose a ‘good’ film in the traditional sense, but it is in the sense that most films that seem to get made these days are: big and showy and well-designed and just so, with big performances. It’s fun, is what it is, but it has no depth. They clearly spent an enormous amount on the music, but I don’t think it’s used very inventively — it’s largely all 60s music for a film set on the cusp of punk with a lead character who has a sort of Vivienne Westwood chic but even her central fashion show is soundtracked by Iggy and the Stooges (though perhaps that’s a commentary in itself on the reliance of British punk on American archetypes). Anyway, too many of the cues seem too obvious, and then the plot in general is also really quite stultifyingly straightforward. (Quite aside from having us believe that an actress as distinctive as Emma Stone playing a character as singular as this could play an alter ego without detection, though I assume there’s a Shakespearean level of suspension of disbelief happening here.) But Stone and Thompson camp it up, Paul Walter Hauser is excellent as a villainous Cockney sidekick (with a wandering accent) and the real auteur here is the costume designer, clearly. This is a film about frocks: great gowns, beautiful gowns.

Cruella (2021)CREDITS
Director Craig Gillespie; Writers Aline Brosh McKenna, Kelly Marcel and Steve Zissis (based on the novel The Hundred and One Dalmatians by Dodie Smith); Cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis; Starring Emma Stone, Emma Thompson, Joel Fry, Paul Walter Hauser, Mark Strong; Length 134 minutes.
Seen at the Penthouse, Wellington, Monday 7 June 2021.

Criterion Sunday 441: The Small Back Room (aka Hour of Glory, 1949)

Powell and Pressburger made quite a few films, but few of them have the profile of their big Technicolor productions like The Red Shoes or The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, among many others, and this black-and-white World War II-set drama about a bomb disposal expert (of sorts) is one of their lesser-remembered productions. It stars David Farrar, best known from his turn in another of their better-known films from a few years below, Black Narcissus. He’s playing Sammy Rice, an embittered alcoholic scientist working away in a secret department during the war, who has some good ideas he feels are being smothered by bureaucracy and mismanagement (the government minister is a particular dimwit, as ministers always seem to be), and his relationship with Kathleen Byron’s Susan isn’t exactly going swimmingly either. That’s the set-up for the emotional dramatic arcs, while in the background there’s a MacGuffin involving a new German bomb that’s been killing kids, but the film is mostly focused on those interpersonal dynamics, along with his grumpiness at work. It’s an interesting angle on the war, not as a stage for heroics, but as a grim series of ordeals that everyone struggles through as best they can, not always handling things very well. It also has an excellent noirish, even expressionist, sense of dim lighting, as high contrast shadows are thrown over many scenes. Maybe not the greatest of the Powell and Pressburger collabs, but certainly an intriguing one.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors/Writers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (based on the novel by Nigel Balchin); Cinematographer Christopher Challis; Starring David Farrar, Kathleen Byron, Jack Hawkins, Michael Gough, Cyril Cusack; Length 107 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), Wellington, Friday 25 June 2021.

Criterion Sunday 436: Пред дождот Pred doždot (Before the Rain, 1994)

I saw this back in the 90s, when it was still the darling of the festival scene, trading in all the tropes that were so much in vogue at that time: cyclical narratives, weighted down with metaphorical meaning, and a quasi-mystical sense of Balkan violence. There were plenty of films about that part of the world and blending it with the multi-strand interlocking narrative — albeit in an elegant way which intentionally resists cyclical readings by implanting inconsistencies like characters still being alive in one segment when they should be dead in another, that kind of thing. Which is all a way of saying it hasn’t necessarily dated all that well, and strikes me as trying a little too hard to find poetic depths, but it’s still a fine film for a fledgling country like [North] Macedonia, and one that broadly-speaking deserved its contemporary accolades. Rade Šerbedžija is the stand-out in the cast, although it’s always lovely to see Katrin Cartlidge on screen (who had far too short a career), and brings a certain grizzled authenticity to scenes set amongst internecine religious-based conflict that never fully reveals its causes, perhaps because they are lost, in an area that certainly at that point had seen a lot of pain.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Milcho Manchevski Милчо Манчевски; Cinematographer Manuel Teran; Starring Rade Šerbedžija Раде Шербеџија, Katrin Cartlidge, Grégoire Colin, Labina Mitevska Лабина Митевска; Length 113 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Saturday 5 June 2021 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, August 1997).

Criterion Sunday 405: Die 3 Groschen-Oper (The Threepenny Opera, aka L’Opéra de quat’sous, 1931)

There are two versions of this film by Pabst, filmed with different central casts but on the same sets on the same days. Both are included on the Criterion edition, but I watched the German one, and after also watching ten minutes of the French version, I do believe the former to be the better. The shadows are deeper and darker, and the lead character of Mackie Messer as played by Rudolf Forster is so much sterner and more forbidding a figure, plus he has a very evilly twirlable moustache unlike Albert Préjean’s clean-faced boyishly roguish criminal in the French version. Of course, I imagine we’re all familiar with the “Mack the Knife” song (“Die Moritat” in German), but aside from the songs the German film feels almost eerily devoid of sound. In this respect it differs from the kind of filmmaking, with orchestral scores to soften the empty moments, which we have since become used to — although it is perhaps also a choice, to emphasise the solitude and darkness of this vision of Victorian London, and the dangers within it. The greatest danger is withheld until the final shots, when Bertolt Brecht’s darkly cynical punchline is unveiled and of course it’s that capitalism is the greatest villain. Perhaps this seems a little old-fashioned, but it still has power.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • Aside from the French alternate version, which in some respects could be considered a separate film, there’s a 20 minute comparison of the two versions by academic Charles O’Brien, which is very illuminating about both how it was done, but also the different choices Pabst and his collaborators made in bringing it to the screen, including lightening the tone and literally lighting the set more brightly, giving it a softer more comedic feeling than the darker German original.
  • There’s also a strange and very brief introduction from a 1950s reissue in which Fritz Rasp (who played Peachum) and Ernst Busch (the street singer of “Die Moritat”) look on from a theatre box and Busch sings the original final lyrics. It creates a mood, for sure.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director G. W. Pabst; Writers Béla Balázs, Léo Lania and Ladislaus Vajda (based on the play by Bertolt Brecht with music by Kurt Weill); Cinematographer Fritz Arno Wagner; Starring Rudolf Forster, Carola Neher, Reinhold Schünzel, Lotte Lenya; Length 110 minutes [German version].

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Saturday 6 March 2021.

Criterion Sunday 368: Corridors of Blood (1958)

Appropriately, it’s Hallowe’en when I watched this horror film, the last film in Criterion’s “Monsters and Madmen” boxset, which has been a trove of mediocre late-50s genre pieces but just for that has made it somewhat interesting by comparison to their usual fare. This I think is probably one of the best, but it’s also the only one that doesn’t take the horror much beyond the actual period into aliens and monsters, because the real monster here (as in a lot of the best horror) is a very human hubris. Boris Karloff plays a doctor in 1840s London experimenting with various chemicals to create a viable anaesthetic, which inevitably drives him to darker and more morally dubious alleys as he needs access to the drugs. There’s a small role for a young rakish Christopher Lee as a resurrection man and a cabal of shady criminals who are more or less at war with the police. The film is filled with dark shadows and atmospheric sets, and if it never really takes off, it’s more than creditable as a period piece, I think.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Robert Day; Writer Jean Scott Rogers; Cinematographer Geoffrey Faithfull; Starring Boris Karloff, Betta St. John, Christopher Lee, Adrienne Corri, Francis de Wolff; Length 86 minutes.

Seen in hotel room (DVD), Hastings, Saturday 31 October 2020.

Criterion Sunday 367: Grip of the Strangler (aka The Haunted Strangler, 1958)

This late-50s monster movie starts out pretty straight, as a Victorian-set police thriller (it appears the original British title was Grip of the Strangler, but it’s more famous under the American title). James Rankin, a private investigator played by Boris Karloff (the casting of whom already tips you off as to the future direction the film might take), looks into the case of the ‘Haymarket Strangler’ 20 years earlier, whom he believes to have been wrongly executed. It’s all fairly clunky in the way it’s put together, as Rankin quickly figures out the whereabouts of the missing murder weapon that’s the key to the case, but you realise when he finds it that this screenwriterly haste is because this is where the film properly starts. Once that happens, there’s plenty of fun in Karloff’s gurning performance, even if it all feels fairly unadventurous. Still, it’s silly fun.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Robert Day; Writers John Croydon [as “John C. Cooper”] and Jan Read (based on Read’s story “Stranglehold”); Cinematographer Lionel Banes; Starring Boris Karloff, Jean Kent, Elizabeth Allan; Length 79 minutes.

Seen in hotel room (DVD), Auckland, Wednesday 28 October 2020.