Criterion Sunday 572: Léon Morin, prêtre (Léon Morin, Priest, 1961)

I’m not exactly certain what makes a Jean-Pierre Melville film a Melville film, what his particular touch is, but I do know that I really like just about all of them that I’ve seen. In his way he’s as singular a director as his contemporary (albeit slightly older) Robert Bresson, who also had an interest in religious themes. Melville didn’t really explore them quite as much as he did here, and maybe that’s what sets it apart from his gangster films, but it has all the essential elements of great drama — two people, drawn to each other despite the fact that one is a priest, at a time and place of great trauma (Nazi-occupied France) — and is filmed in austere black-and-white. Belmondo is an actor I’ve never fully connected with, but he brings something compelling to his priest, and the film becomes one of clandestine glances shared between him and Emmanuelle Riva. That said, the film is never quite as melodramatic as I’ve made out, and moves like a chamber drama, while giving enough life to the characters around this central pair that it threatens throughout to move off on another tangent, before being pulled back into these two, and their tangled, messy lives, but it’s a sympathetic portrait of what a good and moral church man might be at a time when such figures seemed to be sorely lacking.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jean-Pierre Melville (based on the novel of the same name in French but usually translated as The Passionate Heart by Béatrix Beck); Cinematographer Henri Decaë; Starring Emmanuelle Riva, Jean-Paul Belmondo; Length 117 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 25 September 2022.

Criterion Sunday 567: 細雪 Sasame-yuki (The Makioka Sisters, 1983)

A later film by Japanese master Kon Ichikawa and this does attain a sort of regal bearing, not least for the way its four titular protagonists carry themselves. I must confess the first two times I started watching this I fell asleep, and partly that must be due to me being tired, but to a certain extent it has a sort of drifting and undemonstrative quality that I’ve seen in a lot of Japanese domestic dramas. After all, not a huge amount happens in the usual plot sense, but lives move and change — cities, lovers and marriages prospects, allegiances to other sisters — in ways that remain profound within the world of the film, even if it all just seems to be taking place while seated on the floor of various homes. But it’s beautiful and arranged like a novel, elegantly broken up into chapters and allowing each of these sisters to have her own distinct character within the piece. Just make sure to watch when you’re able to give it your full attention, because the action remains fairly subtle.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Kon Ichikawa 市川崑; Writers Shinya Hidaka 日高真也 and Ichikawa (based on the novel by Jun’ichiro Tanizaki 谷崎潤一郎); Cinematographer Kiyoshi Hasegawa 長谷川清; Starring Sayuri Yoshinaga 吉永小百合, Yuko Kotegawa 古手川祐子, Keiko Kishi 岸惠子, Yoshiko Sakuma 佐久間良子, Juzo Itami 伊丹十三; Length 140 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Monday 5 September 2022.

Whina (2022)

As usual, my film blog has become largely just the Criterion Sunday entries this year, so I’m going to try and post more reviews of other films, maybe some that actually make it to cinemas in this country. This one is a local production, and it’s good to see one of the co-directors/co-writers is a wāhine, one of the crop of fine women directors who gained greater exposure via Waru (2017). It’s based on the life of Dame Whina Cooper, who is probably not as well known even in Aotearoa as she used to be, but retains a fearsome reputation for her land rights activism and Māori leadership up to her death at the age of 98.


I can’t really deny that I found this affecting, so any flaws were very much ones that are inherent to any generation-spanning biopic treatment. Given the time constraints, events from Dame Whina’s life are distilled down into short scenes, often between people representing different ideas, in order to keep things moving. There’s a constant back and forth between the 1975 hīkoi (march) that she led down the length of the North Island as an 80-year-old (though she lived another 18 years after that) and events from earlier in her life, and it’s very much that younger self, played by Miriama McDowell, who makes the most impact in the narrative. I was left wanting more to flesh out her life but that would probably have needed a wider canvas (like a miniseries). What’s here though is strong, and is focused around the community in its own spaces (we see nothing of the government and the only real pākehā representative is the Catholic priest), and that’s probably the film’s greatest strength, in depicting the power of community organising and action. It’s a suitable stage for Whina too, and the best place to gauge her contribution to society (there’s one brief scene of her in a Wellington boardroom and it doesn’t go too well). The only regret I was left with is that, if this had been a very different film with a different attitude to history, she would have flicked one of her late husband’s cigarettes over her shoulder as she turned to leave the Bishop’s Auckland church, as, in slow-motion and under a thudding rock soundtrack, she burnt down his church like he did her meeting house. The line the filmmakers went with is almost as damning, but…

Whina (2022)CREDITS
Directors James Napier Robertson and Paula Whetu Jones; Writers James Lucas, Napier Robertson and Jones; Cinematographer Leon Narbey; Starring Miriama McDowell, Rena Owen, Vinnie Bennett, James Rolleston; Length 112 minutes.
Seen at Penthouse, Wellington, Saturday 9 July 2021.

Criterion Sunday 549: The Last Picture Show (1971)

A classic, if not the defining, film of the sad people in a sad small town feeling sad at the fleetingness of all things and at their sad, uneventful futures in the dead end of the American Dream genre, which to be fair is a reasonably well-worn one. But I’d not seen this film before, and director Peter Bogdanovich is sensible to keep his focus on the actors and on Larry McMurtry’s script (based on his own youthful experiences I gather, and shot in the small Texas town he grew up in). All these different actors, whether new youthful faces like Jeff Bridges and Cybill Shepherd and Timothy Bottoms (and even Randy Quaid) all hit their marks perfectly, but in a sense this is even more a film for Eileen Brennan and Ellen Burstyn and Cloris Leachman and Ben Johnson, as the older generation who have clearly already lived the lives these teenage kids are going through and who convey an immense amount of pathos. The script is certainly on point with its metaphors, but it wouldn’t matter much were it not for the tightly controlled performances of the leads, underscored by the monochrome cinematography and crumbling small town set design.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Peter Bogdanovich; Writers Larry McMurtry and Bogdanovich (based on McMurtry’s novel); Cinematographer Robert Surtees; Starring Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges, Cybill Shepherd, Cloris Leachman, Ellen Burstyn, Ben Johnson, Eileen Brennan; Length 126 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 2 July 2022.

Criterion Sunday 537: Ansiktet (The Magician, 1958)

I know this will come as a great surprise to all adherents of the cinema of Ingmar Bergman, but this is a film about faith, about the failures and disappointments of organised religion but also about the supernatural, using a Christ-like central figure to channel doubts about the divine. Added to this, it is, as is perhaps rather more underappreciated when it comes to Bergman, essentially a comedy, albeit one with a body count by the end, though everyone just seems to shrug that off (but maybe that’s more a sign of the times). No this is in many respects a bawdy, silly romp but with added occultism (and a touch of horror, too), as Max von Sydow’s apparently mute mesmerist Albert Vogler travels around towns with his little magical sideshow. But… is there more to his powers? The scepticism of one small town he enters, particularly of Gunnar Björnstrand’s physician Vergerus, open up these questions, to which von Sydow’s baleful eyes do a lot of answering. It’s pretty good, made during Bergman’s imperial (and rather more comedic) phase, well worth watching especially if you think it’ll be too dour.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Ingmar Bergman; Cinematographer Gunnar Fischer; Starring Max von Sydow, Gunnar Björnstrand, Ingrid Thulin, Naima Wifstrand, Bengt Ekerot, Bibi Andersson; Length 101 minutes.

Seen at the Embassy, Wellington, Monday 18 July 2022.

Criterion Sunday 536: The Thin Red Line (1998)

I have seen this film many times on the big screen, but have never tried to put into words what I love about it. And while it’s fair to say it’s one of my favourite films, and I’m happy to rate it five stars (or 10/10 or whatever metric you want, although apparently two green ticks is what I currently use here), I don’t particularly hold that it is perfect in every detail. Perhaps what I love about it is more some of the effects that Terrence Malick achieves as a filmmaker, poetic and empathetic achievements, the deployment of actors, the development of its narrative, and the way it stands in relation to other war movies. Because if we want to get into criticism, then I think some of the tropes are still a little bit underdeveloped — particularly Ben Chaplin’s Pvt Bell and his relationship with his wife back home (Miranda Otto), conveyed in largely voiceless flashbacks of them holding each other in pre-war times and followed up with an almost literal “Dear John” letter (his name is actually Jack in the film) and his anguished responses in the twilight and rain of the R&R following a major battle, all of which feels a little bit convenient and familiar.

What’s not so familiar is the elegiac tone, which differed wildly from the other major World War II-era film released that same year of 1998 (Saving Private Ryan). Where Spielberg’s film, or at least its opening, was forceful in its evocation of the brutality of combat, Malick’s film instead subsumes everything into a sort of continuum with nature. The voiceovers — which come from many different characters and create almost a shared voice of humanity joined in pain and confusion — cue this up almost from the outset, the very first words we hear asking “What is this war in the heart of nature, why does nature vie with itself?” while we look on gnarled old swampland trees, overgrown with vines and tendrils. Even when we see our first combat casualty, it’s part of a sequence of the new troops making their way quietly through the jungle, and so the brutality of the vision of a mangled body becomes just part of the evocation of the darkness within nature. The extended battle scenes too alternate Nick Nolte’s Lt Tall shouting down the phone at Cpt Staros (Elias Koteas) with long languorous shots of the Guadalcanal hills, long grass flecked with sun, winds blowing them aside as the troops advance towards the Japanese positions.

So when I say that the film’s imperfections don’t matter to me so much, it’s because this to me is a film about humanity (specifically men, of course) within nature, about death as part of a continuum of life, about the search for the light. This central metaphor of the light is clearly a religious one, and Jim Caviezel’s subsequent film work playing the Christ in Mel Gibson’s self-flagellating film of the Passion (and others) finds its origins here in what is undoubtedly supposed to be a Christ-like figure, rebelling against authority and trying to find the light and goodness in his fellow men. I’m not convinced about the way Malick uses the indigenous Melanesian people in the opening ‘paradise’ sections as well as the subsequent commentary on their fall due to the war which has been unwillingly brought to them, but for me it’s nevertheless a beautiful sequence that combines John Toll’s cinematography with Fauré’s Requiem and Melanesian choirs orchestrated by composer Hans Zimmer, to convey in musical and visual terms this search for the light that ends the film too. Again and again, the restless camera cranes away towards the sky and the sun, and either we see it through the roofs of the homes in the flashback sequences, or it’s obscured by the jungle trees, perceived only as light filtering through the crevices between the leaves, or in holes that nature has made through them.

So yes, while I cannot say that do not see flaws in The Thin Red Line, they are the flaws perhaps of overreaching, of Malick and his fellow collaborators on this film, trying to get at something essential in humanity or how they see humanity as part of the world. It’s a poetic evocation of a world that owes as much to the Bible as it does to James Jones’s novel or to (what I imagine is) the experience of war itself, and so it’s a film I love and happily continue to watch over and over again.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Terrence Malick (based on the novel by James Jones); Cinematographer John Toll; Starring Jim Caviezel, Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, Ben Chaplin, Elias Koteas, Dash Mihok; Length 171 minutes.

Seen at Manners Mall, Wellington, Tuesday 2 March 1999, at the Embassy, Wellington, Monday 7 June 1999, at Riverside Studios, London, Thursday 18 March 2004, and at the Embassy, Wellington, Sunday 15 November 2020 (and on VHS, DVD and Blu-ray at home, in Wellington and London, on several occasions in between).

Criterion Sunday 535: 戦場のメリークリスマス Senjo no Meri Kurisumasu (Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, 1983)

Imagine my surprise getting halfway through this film only to find out that David Bowie’s character is actually a New Zealander… Well, I believe he’s intended to be English, but you can’t edit out those thick NZ accents that the schoolkids boast and the school’s Auckland setting. Those however, are just brief flashback scenes; the rest of the film deals with prisoners of war during World War II on the island of Java, but shot on Rarotonga in the Cook Islands (meaning there’s actually a pretty strong NZ underpinning to this production). Director Nagisa Oshima has a fine way with the camera, composing artful long takes that reflect the intensely internal emotions each of these characters is dealing with — shame, guilt, remorse, fear and longing. There’s certainly no shortage of scenes depicting ritual seppuku, though the anglo cast also go through their fair share of self-lacerating shame and humiliation, and there’s a balance to the way its constructed. Neither side likes the other, but there’s a grudging respect accorded (whether the Japanese officers speaking English, or Tom Conti’s titular Lawrence speaking Japanese to his friend/captor played by Takeshi Kitano in his first feature film role). Negotiating these wartime relationships is a buried psychosexual charge that is mostly only ever in the background, but is clearly there in the ritualistic forms of embrace and punishment that take place. Basically, there’s a lot to unpack, but Oshima does a fantastic job in making a 1980s film that isn’t hideously dated.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There are a number of bonus interviews, including a lengthy piece in which producer Jeremy Thomas, actor Tom Conti and actor/composer Ryuichi Sakamoto reflect on the making of the film. Its labelled on the disc as “On the location” and while each of them does talk about the Cook Islands setting, the discussion widens out into memories of the process, of Oshima’s style as a director, and of each one’s feelings of being an amateur.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Nagisa Oshima 大島渚; Writers Oshima and Paul Mayersberg (based on the novel The Seed and the Sower by Laurens van der Post); Cinematographer Toichiro Narushima 成島東一郎; Starring David Bowie, Tom Conti, Ryuichi Sakamoto 坂本龍一, Takeshi Kitano 北野武, Jack Thompson; Length 123 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 14 May 2022.

Criterion Sunday 530: The Last Command (1928)

Emil Jannings won the very first Best Actor Academy Award for this performance (though actually, in this first Oscars ceremony, actors could be nominated for multiple roles, so technically it was not just for this film). Looking back in retrospect, it can be difficult to judge whether such awards were justified. After all, as is typical of the silent era, there’s a lot of gestural and facial work that seems to modern film viewers rather broad and a little lacking in subtlety. But if you get through those (which come partly from the wordless form, and are partly typical of just the style of acting prevalent at the time), you can see at the core there is indeed something rather fascinatingly complex about Jannings’ work here.

Himself a lauded German actor (as in Murnau films like The Last Laugh), Jannings here plays a grand Russian military figure, perhaps the most senior after the Tsar, fighting desperately against the Bolsheviks in the Russian Revolution of 1917. Finding sympathy here is no natural task — the Tsarist forces aren’t exactly on the side of the people, and as far as I understand from history, America was hardly as virulently anti-revolutionary and anti-Communist back then as it later became — but Jannings and director Sternberg achieve something similar to what Renoir was doing in France: evoking empathy for those relics of history like Jannings’ military man. Along the way he pulls out all kinds of camerawork that has a vibrancy and lightness to it, with movement and momentum matching those of the characters, which would take a while for cinema to regain in the sound era. It’s a film that looks forward to some of Sternberg’s masterpieces of the sound era with Marlene Dietrich, a blend of European and brash American sensibility that’s quite enticing. Plus there’s a young William Powell as a revolutionary turned film director in the framing story.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Josef von Sternberg; Writers John F. Goodrich and Herman J. Mankiewicz (from a story by Lajos Biró); Cinematographer Bert Glennon; Starring Emil Jannings, Evelyn Brent, William Powell; Length 88 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), Wellington, Monday 28 February 2022 (and earlier on VHS in the university library, Wellington, June 2000).

Criterion Sunday 520: Maria Larssons eviga ögonblick (Everlasting Moments, 2008)

There are a number of Jan Troell films in the Criterion Collection and this just happens to be the first of those titles to have been put out by them, but despite having constructed myself a rigorous schedule by which to watch them in order (two every Sunday, as you should know by now!), I still managed to put off this one because it sounded boring. In a sense, it is what I thought it would be — a slow, elegiac ode to a lost personal history — but it also stays clear of being boring by having some fine performances, anchored in a history that feels close to Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander (a high bar), while also somehow being a film reflecting on what it is to be a journeyman artist. Our lead character Maria (played by Maria Heiskanen over a period of years) is seen from her youth through to old age, dealing with a moody husband and an increasing number of children while also occasionally showing some interest in photography. It’s a film that’s about the past enough that it looks like an old film, all sepia tones and earthy colours, but it’s the complexity in the characters and the way that what might become simple moral stories become more layered and complex, as Maria becomes stronger in herself but never quite does what people expect. It’s a very handsome movie, and that’s a fine thing, almost a lost art itself.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jan Troell; Writers Niklas Rådström, Troell and Agneta Ulfsäter-Troell; Cinematographers Troell and Mischa Gavrjusjov; Starring Maria Heiskanen, Mikael Persbrandt, Jesper Christensen; Length 131 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 28 May 2022.

Minari (2020)

A film from earlier this year that I liked and need to try and recall at this great distance, it was released in NZ just before the Oscars ceremony it qualified for (being a 2020 film), where it won the Best Supporting Actress prize for Youn Yuh-jung. I’d seen the director’s debut, which is a Rwandan-set film called Munyurangabo, so his career (and presumably life) has been a fairly peripatetic one. And while this deals with a Korean family, it is set in and also very much is an American film at its heart.


A gentle and sweet film about assimilating into a new culture which will surely ring bells with anyone who’s done that — even if my own experience is merely moving from one anglophone country to another, hardly placing me in the same situation as this Korean family looking for better lives in the early-80s. Having been living in LA, the father, Jacob (Steven Yeun), tempts the family out to a small corner of the middle of nowhere (Arkansas), where he can start a farm and live the life he wants; his wife Monica (Han Ye-ri) is hardly convinced, and brings her mother over from Korea to help her (this is Youn Yuh-jung). However, surprisingly for me, the highlight of the film is the kids (Alan Kim and Noel Kate Cho), who manage to hit the right note and not be too precocious or annoying (as they too often are in films). The plot takes a few rather big turns (such as a fire at one point) that I’m not sure the story needed, but the ensemble acting pulls it through for what is a sensitively told tale.

Minari (2020) posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Lee Isaac Chung 정이삭; Cinematographer Lachlan Milne; Starring Steven Yeun 연상엽, Han Ye-ri 한예리, Youn Yuh-jung 윤여정, Alan Kim 김선, Noel Kate Cho 노엘 케이트 조; Length 115 minutes.
Seen at Penthouse, Wellington, Thursday 11 February 2021.