Criterion Sunday 608: Harold and Maude (1971)

Having not been much of a commercial (or indeed, critical) success at the time of its release, like a lot of the New American cinema of the 1970s, this film has attained a certain cult status. It’s easy perhaps to see why, with its unconventional story of the odd, cherubic-faced, yet morbidly death-obsessed young Harold (Bud Cort) falling in love with the elderly Maude (Ruth Gordon) after meeting at funerals which they’ve been in the habit of crashing. As we see in the early part of the film, Harold has a flair for staging elaborate suicide scenes for the benefit (well, not ‘benefit’ exactly) of his status and image-obsessed mother (Vivian Pickles). Indeed their grand home is not unlike a mausoleum, with its rich mahogany surfaces and elaborate ornamentation. I can’t be entirely sure I like the resulting film, though it surely has its moments, and the romance (such as it is) is treated fairly obliquely. The two characters have contrasting, but complementary, personalities, as Maude seeks to teach Harold something about why life is worth living, and there’s a gratuitous shot of a fading tattoo on her forearm near the end just to drive that point home. But for the most part this is a pleasantly agreeable little black comedy about an odd couple, and made with assured directorial flair by Hal Ashby.

(Written on 30 December 2014.)


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Hal Ashby; Writer Colin Higgins; Cinematographer John Alonzo; Starring Ruth Gordon, Bud Cort, Vivian Pickles; Length 91 minutes.

Seen at ICA, London, Sunday 28 December 2014.

헤어질 결심 Heojil Kyolshim (Decision to Leave, 2022)

Onwards with reviews of my films of 2022 (see my full list here). I feel like a theme for this past year has been the stuff I didn’t expect to like. Paul Thomas Anderson (whose Licorice Pizza I’ve just covered) has only recently become a filmmaker I’ve started to like, but Park Chan-wook was never really high on that list either. I’ve admired his films, including 2013’s Stoker (probably the last of his I reviewed here) and The Handmaiden a few years later, but this most recent film was a surprise to me: a sinuous murder mystery, but far more taut than many of the rather shaggier and comedic efforts we’ve had recently.


At this point in the filmic world of murder mysteries, detective films, and neo-noirs with femmes fatales, there’s not a whole lot that’s new you can do, but you sure can imbue it with a masterfully orchestrated sense of enfolding narratives, a structure so intricate (but expressively evoked) that it threatens to fold in on itself, which turns out to be somehow apt but I won’t get to that here. Instead, Park Chan-wook (a filmmaker I’ve never perhaps fully appreciated) has a bag full of cinematic tricks for pulling different time strands into one another, making flashbacks one with the present and advancing a sort of woozy romance of sorts between its detective lead Hae-joon (Park Hae-il) and the mysterious Chinese woman Seo-rae (Tang Wei) who either has bad luck with her husbands or is murderously deceitful. Quite which is the case is what Hae-joon is trying to figure out, but instead he’s just falling for her it seems. I’m not sure there’s anything new to this, but it is made with a lovely sense both of place (whether foggy, snowy or beachy) and of these interlocking characters circling around one another for the film’s length.

Heojil Kyolshim (2022) posterCREDITS
Director Park Chan-wook 박찬욱; Writers Jeong Seo-kyeong 정서경 and Park; Cinematographer Kim Ji-yong 김지용; Starring Tang Wei 汤唯, Park Hae-il 박해일, Lee Jung-hyun 이정현; Length 139 minutes.
Seen at Light House Cuba, Wellington, Friday 4 November 2022.

Licorice Pizza (2021)

Just kicking off some reviews of my films of 2022 (see my full list here) with a film that was released in January here in NZ but which made a lot of 2021 best-ofs, as well as getting quite a few brickbats thrown at it (I think for good reason). I know my mum hated it, for a start. But not me, I wanted it to keep going.


As a hangout movie with a bunch of likeable characters, a bunch of slightly odd ones, and a general vibe of positivity, I like this film a lot. Still, it’s up there with, say, Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some!! as a very dude-centric movie, or at least one that seems to be putting across that particular point of view, of a young man in the 1970s already starting to imagine his life as an adult. Not all the scenes are focused on him — and indeed Alana Haim probably ends up being the strongest and most interesting character in the film, and that’s certainly to the film’s credit — but you feel as if Cooper Hoffman (Philip Seymour’s son) as teen actor/grifter Gary Valentine is the perspective the film is written from, so perhaps some of what happens may be construed as a teenage fantasy. Because whatever its defenders say, it certainly is problematic in the way that the relationship plays out (specifically the age difference). It feels hard to defend, although you can see that his being still young enough to be childish in certain ways and her not quite old enough to be entirely unable to tap into the same feeling, is part of what the film is about. It just sits oddly that there is this convincing, palpable and undeniably at times sexual chemistry between the two of them. That aside (along with John Michael Higgin’s restaurateur character’s weird — pathetic and obviously offensive — racism, which doesn’t even really match much of the rest of the film’s tone), this film is still one my favourites I’ve seen this year. It conjures, in so seemingly simple a way, such a very specific vibe, of the early-70s, the hazy, grainy look of LA in the movies, the slightly grungy (and even verging on ugly) prettiness of its leads, and a picaresque narrative that is happy to take novelistic detours but never strays far from the feeling between Alana and Gary. For all its faults, which are ingrained deeply and may even be necessary to the film’s appeal, I loved it.

Licorice Pizza (2021) posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Paul Thomas Anderson; Cinematographers Michael Bauman and Anderson; Starring Cooper Hoffman, Alana Haim, Bradley Cooper, Sean Penn, Benny Safdie, Tom Waits; Length 133 minutes.
Seen at Penthouse, Wellington, Thursday 27 January 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 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 563: Something Wild (1986)

I can only assume there’s an element of nostalgia to the way people view this film. It’s good fun, for sure, and perhaps setting it against much of what passed for mainstream entertainment in the 1980s is enough to rate it highly. I can respect that, but this feels like a messy film. It’s certainly a film about messy people living their lives, and that’s going to get messy, but just structurally there are plenty of longueurs where the film feels aimless, the way Charlie is trying to put his life together, or Audrey/Lulu is trying to figure out her identity. All I know is that Ray Liotta adds a necessary element of danger to a story that could easily get bogged down in new wave 80s quirkiness, like its angular soundtrack (which is nevertheless pretty solid). There’s a sense in which these characters feel like a throwback, and Melanie Griffith is somehow both iconic — a manic pixie dream girl avant la lettre — and deserves a better written character, but she knows exactly how to pitch herself against Jeff Daniels’s rather dull NYC corporate salary man. It’s a bold, colourful film brimming with ideas, not all of which work, but I’m glad Demme found an outlet for them.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jonathan Demme; Writer E. Max Frye; Cinematographer Tak Fujimoto; Starring Melanie Griffith, Jeff Daniels, Ray Liotta; Length 113 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Wednesday 24 August 2022.

Criterion Sunday 556: Senso (1954)

This film is, undoubtedly, full-blooded. If you have any kind of aversion to melodrama, you would be well-advised to be aware of that going in, because Visconti and his lead actor Alida Valli do not, in any way, hold back. She plays the Countess Serpieri, an Italian noblewoman in 1866 just as Italy is seeking its independence, whose cousin (Massimo Girotti) is deeply embedded in the resistance fight, but yet she dramatically, deeply, impossibly falls in love with a young Austrian officer Franz (played rather less memorably by Farley Granger, and truly the lip-synching is, as you’d expect from Italian films, very far off). The further she is sucked into passionate love for this pathetic preening jerk, the further she betrays her country and her ideals, until both are thrown explosively against one another in a final showdown that really undoes them both. The title is apt: this is a film of the senses, taking its cue (as VIsconti often does) from opera, which is where it literally begins, until the entire film is suffused with an operatic sensibility and the denouement can’t help but be bold. So if you like your films melodramatic and operatic, then this is exactly the kind of cinema you will love.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Luchino Visconti; Writers Suso Cecchi d’Amico, Visconti, Giorgio Bassani, Carlo Alianello, Giorgio Prosperi, Tennessee Williams and Paul Bowles; Cinematographers G.R. Aldo and Robert Krasker; Starring Alida Valli, Farley Granger, Massimo Girotti; Length 123 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 24 July 2022.

Criterion Sunday 531: The Docks of New York (1928)

Sternberg’s last surviving silent film reaches a feverish peak that he would sustain over his next run of sound films starring Marlene Dietrich. It conjures the atmosphere of the titular location, beautifully using light and shadow, smoke and fog, and gliding camerawork. The actors are pretty great too, with George Bancroft giving his ship’s stoker character, Bill, a burly menace softened by his evident warmth of feeling towards Betty Compson’s suicidal prostitute Mae. There’s a generosity towards both characters, a lack of moral judgement, and the drama is in whether Bill will overcome his compulsion to fulfil the manly archetype he seems to hold of the sweaty stoker committed to his backbreaking labour, and whether Mae is willing to accept the possibility of a better life for herself. It’s all fairly compact and stays focused on the poetic evocation of this setting, doing a beautiful job of capturing what ultimately is a romance — and a hopeful one at that.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Josef von Sternberg; Writer Jules Furthman (from the story “The Dock Walloper” by John Monk Saunders); Cinematographer Harold Rosson; Starring George Bancroft, Betty Compson; Length 75 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), Wellington, Monday 7 March 2022 (and earlier on VHS in the university library, Wellington, July 2000).

Criterion Sunday 503: Lola Montès (1955)

This is one of those grand European follies (like Les Amants du Pont-Neuf in more recent times, perhaps) which burned up money in its production and then failed spectacularly at the box office, but it’s the last film by the great director Max Ophüls and if it’s a failure, it’s a spectacular and beautiful one, immaculately staged and choreographed. Of course, as a film, it’s not a failure at all, but perhaps it just didn’t suit the tastes of the mid-1950s audience. It’s set a hundred years earlier, around the time of the revolutions of 1848, and tells a story of a courtesan and (apparently fairly indifferent) dancer known primarily for her liaisons with rich and powerful men, such is the way of that era’s stardom. Martine Carol in the title role is a glamorous presence but, when seen from the vantage point of her later years performing in a circus, a curiously voiceless one, as the ringmaster Peter Ustinov puts most of her words into her mouth. I don’t think that’s a failure of acting, though: if she feels underwhelming, it’s because her life has pushed her to this, and the flashbacks in which her story is told find her with more agency and a more vibrant presence. But acting aside this is a film peculiarly constructed in the staging and shooting, as beautifully framed widescreen images are composed, and the emotional movement of the story is as evident from the camerawork as from the screenplay or acting. Undoubtedly a film to lose oneself in on the big screen, it’s one of cinema’s great films by one of the medium’s finest directors.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Max Ophüls; Writers Ophüls and Annette Wademant (based on the novel La Vie extraordinaire de Lola Montès by Cécil Saint-Laurent); Cinematographer Christian Matras; Starring Martine Carol, Peter Ustinov, Anton Walbrook, Will Quadflieg, Oskar Werner; Length 115 minutes.

Seen at Te Papa, Wellington, Sunday 30 July 2000 (as well as earlier on laserdisc at the university, Wellington, April 1998, and most recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Friday 7 January 2022).

West Side Story (2021)

The big budget Hollywood musical seems to be back in this year. Maybe the film financiers thought the world was due a bit of levity, but as far as I can tell from the box office stats, that’s not necessarily what’s been shifting the tickets. That said, I’m not a Hollywood financial analyst, nor do I care to be. We’ve already had one big bright spectacular set in New York City during the summer, which was In the Heights, and now here’s another, albeit with a slightly longer stage pedigree. Neither is perfect, but both are entirely competent at what they do, and both showcase a bright and wide talent pool drawn from Latinx musical performers (and Ansel Elgort, who is none of these things). Actually one of the standouts here is Mike Faist as Riff, a character who’s never really been the most interesting, but against the slightly damp central pairing, he and David Alvarez as Bernardo — the rival gang leaders — really do shine out.


This is a long film but it’s one that’s not short of high production values or visual inventiveness, as you’d expect from Spielberg and his team. It opens with some gliding and vertiginous camera movements around what feels like a bombsite but instead turns out to be a slum clearance to make way for the Lincoln Center, as the central groups of young men are introduced, finger-clicking their way down the street in classic style. They look foolishly young, but that’s the point of course: they are kids, somewhere on the cusp between playground fights and becoming proper hoodlums. So the baby face of Ansel Elgort isn’t really the problem, not even the absurd idea that he’s spent any time in prison. After all, this is a musical and there’s a certain expectation of stylisation and non-naturalism. A bigger problem is that he just isn’t very good, either as a singer or as an actor; he has a certain presence I suppose (he’s very tall), but against a cast of largely musical theatre kids, the lack of experience really shows. Newcomer Rachel Zegler as Maria is much better, but it’s the supporting characters like Mike Faist’s Riff, David Alvarez’s Bernardo and Ariana DeBose’s Anita who really steal the limelight, not least in the big showstopper “America”, which remains the highlight of this film as of any production. Just that strength and depth of minor roles is enough to carry the film, along with the polished set design and — another nice touch — the use of extended stretches of (untranslated) Spanish for the Puerto Rican characters. It’s a different beast from the 1961 film adaptation, and it makes some excellent changes too, but that’s also such an iconic juggernaut of 20th century American culture that maybe nothing could ever be fully satisfying. Still, this does a great job all the same.

West Side Story (2021) posterCREDITS
Director Steven Spielberg; Writer Tony Kushner (based on the musical by Jerome Robbins, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents); Cinematographer Janusz Kamiński; Starring Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler, Ariana DeBose, David Alvarez, Mike Faist, Rita Moreno; Length 156 minutes.
Seen at Penthouse, Wellington, Sunday 19 December 2021.