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.

Criterion Sunday 490: Der Himmel über Berlin (Wings of Desire, 1987)

I find it easy to resist this film, its blend of poetic voiceover, impressionist use of colour and black-and-white, and reflections on the nature of freedom in a still-divided Berlin. But watching it after so many years since having last seen it, I am still forcefully struck with the underlying melancholy. Bruno Ganz is one of a number of angels who seem to be assigned to shadow a handful of people in the city of Berlin; we see (and hear the thoughts of) those he follows, but we also see his fellow angels standing imperceptibly and calmly over the shoulders of others he passes. This all seems to stand in as a conceit by which to evoke Berlin itself, and the film is in a lineage of city symphonies (that prominently includes, of course, Walter Ruttmann’s 1927 silent one about the same city), but it’s a powerful one, suggesting a higher purpose that has been severed somehow. Broken people shuffle amongst ruins and building sites, and there’s a provisional nature to what everyone is doing, a holding pattern. That’s all in the atmosphere, and is barely even expressed, but we have Peter Falk playing himself after a fashion as an actor, grounded and gruff, while Solveig Dommartin is a French trapeze artist, flying lightly through the air, and these seem to be like poles within which Bruno Ganz’s Dammiel tries to make his way. There’s a choice, and a movement towards the end, which promises a sequel (there is one; I’ve not ever seen it), and I’m not sure how substantial it all is really, but it feels somehow defining of an era and remains a beautiful film — and it seems appropriate that it was shot by the cinematographer of Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast — however much I try to cynically resist it.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Wim Wenders; Writers Wenders, Peter Handke and Richard Reitinger; Cinematographer Henri Alekan; Starring Bruno Ganz, Otto Sander, Solveig Dommartin, Peter Falk, Curt Bois; Length 127 minutes.

Seen at home (VHS), Wellington, April 1998 and again at home (Kanopy streaming), Wellington, Sunday 26 December 2021.

A Castle for Christmas (2021)

It’s that time of the year, the time of the year for the extremely bad (but hopefully still fun to watch) seasonal films on just about every channel you care to look on, and as usual Netflix has stepped up to the plate with a bunch of releases. I had hoped to bring you that seasonal treat Spencer for this special day, but inexplicably that hasn’t been released here in NZ yet, so you’ll have to make do with this very bad — but nevertheless compulsively watchable (if only for the car crash of Elwes’s Scottish accent) — film.


The director Mary Lambert is best known for directing horror movies (most famously 1989’s Pet Sematary), and I’d really like to put the knife in and say this is in the same genre, but honestly there is stuff I liked here. It is formulaic in the extreme, and don’t even get me started on Cary Elwes’s Scottish accent (okay maybe do, because it is very bad, just constantly, almost every scene perceptibly worse than the last one), and there are many holes in the plot. The script, in short, is messy. There’s a slightly evil couple who show up at one point in the middle of the film, and you go, “Ah… her ex! Or some nefarious English buyers for the castle. The stakes have just been raised!” but it swerves and you never see them again. The stakes therefore never get raised, and remain firmly at the level of the relationship between Brooke Shields’ American romance writer and Elwes as a Scottish duke fallen on hard times (or hard-ish, well maybe not hard at all really in the grand scheme of things, but hard by the standards of Christmas-themed romance movies). It really is a mess, and the music is mostly pretty bad and makes it seem like it really wanted to be an Irish-set movie (though most of the actors are English, so maybe they should have just sticked to there, as England has castles too). But, for all that, it retains a sort of kitschy charm.

A Castle for Christmas (2021) posterCREDITS
Director Mary Lambert; Writers Ally Carter and Kim Beyer-Johnson; Cinematographer Michael Coulter; Starring Brooke Shields, Cary Elwes, Lee Ross, Andi Osho; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), Wellington, Sunday 12 December 2021.

Criterion Sunday 487: That Hamilton Woman (1941)

This very much feels like a film from 1941. Almost every account of the film seems to want to mention that it was Winston Churchill’s favourite film (even that maybe he wrote one or two of Nelson’s speeches), but that’s the kind of thing that feels apocryphal: it’s a film that is engineered to feed into the war effort, and is thus part of a propaganda machine. If Nelson’s speeches feel Churchillian that’s because they are designed to be a rousing call to arms against a foreign despot hellbent on European domination. Still, for all that, this cannily remains focused on Vivien Leigh’s title character, Emma Hamilton, a Lady but one of dubious morals, it seems. Or perhaps not dubious, but certainly a woman who remains hampered throughout her life by the taint of her class background. You can see it in the aristocratic men who fall for her, falling for an image or idea of her (as a teenager she was the model for a number of paintings, particularly by Romney), but who keep her at arm’s length, never quite admitting her to the centre of society, and thus it’s framed by the story of her sad demise. It also feels a little wayward in its plotting at times, taking us down side roads that don’t seem to add to the drama at the heart, which is about her affair with (real-life husband) Laurence Olivier’s Lord Nelson. It ends up feeling like a missed opportunity with the strong undertow of wartime propaganda, albeit a much more palatable way to spin that.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Alexander Korda; Writers Walter Reisch and R. C. Sherriff; Cinematographer Rudolph Maté; Starring Vivien Leigh, Laurence Olivier, Alan Mowbray, Gladys Cooper; Length 125 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Saturday 11 December 2021.

Criterion Sunday 476: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)

I guess that at a certain level this is one of those stories of a lifetime lived over much of the 20th century meaning it gets to reflect on these different eras of American life as it goes on, but it never dwells on them like in, say, Forrest Gump. This is a film that lives in period details and its fanciful imagination, and undoubtedly David Fincher (a legendarily exacting director) brings something rigorous to the way its filmed, such that I can’t entirely take against it (a bit like Todd Haynes changing gears with Wonderstruck a few years back). But it’s very strange and not entirely successful in its whimsy and wonderment. Brad Pitt does his beautiful moping thing (eventually; it’s a long wait until we see him as the Redford-like Hollywood golden boy we know he will eventually turn into), and the fine Black actors feel somewhat relegated in a by-the-numbers southern plot, which is a shame as Taraji P. Henson and Mahershala Ali are, as we all know, capable of so much more. It’s a long work (especially for a film based on a short story) and the reverse-ageing Pitt’s love story with the normally-ageing Cate Blanchett makes for some discomfort, but there are also some genuinely emotional moments that mean this film isn’t entirely wasted. Also, it looks great of course. It’s just… odd.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director David Fincher; Writers Eric Roth and Robin Swicord (based on the short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald); Cinematographer Claudio Miranda; Starring Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Taraji P. Henson, Julia Ormond, Maheshala Ali, Tilda Swinton; Length 165 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 6 November 2021.

Criterion Sunday 462: Le Dernier Métro (The Last Metro, 1980)

There are two stories here and I’m not convinced they are always in sync with one another. There’s the story of occupied France in the early-1940s, under Nazi control with people just doing what they can to make ends meet and escape the controlling boot of the occupying forces. And then there’s the theatre story, which is very much at the centre. It has all the feeling of Les Enfants du paradis but with opulent colour and set design and a bravura performance from Catherine Deneuve as a woman whose Jewish theatre director husband (Heinz Bennent) she says has escaped Paris but is actually secretly hiding out in the cellar. So you’ve got this behind-the-scenes story of a theatre troupe rehearsing for a new production, a bit of three-way love action courtesy of a handsome leading actor (Gérard Depardieu), and then you have Nazis. I suppose that puts it somewhat in the camp of Cabaret except with less, er, camp. It’s gorgeously shot and mounted, with some tense set-pieces involving the Germans, but in keeping its focus on the theatrical setting over the horrors of the era, it feels far more like a throwback to a classic era of French filmmaking, and that’s not a bad thing.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director François Truffaut; Writers Truffaut and Suzanne Schiffman; Cinematographer Néstor Almendros; Starring Catherine Deneuve, Gérard Depardieu, Jean Poiret, Heinz Bennent, Sabine Haudepin, Jean-Louis Richard; Length 131 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Wednesday 15 September 2021.

Criterion Sunday 461: Hobson’s Choice (1954)

Not sure why I should be suspicious every time I start a David Lean film, but he knew how to craft a movie and most that I’ve seen have been exceptionally well crafted, and not all of them have attained the renown of, say, Lawrence of Arabia or Brief Encounter. The cannily observed The Passionate Friends is a personal highlight, for example, and while this particular film looks to be a rather knockabout comedy — it casts Charles Laughton as a drunken bootmaker in late-19th century Salford (just outside Manchester), and that’s a recipe for comic disaster — it turns out to be, if not social realism, still a fairly incisive work about the English working classes. The title comes from a phrase referring to having no effective control over a situation, and his daughter Maggie (Brenda De Banzie) is the one offering Henry Hobson that particular ‘choice’, as she takes control of her own future within the (fairly mean) terms that society is offering her. I wouldn’t call it a progressive film, but it feels moreso than some of what would come out of English society in the decades after this, and at its heart is a delightful romantic fantasy about getting one up on the small-minded mean-spirited small town forces of conformity.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director David Lean; Writers Wynyard Browne, Lean and Norman Spencer (based on the play by Harold Brighouse); Cinematographer Jack Hildyard; Starring Charles Laughton, Brenda De Banzie, John Mills, Daphne Anderson, Prunella Scales; Length 108 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Friday 10 September 2021.

Criterion Sunday 457: Magnificent Obsession (1954)

I don’t know enough about the career of German expatriate director Douglas Sirk to be certain, but this feels like the first film of his imperial phase of filmmaking, or at least an important milestone in defining that peculiar style of gaudily-coloured, stylistically heightened melodramas of the late-50s, often produced by Ross Hunter and starring Rock Hudson. It’s not to my mind the equal of All That Heaven Allows or Written on the Wind (or the monochrome Tarnished Angels) but it orchestrates a thrillingly tangled web of obsessions pretty well.

Jane Wyman plays Helen (or Mrs Phillips), a woman indirectly widowed due to wealthy playboy Bob Merrick (Rock Hudson)’s misadventures, which prompts him to reform himself and, via a series of ridiculous plot contortions, win the love of Helen (sure) and restore her eyesight (don’t ask) by becoming a world-leading surgeon (look, okay, yes). To say that last half hour is a rush of absurdity heaped upon absurdity is hardly to deny the central power of the film as a full-throated melodrama, and indeed Sirk is attentive to the power differentials between characters (even if Helen’s eventual acceptance of her feelings toward Bob — who initially rather dubiously romances her under a different name while she’s blind — feels a little bit perfunctory). Still, if you like Sirk’s style, it’s all done with an assertive sense of style.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • The main extra is the bonus disc dedicated to a presentation of John M. Stahl’s original 1935 adaptation of the same book (written by Sarah Y. Mason, Victor Heerman and George O’Neil, cinematography John J. Mescall, starring Robert Taylor and Irene Dunne). I’ve seen a few of Stahl’s films as director (mostly at Il Cinema Ritrovato) but still don’t feel I really have a grasp on him. That a handful of his films, like this one, were remade by Douglas Sirk is probably unfortunate to Stahl’s own standing but I just wonder if these early melodramas would ever make quite the same impression as Sirk’s gloriously overwrought 50s pieces. I’m certainly surprised at how much is similar in both, mostly all the ridiculous plot twists, but while this is a fine Irene Dunne performance, I am nevertheless somewhat underwhelmed by the sneering arrogant Bob Merrick of Robert Taylor, the poor man’s James Stewart as far as I can tell (both started around this time, so maybe 30s Hollywood just liked that look). Where Sirk brought the saturated colour and equally saturated string section, this plays a little more austerely, largely as a morality play of Taylor grappling with his conscience over the way things have played out and resolving to become a better man. A likeable film without the obvious hooks of Sirk’s but probably that’s down to me.
  • There are a couple of short ten-minute pieces paying tribute to this film (and Sirk) by Allison Anders and Kathryn Bigelow, both of which are effusive in their praise and interesting in terms of each’s own filmmaking, even if neither strikes one as particularly Sirkian.
  • The screenwriter Robert Blees also speaks a bit about his work on the film as the primary writer (there are a lot of credits, including the writers on Stahl’s own film) but clearly Blees was more attuned to what Sirk and his producer Ross Hunter wanted.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Douglas Sirk; Writers Robert Blees and Wells Root (based on the screenplay by Sarah Y. Mason and Victor Heerman, itself based on the novel by Lloyd C. Douglas); Cinematographer Russell Metty; Starring Jane Wyman, Rock Hudson, Barbara Rush, Agnes Moorehead; Length 108 minutes.

Seen at Te Papa, Wellington, Sunday 1 August 1999 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Monday 30 August 2021).