Those of us who follow the Criterion Collection know that their hearts are truly only with Japanese samurai movies and cheap American sci-fi/horror B movies. For the first hour of this I was willing to write off its ropy (though probably pretty good by contemporary standards) special effects, low budget stripped-back chamber drama aesthetic and ridiculous stranded-on-Mars survival scenario (rocks that emit oxygen when they burn! vegan sausages that grow in underwater pods! water!) as being simply bad. But the film grew on me, and ultimately it’s pretty good fun, ridiculous though it continues to be. How can I really take against any film with elements like those, and in some ways the evident budgetary constraints of some Californian desertscapes (Zabriskie Point, I believe) combined with artificial studio sets result in an almost elegant widescreen spectacle.
- One of the actors, Victor Lundin (who plays the space slave “Friday”), recorded a little song for his appearances at sci-fi conventions and that is here backed by images from the film.
- There’s a nice little collection of still images too, from the production, from drawings in the original script and its later adaptation by Haskin, and from the advertising materials.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Byron Haskin; Writers Ib Melchior and John C. Higgins (based on the novel Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe); Cinematographer Winton C. Hoch; Starring Paul Mantee, Victor Lundin, Adam West; Length 110 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Saturday 6 March 2021.
Remarkable in a sense that this film made it into the Criterion Collection, but I do appreciate their attempts to contextualise certain strands of filmic history (in latter days this probably would’ve made their Eclipse series or just gone to their home streaming channel). Like Fiend Without a Face the previous year, it’s a low-budget British film made to feel like an American production and it helps that it has American actors (however much British people like to think they can do American accents, they rarely can). That said, it’s hardly a bravura film though it has its elegant moments of filmmaking, and some nicely horrific monster costume design, because however much this feels like a ripped-from-the-headlines tale of the new frontier of space exploration (the first man into space wouldn’t be until a couple of years later in 1961), it quickly becomes a morality tale about the dangers that await in exploring these unknown voids.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Robert Day; Writers Wyott Ordung, John Croydon and Charles F. Vetter; Cinematographer Geoffrey Faithfull; Starring Marshall Thompson, Bill Edwards, Marla Landi; Length 77 minutes.
Seen in hotel room (DVD), Auckland, Tuesday 20 October 2020.
This was my first big screen experience for a film since seeing Portrait of a Lady on Fire for the second time, 147 days earlier, and it’s another French film directed by a woman, the title literally translating as “Next”. It’s very different in its setting though, being about a woman training to become an astronaut, but there feels like something similar to it, in its scope perhaps or the feeling with which it is imbued.
Like a lot of the best films about space travel, this is really about the human relationships on the ground, to the extent that it never actually goes into space (that would presumably have put it in a different category for the producers trying to scrounge a budget). Still, it’s got Eva Green and she’s giving a fantastic and controlled performance as the leading lady, so it has all the special effects you could possibly want. She plays Sarah, a French astronaut training for her first flight in Germany and then Kazakhstan (nimbly switching languages from line to line, whether German to her husband played by Lars Eidinger, French, English and then Russian), but trying to deal with her daughter (Zélie Boulant-Lemesne) at the same time. You could say that films about male astronauts don’t deal with the family quite so much, but that’s presumably why Matt Dillon is cast as Mike, a sort of lunkish, sexist guy, a very all-American type familiar from the genre, who has rather set ideas about women (though he has his sensitivity at times, too, so it’s not a one-note performance). For the most part I really liked the way the film handled its central themes, but the one moment that lost me a bit was well, no spoilers… but let’s just say that someone breaking quarantine maybe doesn’t go down quite as well in mid-2020 as when this film was made.
Director Alice Winocour; Writers Winocour and Jean-Stéphane Bron; Cinematographer Georges Lechaptois; Starring Eva Green, Zélie Boulant-Lemesne, Matt Dillon, Lars Eidinger, Sandra Hüller; Length 107 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Saturday 8 August 2020.
I’m doing a week theme around Polish films, as today sees the UK cinematic release of Agnieszka Holland’s latest film Mr. Jones. It’s an English-language co-production, and so is today’s film, which I’m including for that tenuous reason. One of the co-producing companies is from Poland and Agata Buzek co-stars, but aside from that there’s not much particularly Polish in it, although there’s something about the film’s very weirdness that puts it up alongside Has or Żuławski or other out-there auteurs.
Claire Denis has made two of my favourite films of two successive decades (that’s Beau travail and 35 Shots of Rum, and a few others I adore besides), but yet I guess I’m not fully subscribed to this latest one. It’s not that it’s broaching new experiences — science-fiction setting, English language screenplay — because a lot of the idiosyncrasies that lie within it are vintage Denis, but I think it may need more time to work itself into my psyche (like L’Intrus, another film of hers that I feel I’ve slept on). It primarily feels like a mood piece, evoking an extraordinary atmosphere of isolation, in a story of one man (Robert Pattinson) and his baby — its helplessness and reliance on him only magnifying the starkness of their situation — as they live on a prison spacecraft flying out towards a black hole. His story is intercut with flashbacks both to his childhood life on Earth (the 16mm photography evoking the infinity of time having since passed), and to a time when there were others on the ship with him, and how he has come to be on his own. There are some really quite indelible scenes, and some incredibly outré setpieces, but always there’s that sublime atmosphere, with its grinding Stuart A. Staples score adding to the mystery, a mystery that never quite resolves but extends outwards, a film drifting inexorably (like the spaceship) towards its own event horizon.
Director Claire Denis; Writers Denis and Jean-Pol Fargeau; Cinematographer Yorick Le Saux; Starring Robert Pattinson, Juliette Binoche, André Benjamin, Mia Goth, Agata Buzek, Lars Eidinger; Length 110 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Saturday 11 May 2019.
One of the more successful biopics in recent years has also been one that has dealt rather more frankly with issues of racism and sexism in the workplace, hardly avoidable given that in Hidden Figures the workplace is NASA in the 1960s. Some have criticised it for its blandly mainstream qualities and some of the liberties it takes with the truth, but the acting is more than equal to the subject, and it’s a rousing film which presents a different view of a cinematically familiar era.
I thought that I might have a problem with clunky movie clichés about smart people, or period films dealing with racism, or against-the-odds stories, or big Hollywood dramas — you know the ones, like standing in front of a blackboard filled with mathematic equations, or racist white cops and loaded glances from rooms filled with white guys in suits, or that bit where our protagonist proves their essential worth to aforesaid rooms, or music cues that guide how you’re supposed to react — but it turns out I don’t, if those protagonists are played by Janelle, Taraji and Octavia. I would happily watch more of any of them running intellectual (not to mention sartorial) circles around hissable baddies like Kirsten Dunst and Jim Parsons, who in this movie are the very embodiment of white privilege. We need more heroes like these three, and if anything Hidden Figures makes me retroactively disappointed for all those other space race movies about the 1960s, which only had the rooms filled with suited buzzcut white men.
Director Theodore Melfi; Writers Allison Schroeder and Melfi (based on the non-fiction book by Margot Lee Shetterly); Cinematographer Mandy Walker; Starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons; Length 127 minutes.
Seen at Peckhamplex, London, Friday 17 February 2017.
Undoubtedly ponderous in its pacing, for me this still feels like Tarkovsky’s weakest film — which is to say, a lot better than most other films, but somehow thin, especially in comparison to his later science-fiction Stalker (1979). That said, it’s a film about grief and memory that happens to be partially set in space, as astronaut/psychologist Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis) is sent to figure out what’s going wrong on board the space station orbiting the title planet. It is beautifully shot, and it’s not even the pacing which mars it for me, so much as the sense of it being this choreography of people walking into and around the frame while grappling with some portentous metaphysics. Give me a few more decades on this one and I may come round.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Andrei Tarkovsky Андре́й Тарко́вский; Writers Fridrikh Gorenshtein Фридрих Горенштейн and Tarkovsky (based on the novel by Stanisław Lem); Cinematographer Vadim Yusov Вадим Юсов; Starring Donatas Banionis, Natalya Bondarchuk Наталья Бондарчук; Length 166 minutes.
Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Thursday 23 December 1999 (also before that on VHS at home, Wellington, June 1999, and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 9 July 2017).
Finally, the review I’m sure you’ve all been waiting for, as undoubtedly you’ve all been hanging back, waiting cautiously about whether to see this film on the basis of my verdict. Well, I can unequivocally state that if you are fond of George Lucas’s original trilogy, then you’ll enjoy this new instalment from the auteur behind Star Trek Into Darkness, whereas if you are at best ambivalent about his franchise’s politically retrogressive and genocidally destructive worldview, then… it’s probably not for you? On the plus side is the welcome focus on three new and diverse young protagonists — Daisy Ridley’s Rey, John Boyega’s Finn, and Oscar Isaac’s Poe. There are some heartwarming reappearances by original cast members, and there are more silly chirruping droids. Plotwise, it feels of a piece with the original film, but the spoiler police are out in force on this one, so I’m not going to go into detail and, frankly, I’m not even sure I could. Suffice to say I laughed at a joke about the Force, and in general there’s a good sense of bonhomie amid the good-vs-evil derring-do.
Director J.J. Abrams; Writers Lawrence Kasdan, Abrams and Michael Arndt; Cinematographer Dan Mindel; Starring Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Harrison Ford, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac, Carrie Fisher; Length 135 minutes.
Seen at Odeon Holloway, London, Sunday 20 December 2015.
I can’t really fault this documentary about the Apollo space missions of the late-1960s and early-1970s: it tells a big story using archival footage of the era, shot by the astronauts and those working at NASA, and it does so using only these images and the voices of the astronauts. The value is in seeing this footage, some of which is shot from space and presents uncanny views of the Earth and of the work the astronauts were doing, and hearing from the participants. Nevertheless it can at times be a little difficult to tell apart all these buzz-cut white guys in their control centre, and the missions are interwoven fairly fluidly, meaning we jump back and forward in time. It’s a fascinating and informative work for those with a strong interest in the space race, and for those people this is likely to be far more interesting than it was to me.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Al Reinert; Length 80 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 13 September 2015.
A few years ago I went to see The Counselor and I hated it so much I called it my least favourite film of the year. Which means I haven’t exactly been seeking out the work of Ridley Scott since then. But some friends said hey this new film of his was pretty good and so finding myself with an empty day and having exhausted everything else I needed to see, I steeled myself for 141 minutes of more of his noxious worldview (whyyyyy?) and… well… it was actually pretty enjoyable stuff. But I suspect that’s partly Scott’s directorial vision being paired with a more sympathetic screenwriter in Drew Goddard — most of the battle in making a good film, after all, is starting with a good script. It’s a science-fiction film, but fairly easy on the distancing techy BS that distracts in other efforts. Sure there are actors who pop up just to be savant geniuses (like Donald Glover), but for the most part this is just about determined people trying to do their best with (apparently) very little regard to budget — I guess we should assume the future has solved all its financial problems. Therefore, amongst these driven players — including Chiwetel Ejiofor as Vincent, the mission director, Jessica Chastain as Melissa, commanding the actual expedition, and Jeff Daniels as the NASA director Teddy — astronaut and botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is just the most notable, for he’s the one stuck on Mars. Most of the extended running time just lingers on him solving problems, and Scott’s work is to build tension through emphasising his very isolation, and the impossibility of those back on Earth helping him in any meaningful way. In that sense, it has a bit of Apollo 13 to it, and it’s immensely likeable in the way that there are no villains in the piece, and everyone gets their time. Sure, our Everyman character is still a white guy (and Damon’s run into a bit of criticism for his views on that this year), but this is a well-crafted film which fits in easily alongside Gravity as a solid bit of space-based entertainment. I suspect we’ll be getting more of that as 2015 draws to a close.
Director Ridley Scott; Writer Drew Goddard (based on the novel by Andy Weir); Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski; Starring Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jeff Daniels, Kate Mara; Length 141 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Saturday 31 October 2015.
If my eyes were raised at the inclusion in Criterion’s august collection of the respective pairs of John Woo’s Hong Kong gangster films or Paul Morrissey’s 70s Euro-horror exploitation flicks, then this blockbusting Michael Bay action film is surely the most idiosyncratic choice yet. It’s not that a case can’t be made for it: the liner notes set out an adulatory essay on the film’s claim to greatness, while reading the comments on Criterion’s own page for the film suggest that there’s value in its inclusion just as a gesture of épater le bourgeois (cinéaste). I might add that it does, after all, exemplify a certain trend in Hollywood filmmaking, of which Michael Bay is surely the auteurist hero — the tradition of bigger, louder, stupider explosiveness on all counts. This doesn’t make it a good film, though. It’s not even the pummelling sound design and frenetic editing which do it in, but the utterly predictable character arcs — gung-ho and grizzled miner Harry (Bruce Willis) assembles a team to save the world from an asteroid collision, in the process accepting the feckless A.J. (Ben Affleck) as a suitable husband for his equally gung-ho daughter Grace (Liv Tyler) — all of which are punctuated by the most perfunctorily saccharine music cues. It’s not that I hate the film — though the characterisation of Steve Buscemi as a ladies’ man, while surely intended as comic, just seems gratuitous — it’s that I find it on the whole rather boring and forgettable. In the end, you’d be best advised to save yourself the two and a half hours, and instead just watch the Aerosmith music video, which distills it down to around three minutes without sacrificing any of the drama.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Michael Bay; Writers Jonathan Hensleigh and J.J. Abrams; Cinematographer John Schwartzman; Starring Bruce Willis, Ben Affleck, Liv Tyler, Billy Bob Thornton, Steve Buscemi; Length 153 minutes.
Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 21 June 2015.