Criterion Sunday 255: Opening Night (1977)

Coming the year after The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, this could be construed as another film about Cassavetes’ relationship to art and artistic practice — and that is certainly a major element in it — but after the very masculine energy of the previous film, this one refocuses the story once again on Gena Rowlands and becomes about her character Myrtle’s (not-entirely-)self-destruction. By that I mean that she, as a celebrated theatre actor, has the adulation and the awards, but she also has a coterie of people around her who are only too happy to enable her in her downward spiral, just so long as they can make some money off her along the way. Her trajectory is triggered by the death of a young fan, whose presence comes back to haunt her throughout, which gets her to contemplating her own mortality and ageing, and perhaps it’s also a little to do with having to perform boring bourgeois plays about families and relationships (which she doesn’t really have in the same way). Maybe that last one is my misreading, but Myrtle’s erratic behaviour (brought on by the way she’s constantly pushed by those around her) leads her to ditch much of the text of the play she’s in, during its small-town off-Broadway run, such that by the Broadway opening night of the title she and Cassavetes are riffing on something completely different (to the irritation of the playwright, the legendary Joan Blondell). This sequence is largely improvised, and it’s unclear to me whether we’re supposed to take it as a swipe at how theatre audiences will laugh at any old nonsense, or about how much the actors react against the original text, or just about a person breaking down and opening themselves up, but in any case it’s a potent story about the price of art.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • Ben Gazzara speaks to Gena Rowlands at her home in the mid-2000s, discussing the film’s themes, the other actors, how it was made, and how annoyed Cassavetes got at being called an auteur. There’s another short piece where DoP/producer Al Ruban speaks about making the film and the way he talks about Cassavetes does sort of fit that description, but then there’s a lot about the way he specifically collaborated on his creations.
  • There are two fairly straightforward trailers that lean heavily on footage from the final performance of the play-within-the-film.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer John Cassavetes; Cinematographer Al Ruban; Starring Gena Rowlands, Ben Gazzara, Joan Blondell, John Cassavetes; Length 144 minutes.

Seen at National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 15 May 2002 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, August 2001, and most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Friday 12 July 2019).

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Criterion Sunday 242: Le Carrosse d’or (The Golden Coach, 1952)

I think the tendency of post-war European cinema around this time, especially in Italy, was towards neo-realism, shooting on the streets, giving that documentary sense of gritty immediacy, and so Renoir shooting a very theatrical film on the soundstages of Cinecittà in Italy, with a very stylised use of saturated colour and glorious, ornate sets and costumes, with Italian and American actors speaking in English in a story set in Latin America (Peru, apparently) feels like a very studied riposte to all that. In fact, it feels like a more deeply-felt commentary on the nature of acting and performance to make this kind of film at this time, a film that dwells on spectacle as something which almost seems corrupting: the obscenity of the golden coach at the film’s centre makes the government lose their minds, and becomes a tool of bargaining between men and, ultimately, the church — in a penultimate speech by the Bishop which is interrupted by Renoir cutting between all the assembled faces, expressing wry delight or shocked disdain. There’s a subtle comment on the nature of imperialism, too, as this Latin American colony becomes enthralled to the Italian Anna Magnani and her troupe of actors, threatening to depose the viceroy and create a new life fighting for the rights and sovereignty of the native peoples (though this at least feels a little in passing). I think Renoir’s later films are some of his finest work, operating at a different register from much of contemporary cinema, and all the better for it.

[NB Criterion lists the year as 1953, although this film appears to have been released in Italy in December 1952.]


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jean Renoir; Writers Renoir, Jack Kirkland, Renzo Avanzo, Giulio Macchi and Ginette Doynel (based on the play Le Carrosse du Saint-Sacrement by Prosper Mérimée); Cinematographer Claude Renoir; Starring Anna Magnani, Odoardo Spadaro, Duncan Lamont; Length 103 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 3 March 2019.

Criterion Sunday 141: Les Enfants du paradis (aka Children of Paradise, 1945)

It’s a grand achievement; any review you look at will tell you that. Made when it was, at the scale it was made, it shouldn’t have been possible, but yet it’s a big, bold, crowded film teeming with life. Of course, it’s still a grand handsome well-mounted epic that trades on all those classic (and classical) qualities of Cinema Art: a woman whose amorous conquests, or those attempts of her suitors, seem to allegorise a political situation; a witty script of over-talkative thespian types exploring the power of art; big camera moves; and mass crowd scenes for spectacle. I admire it even if I (philistine that I may be) never quite love it, but admiration goes a long way so I expect I’ll watch it again some day and admit it’s a masterpiece.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Marcel Carné; Writer Jacques Prévert; Cinematographers Marc Fossard and Roger Hubert; Starring Arletty, Jean-Louis Barrault, Pierre Brasseur, Marcel Herrand, María Casares; Length 190 minutes.

Seen at Paramount, Wellington, Thursday 25 June 1998 (and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 29 January 2017).

Criterion Sunday 81: Luci del varietà (Variety Lights, 1950)

Federico Fellini’s first film was this ensemble piece set amongst a travelling troupe of performers putting on a variety show, of fairly mediocre quality one assumes from what we see of it. It’s led by Checcho (Peppino De Filippo) who is seen at the start being hounded by acting hopeful Liliana (Carla Del Poggio), much to the annoyance of his sweetheart Melina Amour (Giuletta Masina). Her arrival ruffles a few feathers as her ambition leads her to try and use the break to further a career for herself, and the film proceeds in a sort of bumbling, peripatetic way, introducing a number of side characters and tracing the fortunes of these various performers, most of whom never really get out of the rut they’re in. It makes the film rather a bittersweet look at the acting profession, but no less generous and enjoyable for that.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors Federico Fellini and Alberto Lattuada; Writers Fellini, Lattuada, Tullio Pinelli and Ennio Flaiano; Cinematographer Otello Martelli; Starring Carla Del Poggio, Peppino De Filippo, Giulietta Masina; Length 97 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 21 February 2016.

Criterion Sunday 41: Henry V (1944)

When Kenneth Branagh filmed his own dark and politically cynical vision of this play in 1989 it kick-started his career and marked a resurgence of Shakespeare on film, but Laurence Olivier was the original actor/director and puts the play and its hero in quite a different light. Of course, being made at the height of the Second World War, you might expect a more triumphant hue to proceedings. There’s also an admirable commitment to theatrical non-naturalism in the sets and setting — again, this may have been motivated by avoiding anything reminiscent of the actual conditions of war — but brings to my mind Rohmer’s later experiments in staging the Mediaeval story of King Arthur in Perceval le Gallois (1978). Indeed Olivier’s film itself starts through a recreation of a performance at London’s Globe theatre in the early-17th century (strikingly similar to the reconstruction now on the South Bank), before at length moving away from the theatre, without ever quite relinquishing the stagy feel, though that’s as much to do with the beautifully saturated Technicolor cinematography as with anything in the performances. Whatever its limitations, and however carefully it works to work around the more melancholy notes in the play (most obviously its coda of how Henry promptly lost France shortly afterwards), it’s still a fine staging of a classic English play.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Laurence Olivier; Writers Alan Dent and Olivier (based on the play by William Shakespeare); Cinematographer Robert Krasker; Starring Laurence Olivier; Length 136 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 14 June 2015.

Hamlet 2 (2008)

After my “Film Round-Up” posts of the last few months, I’m trying out another way to present shorter reviews of things I can’t bring myself to write up at greater length.


After a strong opening, this high school comedy about a washed-up drama teacher (Steve Coogan, playing American with middling effect) sort of peters out a bit. It’s a pity, because even if reminiscent of some of Rushmore‘s Max Fischer Players stagings, the film has the germs of a fine idea — that Shakespeare’s Hamlet can be improved upon and be inspiring to a new generation of students — but the film’s overall failure just reminds us how difficult comedy can be to get right. In the end, there are some good images that might suit an animated gif format (the “Rock Me Sexy Jesus” setpiece for example), but beyond that, probably best given a miss.

Hamlet 2 film posterCREDITS
Director Andrew Fleming; Writers Fleming and Pam Brady; Cinematographer Alexander Gruszynski; Starring Steve Coogan, Catherine Keener, Skylar Astin; Length 92 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Tuesday 2 June 2015.

The Last Five Years (2014)

There’s no accounting for taste I suppose, so maybe you’ll want to set aside this whole review, but I just can’t fathom why there’s been such a lukewarm response to this film (or so it seems to me). I’ll state this upfront, just to be clear, but I think The Last Five Years is fantastic. I mean, I generally love Anna Kendrick, but here she’s playing to her strengths, which is being adorable in a musical setting. The film takes a little time to warm up, as it begins with Kendrick’s character Cathy in tears in a bleak, colourless New York townhouse, and this kind of emotional timbre is not Kendrick’s forte (or maybe I just don’t like to see her being sad). However, following this we start to discern the film’s narrative strategy, as it skips back five years to the start of the relationship between her and Jamie (Jeremy Jordan) that defines the film’s structure, in a brightly-coloured romantic musical comedy number “Shiksa Goddess” (for Jamie is Jewish, and Cathy is not) sung from his point of view. The film then goes on to interleave these two stories in a ‘he-said she-said’ sort of way, as each reimagines the highlights but in a different temporal direction. In truth, there are no profound depths here, but putting on a musical about a failed relationship seems somehow a little transgressive in itself. Kendrick’s Cathy is the emotional linchpin, though, as Jamie, for all his initial likeability, is swiftly revealed to be egotistical and vain, and the imbalance in their respective successes — he as a novelist, she as a musical theatre actor — is both comedically skewered and also one of the causes of their relationship breakdown. Cathy has a particularly memorable musical audition scene (“When You Come Home to Me”) in which she sings her frustrations with the process while also delivering a delightful catty aside about Russell Crowe’s musical theatre talents, as well as a number sung from a small-time repertory company in Ohio, a job she takes to make ends meet. In its focus on quotidian setbacks and bittersweet emotions, it plays a little like an updated US version of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (one of my all-time top-five favourites), so how much you like it will probably depend on your tolerance for this kind of thing, but if you have any time for musicals at all, definitely check it out.

The Last Five Years film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Richard LaGravenese (based on the musical by Jason Robert Brown); Cinematographer Steven Meizler; Starring Anna Kendrick, Jeremy Jordan; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at Empire Leicester Square, London, Monday 27 April 2015.

Sils Maria (Clouds of Sils Maria, 2014)

Aside from the pre-scheduled Criterion posts, there’s been slim pickings on this blog in recent weeks as I’ve been on holiday in the States and Canada, which means I’ve largely not been seeing films. However, I did catch up with one while over there. UPDATE: It has since been added to the Criterion Collection, so you see just how far I’ve strayed.


I’ve always had the sense from the infiltration of celebrity gossip into news coverage that Kristen Stewart has been underrated as an actor, apparently on the basis of, I don’t know, her lack of a sunny Californian disposition? It’s obviously a shallow criticism, as even if you’d only been aware of her since her turn in Twilight (2008), she’s already proved her acting mettle many times (my favourite being the 2010 musical biopic The Runaways). Clearly French director Olivier Assayas has been attentive, as he’s cast her alongside acting heavyweight Juliette Binoche, and Stewart very much holds her own (though perhaps it helps that Binoche is called upon to deliver much of her performance in English). It’s a classic self-reflexive European narrative about actors and acting, about ageing and egos and a sort of psychic transference between the older (Binoche) and younger generations (Stewart, as well as Chloë Grace Moretz in a small role). Stewart plays Valentine, the harried but largely unflappable PA to Binoche’s Maria, a well-known theatrical actor who is travelling to Zürich to deliver a tribute to the (now-deceased) director who discovered her when she was a teenager. There’s something about the way it all unfolds with its narrative ellipses, its teasing character linkages and its self-reflexivity about the craft of acting and cinema, not to mention the mountainous Swiss setting (the film’s title is taken from a notable cloud formation), which reminds me of the Swiss auteur Alain Tanner and a 1960s/70s tradition of this kind of story. Clouds of Sils Maria hints at the boundaries between the real and the fictive in a playful, literary and engaged way, but leaves us on a questioning note, unsure of exactly how much has changed for its title character and those women around her.

Clouds of Sils Maria film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Olivier Assayas; Cinematographer Yorick Le Saux; Starring Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart, Chloë Grace Moretz; Length 123 minutes.
Seen at Cineplex Forum, Montréal, Wednesday 15 April 2015.

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014)

From its very title, with those weirdly-placed parentheses, you know that this New York-set film about actors and egos has a precious, slightly fragile and very much self-indulgent quality. This becomes even clearer as the film begins to unfold in what appears to be a long unbroken take (albeit one spliced together digitally). But if it’s self-indulgent as a film, it’s also about hugely self-indulgent characters, specifically Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), once famous for his portrayal of a winged superhero in a series of big budget Hollywood hits (hmm). Fallen on something like hard times, Riggan has written, directed and is starring in a stage adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short stories, set to open imminently on Broadway, as a ploy to resurrect his reputation. He has conflicts with his actors (most notably Edward Norton as a mercurial stage talent with a disregard for film actors) and with his daughter Sam (Emma Stone, who hangs around the set doing odd jobs), but really it’s his ego with whom he’s most at war. Aside from the formal strategies, there’s also a mildly magical realist sense of a world of his imagination/paranoia/whatever that extends into his everyday life, as he is taunted by the growling voice of his Birdman alter ego. I can hardly fault any of the performances, and both Norton and Keaton are particularly excellent as different sides of the same rampaging egomania, with which those around them can only barely cope. So yes it’s brittle, and indulgent and just-so, but it’s all of a piece with its neurotic theatrical setting, and it all somehow works.

Birdman film posterCREDITS
Director Alejandro González Iñárritu; Writers Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris Jr and Armando Bo; Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki; Starring Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts, Zach Galifianakis; Length 119 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Monday 29 December 2014.