Criterion Sunday 469: The Hit (1984)

Stephen Frears directed his first movie at the start of the 70s and then spent most of the next decade working in TV, though this is the era when Ken Loach and Alan Clarke were creating distinctive visions on the small screen, so by the time Frears returns with The Hit, you can’t really accuse him of not having some style. It’s set in Spain, so it doesn’t lack for beautiful light and arresting backdrops; at times Frears seems to be going maybe even a little bit too hard on the quiet, empty shots of these locales, though he matches it with striking framings (such as an unexpected overhead shot during one tense encounter). Still, there’s a lot that feels very 80s here, and it’s not just Tim Roth being a young hard man (not as fascist as in Alan Clarke’s Made in Britain, perhaps, but still a thug) but also some of the patronising attitudes (towards women, for example, or the Spaniards they encounter). Of course, that’s as much to do with the characters, who are after all small time criminals. Terence Stamp isn’t a million miles from Ray Winstone’s retired criminal in Sexy Beast, a man who may be retired but is aware he’s never going to be fully out of the racket, and when John Hurt pops up to carry out the titular action, he puts across a weary indefatigability. Ultimately this is a strange blend of genres, with black comedic elements and a strong road movie vibe (a saturated Spanish version of what Chris Petit or Wim Wenders were doing in monochrome, perhaps). I admire it more than I love it, but it has its moments.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Stephen Frears; Writer Peter Prince; Cinematographer Mike Molloy; Starring Terence Stamp, John Hurt, Tim Roth, Laura del Sol; Length 98 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Monday 11 October 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 458: El Norte (1983)

I didn’t really expect much going into this, perhaps something a bit well-meaning and earnest, like contemporary Costa-Gavras films or those of John Sayles — which to be fair, is really quite deeply unfair to the latter’s work, but I’m trying to convey that sense of slightly po-faced political dramas about ordinary people in challenging times. In a sense, cinema since then hasn’t really grappled with those topics so much, but in relation specifically to the Anglophone cinema of Latin-American politics that I’m most familiar with, Gregory Nava’s feature has a more poetic register. This isn’t magical realism, though, it’s a poetic realism more akin to the Italian Neorealists, I think, but imbued with a lived sense of how America treats its Latin-American citizens. The central characters are indigenous people, from a small Guatemalan village, who journey to the North because of conditions back home, and who have to endure a lot to get to the very bottom of the ladder in the US. It’s not straightforwardly for or against anything though — their lives in the US do have some benefits compared to the past, but oppression comes in many guises and for all that they do see some material changes to their position, in other ways they are made to feel very much an underclass, not least in terms of the bureaucracy of immigration (and not much has changed there in almost 40 years one suspects). It’s a film that is as concretely about the conditions of work and life as anything else of the decade, but one imbued with a sense of almost mystical dread, that can be at times overwhelming but equally quite beautiful and resonant.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Gregory Nava; Writers Nava and Anna Thomas; Cinematographer James Glennon; Starring David Villalpando, Zaide Silvia Gutiérrez; Length 140 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Friday 3 September 2021.

Criterion Sunday 452: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965)

I’ve seen a number of films that occupy this terrain, whether direct adaptations of Le Carré (such as Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) or other works that sit in the same talky glum espionage vein (something like Bridge of Spies, I suppose). It’s not a genre I necessarily warm to, and usually like my spying to be a little bit more silly and fun (like Bourne, if not quite Bond), but there’s something rather elegant to this mid-60s adaptation of a story set deep into the Cold War era. It’s a tale of spies crossing and double-crossing one another in ways that don’t even always make sense to the spies themselves as they’re happening (like Richard Burton’s titular character, Alec Leamas) and part of the drama is just trying to keep up with who knows what and who’s working for whom at any given point. I didn’t expect this to particularly appeal to me, but it held my attention, and along the way there is some fine monochrome cinematography and gliding camera shots — never perhaps quite as bold as the introductory nod towards Touch of Evil, but always with a strong sense of the frosty sangfroid of these suited, spectacled men vying for the upper hand.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Martin Ritt; Writers Paul Dehn and Guy Trosper (based on the novel by John Le Carré); Cinematographer Oswald Morris; Starring Richard Burton, Oskar Werner, Claire Bloom, Cyril Cusack, Rupert Davies; Length 112 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Wednesday 4 August 2021.

Land (2021)

Part of getting films into cinemas after a period of closure is that there are still a number of titles that probably would have gone straight to streaming which are still getting a shot, and this feels like one of those. Still, it looks good on the big screen, whatever other shortcomings it may have.


There’s stuff in this film that feels a bit programmatic and well-trodden, and when the script does get to the emotional sharing (right at the very end) it suddenly starts to feel like too much, but that’s because the rest of the film is an exercise in restraint that is made more precise and affecting by the quality of Robin Wright, the star and director, in this role. She has retreated to the wilds of Wyoming after some unnamed tragedy, but it quickly becomes clear it has to do with a death close in her family, and pursues a solitary life to varying success, eventually settling in. This process forms the bulk of the film as time slips away unnoticed until she becomes reacquainted, in a small way, with the comfort of fellow humans (in the form of Mexican actor Demián Bichir). The way that her isolated life and his incursion is played out is very nicely done, and it feels almost like a step too far that the script feels the need to wrap it up with a little moral lesson but even that feels earned by the slow, but never boring, pacing.

Land (2021)CREDITS
Director Robin Wright; Writers Jesse Chatham and Erin Dignam; Cinematographer Bobby Bukowski; Starring Robin Wright, Demián Bichir, Kim Dickens; Length 89 minutes.
Seen at the Penthouse, Wellington, Friday 21 May 2021.

Criterion Sunday 441: The Small Back Room (aka Hour of Glory, 1949)

Powell and Pressburger made quite a few films, but few of them have the profile of their big Technicolor productions like The Red Shoes or The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, among many others, and this black-and-white World War II-set drama about a bomb disposal expert (of sorts) is one of their lesser-remembered productions. It stars David Farrar, best known from his turn in another of their better-known films from a few years below, Black Narcissus. He’s playing Sammy Rice, an embittered alcoholic scientist working away in a secret department during the war, who has some good ideas he feels are being smothered by bureaucracy and mismanagement (the government minister is a particular dimwit, as ministers always seem to be), and his relationship with Kathleen Byron’s Susan isn’t exactly going swimmingly either. That’s the set-up for the emotional dramatic arcs, while in the background there’s a MacGuffin involving a new German bomb that’s been killing kids, but the film is mostly focused on those interpersonal dynamics, along with his grumpiness at work. It’s an interesting angle on the war, not as a stage for heroics, but as a grim series of ordeals that everyone struggles through as best they can, not always handling things very well. It also has an excellent noirish, even expressionist, sense of dim lighting, as high contrast shadows are thrown over many scenes. Maybe not the greatest of the Powell and Pressburger collabs, but certainly an intriguing one.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors/Writers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (based on the novel by Nigel Balchin); Cinematographer Christopher Challis; Starring David Farrar, Kathleen Byron, Jack Hawkins, Michael Gough, Cyril Cusack; Length 107 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), Wellington, Friday 25 June 2021.

Criterion Sunday 436: Пред дождот Pred doždot (Before the Rain, 1994)

I saw this back in the 90s, when it was still the darling of the festival scene, trading in all the tropes that were so much in vogue at that time: cyclical narratives, weighted down with metaphorical meaning, and a quasi-mystical sense of Balkan violence. There were plenty of films about that part of the world and blending it with the multi-strand interlocking narrative — albeit in an elegant way which intentionally resists cyclical readings by implanting inconsistencies like characters still being alive in one segment when they should be dead in another, that kind of thing. Which is all a way of saying it hasn’t necessarily dated all that well, and strikes me as trying a little too hard to find poetic depths, but it’s still a fine film for a fledgling country like [North] Macedonia, and one that broadly-speaking deserved its contemporary accolades. Rade Šerbedžija is the stand-out in the cast, although it’s always lovely to see Katrin Cartlidge on screen (who had far too short a career), and brings a certain grizzled authenticity to scenes set amongst internecine religious-based conflict that never fully reveals its causes, perhaps because they are lost, in an area that certainly at that point had seen a lot of pain.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Milcho Manchevski Милчо Манчевски; Cinematographer Manuel Teran; Starring Rade Šerbedžija Раде Шербеџија, Katrin Cartlidge, Grégoire Colin, Labina Mitevska Лабина Митевска; Length 113 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Saturday 5 June 2021 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, August 1997).

Criterion Sunday 431: The Thief of Bagdad (1940)

The Criterion release of this film has a commentary by Scorsese and Coppola, and you can understand when you watch it what might appeal to them. Would that every era of cinema had such a colourful and inventive spectacle and I can see that children exposed to this in the 1940s or 50s might have had little to compare it to in terms of the effects it achieves. There’s a gloriously saturated colour scheme in the filming and the production design and costuming that heightens the magical wonder of the storytelling. It’s just that watching now makes for a more problematic experience and it’s not that I’m out here calling for any ‘cancellations’ or whatever your term du jour is when you read this for the idea that maybe art has certain responsibilities. After all, things that seem a bit racist now (or orientalist or just a bit misguided, depended on your point of view) might have been equally so back then, it’s just that there was an unexamined expectation that putting dark makeup on very white English actors and having them enact Middle Eastern-set stories was perfectly fine and nothing to be concerned about. Of course, compared to some contemporary films, there was certainly worse racism in othering depictions of such parts of the world and their people, but that doesn’t excuse what at best just seems a little painful now, however well-meaning it might have been. There’s plenty to enjoy here, and those who find it easier to tap into the childlike spirit at play will be rewarded more handsomely than those hatchet-faced killjoys like myself who’d rather not watch fully-grown and very English gentlemen (along with a German, an Indian and an African-American) play dress-up as Arabs.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors Ludwig Berger, Michael Powell and Tim Whelan [as well as Alexander Korda, Zoltan Korda and William Cameron Menzies, uncredited]; Writers Lajos Biró and Miles Malleson; Cinematographer Georges Périnal [as “George Perinal”]; Starring Conrad Veidt, John Justin, Sabu, June Duprez, Miles Malleson; Length 106 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Thursday 27 May 2021.

Criterion Sunday 422: The Last Emperor (1987)

It’s odd now to think of that era (which I suppose has never really ended, though I hope is a little more circumspect these days) when a grand multinational epic of another country could be mounted by a largely Western creative team, in English, and win all the awards. It’s certainly very strange to me watching again now, though I can’t deny the artistry that director Bernardo Bertolucci and director of photography Vittorio Storaro manage to bring together to tell the story of Puyi, the titular character.

Puyi was deposed (or forced to abdicate, somewhat in his absence, and seemingly unknown to him) in 1912, the last of the Qing dynasty, but whose story hardly ends there and Bertolucci does honour the sweep of it, cutting between scenes in 1950 China, when Puyi is being held in an internment camp after an abortive attempt to start a new empire in Manchuria, with his childhood ascending to the throne and then the strange events that followed. We see much of it from his eyes, so the real power in the court is only passingly glimpsed (we barely see his mother, or his father, the rest of his family fade into the background, and the most prominent character seems to be his English tutor, played by Peter O’Toole). This also means that key historical events in Chinese 20th century history have to be relayed by people telling him what’s going on, or helpfully rehearsing the events for the benefit of the viewer, because the little Chinese we hear (and see) isn’t translated on-screen. It would also be impossible to capture the intricacies of this period (or indeed extended Chinese history) so it necessarily takes a fairly clipped view of events, but it does give at least some time to the more contested ones, the events that one imagines various regimes would wish to forget.

Ultimately, however, if this film is about the last emperor, it also feels like the last vestige of an older style of film, sumptuous and grand but rather exoticised, an exemplar of a taste that’s been largely superseded. For all its evident weaknesses or rather old-fashioned ways, there’s still something grand that comes through clearly in the imagery and the staging, a lost art perhaps, a vanishing history like the one being depicted.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Bernardo Bertolucci; Writers Mark Peploe and Bertolucci (based on the autobiography 我的前半生 From Emperor to Citizen by Puyi 溥儀); Cinematographer Vittorio Storaro; Starring John Lone 尊龙, Joan Chen 陳沖, Peter O’Toole; Length 160 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 1 May 2021 (and several decades before on VHS at home, Wellington, probably).

Criterion Sunday 417: This Sporting Life (1963)

The idea of watching one of these 60s British ‘kitchen sink dramas’ never really thrills me, but yet they have often been really compelling. Billy Liar showcases Tom Courtenay, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning does the same for Albert Finney, and here we have Richard Harris as Frank, a typically laddish rugby player (though, being from Yorkshire, he’s less posh than many who play the game in the south of England). His performance has that Brando swagger to it, as he punches his way through early scenes, told in flashback from a dentist’s chair as he gets his teeth extracted following a particularly vicious blow on the field. He recalls his life and ascent to rugby stardom (of a sort, a very local kind of stardom), which also lay bare his difficulty with women — part of which you suspect just comes down to the very poor role models he must have had, and certainly the rather leering sporting life he leads doesn’t help much — and a fundamental emptiness at his heart that the film’s end seems to suggest is just going to continue.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • Among a few of Anderson’s short films is Wakefield Express (1952), a modest half-hour film, a documentary in the old style (where scenes seem a little more staged for the camera) about a local Yorkshire newspaper putting together its pages. The first half largely puts across a sort of mythical vision of small-town England, with idealistic reporters getting out and about, picking up local gossip and interacting with all the main sources of news in their community (in the pub, flagging down the postie, chatting to the priest, a bus driver with a fondness for budgerigars). It’s the later sequence of the newspaper being put together which seems particularly alien now, all those typesetters and proofreaders, hot lead type and moulds being poured in an environment far more like a foundry. It’s a real insight into just what a lot of work it was to put out even a small regional newspaper.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Lindsay Anderson; Writer David Storey (based on his own novel); Cinematographer Denys Coop; Starring Richard Harris, Rachel Roberts, Alan Badel, Vanda Godsell, William Hartnell; Length 134 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Saturday 17 April 2021.