Criterion Sunday 300: The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)

A lot of people I follow on Letterboxd really like this Wes Anderson film, and it surely has all of his familiar touches: an emotionally resonant central story about grown-up fathers and sons trying to find some common ground; incredibly precise set and costume design; elaborate multi-room sets; bright colours; stop-motion animated ocean creatures; and all the actors you could want, most of them returning from previous Anderson endeavours. Of course, there’s also a frequent criticism of Anderson’s style that he is detached as a filmmaker, though it’s something that also used to get levelled at, say, Stanley Kubrick, and neither of them strike me as being unemotional. Quite often their stories revolve around very fraught, even melodramatic, relationships and that’s the case here too. However, for the first time in Anderson’s oeuvre, I don’t feel able to connect to these characters beyond their surface characteristics. The filmmaking, the texture, the detail is all there, but somehow for me, in this film, these traits are all just ciphers for some story ideas Anderson and his co-writer Noah Baumbach were working through. There are little generic touches, like gun battles and pirates, which seem oddly out-of-place, even when filmed in Anderson’s elliptical and deadpan style, and elements which seem perfunctory at best and possibly a little ill-judged (the Filipino pirates, or the topless woman who assists Zissou as scriptgirl). That said, it’s certainly never boring and has ravishing production values that are probably worthwhile even if the story itself feels beside the point.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There are a number of deleted scenes (and one outtake), none longer than a minute and most around 20-30 seconds in length, which are just further little vignettes that round out some of the characters and situations, although it’s interesting to see how they look before post-processing and colour correction.
  • There’s an Italian television interview on a show called Mondo Monda which has an interview between the slick Italian host and Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach which is clearly a parody (like the fake talk show included on The Royal Tenenbaums as an extra). That said, you can spend some time imagining it’s real, except that it has all these deadpan reactions as the host largely refuses to translate his questions despite speaking perfect English, and in which Anderson and Baumbach are often reduced to single-word answers to extravagantly self-involved questions touching on poetic and philosophical nonsense.
  • There’s about half-an-hour of short interview featurettes compiling interviews with various actors and crew, as well as behind-the-scenes footage, on topics such as two of the main characters (those of Cate and Owen), the fastidious costume and production design, the animation of the sea creatures, et al.
  • A series of still photographs of the production and the design are included, which are visually striking.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Wes Anderson; Writers Anderson and Noah Baumbach; Cinematographer Robert Yeoman; Starring Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Cate Blanchett, Willem Dafoe, Anjelica Huston, Jeff Goldblum, Noah Taylor; Length 118 minutes.

Seen at Ritzy, London, Tuesday 22 March 2005 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Monday 16 March 2020).

Dumplin’ (2018)

A quick bonus post for the week of Netflix films for another recent Netflix original, and a very sweet and charming one at that. This kind of thing — the comedic coming-of-age — goes with the pastel-hued romcom (often with a seasonal theme) and the stand-up comedy special as one of Netflix’s staples, and they do it well. I have no doubt that future weeks will see me turn to other streaming services or sources of stay-at-home film-watching content for obvious reasons, and perhaps I’ll be back with Netflix again soon enough.


There are obviously limits to auteurism, and most mainstream cinema traditions are fairly effective at proving those limits; sure, Anne Fletcher is the director credited with helming one of my least favourite films that I’ve seen (2015’s Hot Pursuit, though I don’t daresay there are a million worse ones and I only watched that particular film because it’s by a woman director), but in most such cases, it’s the screenplay where one should be focused. In this case, the source material and its adaptation by Kristin Hahn is almost entirely on point — in no small way abetted by another fine and subtle writer on the soundtrack, Dolly Parton — and Dumplin’ thus exudes a genuine warmth. There are a few clichés of the genre, but all of them are in service to a message — about body positivity and personal growth — that avoids preachiness and shaming, and doesn’t allow its characters the cop-outs of success by the usual metrics of the genre (winning a prize, fitting in with the cool girls, getting the boy… well, to a certain extent, anyway). Millie, for example (my favourite character, played by Maddie Baillio), is never depicted as hating herself, or having a secret dark side behind her omnipresent smile, or as being in any way less than perfectly confident in who she was (albeit in need of a bit of coaching for a beauty pageant), and that was great. The ‘drag queens teaching the outsider girls to be more femme’ was a bit more stock, but overall I think the film creates enough of a positive feeling, and the actors put enough into it, that even that I think wasn’t too jarring.

Dumplin' film posterCREDITS
Director Anne Fletcher; Writer Kristin Hahn (based on the novel by Julie Murphy); Cinematographer Elliot Davis; Starring Danielle Macdonald, Jennifer Aniston, Odeya Rush, Maddie Baillio; Length 110 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Tuesday 11 December 2018.

Miss Americana (2020)

Well we seem to be getting closer, here in London, to the inevitable lockdown (perhaps by the time this goes up, it will have been announced), so my week themed around Netflix films wraps up with the most recent release, and if it’s not perhaps the best it’s still well worth watching if you’re a pop music fan or interested in fandom. I am sure we will all pull through this current period of intensive homeboundness but who knows how long it will last for. At the very least we can catch up with films we can watch at home, and that will no doubt be a great boon to all the streaming services, at the very least. I suspect we’ll see more of them on the blog in the coming weeks.


I think it’s fair to say that this ostensibly behind-the-scenes documentary — like everything that Taylor Swift does — is very carefully calculated, and you wouldn’t expect anything else really. For all that it feels shaped by the relentless pressures that are placed on Swift to be some kind of generational spokesperson or lightning road for fickle tabloid concerns — and the meeting she has with her people to discuss coming out with her political opinions during the 2018 midterm elections feels particularly orchestrated in that regard — it does shed plenty of light on the ways in which she is constrained by her peculiar position. In this, she channels a lot of her own self-discovery and you can see the more mature person she has become since being thrust into a media frenzy at such a young age. The most fascinating and interesting sections of the film are when she’s composing music, and just to see her work on a song, hammering away at a piano or plucking a guitar while working up melodies, or working with her producers in the studio, has its own lovely rhythms and provides a small insight into what gets her excited about her work. The rest, sadly, is largely about the way her life needs to fits with public and media expectations, though I continue to want to like Taylor Swift, so I felt warmly disposed towards this film.

Miss Americana film posterCREDITS
Director Lana Wilson; Cinematographer Emily Topper; Starring Taylor Swift; Length 85 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Monday 3 February 2020.

American Psycho (2000)

If there’s one thing that Netflix is most commonly criticised for, it’s the relentless focus on the new. If you want old films generally you go to other places, like the Criterion Channel or TCM (if you’re in North America), or Mubi, or even Amazon Prime. Still, you can sometimes find some vintage classics on Netflix, and that’s the film I’m covering today, because yes the year 2000 is now a good 20 years’ away in time. I should mention, as an aside, I have not read nor at this point would I read the original novel on which this was based; it has its adherents, but I don’t think I need to welcome the voice of Mr Ellis into my life.


For Christmas Day, my wife and I watched this film, what I would now consider a modern classic (and almost a Christmas film itself), though I’m not sure I was quite so sold on it when I first saw it almost 20 years ago. If anything, I think age has only made the satire sharper and more resonant, though the core of the film remains the monologues of Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale), often critiquing popular music of the era, which he delivers in a completely straight way that only heightens their comic impact. For me the key thing the film does is blur the line between what’s actually happening and what’s in Bateman’s head, to the extent that it’s never clear where anything lies as the film progresses. It’s a film about the opulent allure of specifically American wealth creation, and a nasty dissection (as it were) of all the flaws inherent in corporate consumerism, about the way it turns society against itself, and leads to the murderous psychosis that’s at the film’s heart, and which it very clearly links to the functioning of American capitalism itself. Plus, it’s beautifully shot and acted. I wonder that Mary Harron never again had a chance to emulate its success, but this film at least stands as proof of her talent.

American Psycho film posterCREDITS
Director Mary Harron; Writers Harron and Guinevere Turner (based on the novel by Bret Easton Ellis); Cinematographer Andrzej Sekula; Starring Christian Bale, Willem Dafoe, Jared Leto, Samantha Mathis, Chloë Sevigny, Reese Witherspoon; Length 101 minutes.
Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Saturday 9 September 2000 (and most recently on Netflix streaming at home, London, Wednesday 25 December 2019).

Челове́к с бульва́ра Капуци́нов Chelovek s bulvara Kaputsinov (A Man from the Boulevard des Capucines, 1987)

Usually I like for my Friday review to be of a new release, to honour something that’s also newly out in cinemas (which this week is fantastic new Georgian film And Then We Danced), but I haven’t seen any recent ex-Soviet films. Therefore to fit with perhaps the musical qualities (if nothing else) of this week’s new release, here’s a film I saw earlier this year for the first time, as part of Kino Klassika’s sidebar to the BFI Musicals seasons (which also gave us Cherry Town). It’s a “Red Western” about the birth of cinema, made by the Soviet Union but set in the Old West of the United States, satirically of course.


I certainly can’t fault this film for giving me something I haven’t seen before, which is to say a Soviet musical ‘Western’ set in an imagined California (a town called Santa Carolina) at the birth of cinema — hence the title, which references the location of the Lumière brothers’ first public screening of their films. In it, a man called Johnny First (Andrei Mironov) arrives in an unruly town and brings them the magic of cinema, which soon converts them from lawlessness into docile respectability, but the dream is undermined by the saloon owner and the local priest — which already suggests a certain Communist critique of Western values and power structures, while still respecting the power of the moving image. Women, too, have a strong role in this film directed by a woman, and get plenty of opportunities to show their greater engagement with the social good and willingness to fight and win. The racial elements — caricatures of both Mexican and Native American people — have perhaps aged rather less well, but just seeing such stereotypes in a Soviet context is immediately odd, and while certainly racist, seem to work in different ways from what has become familiar from the American films this one is mimicking. Nevertheless, the core of the film remains with the filmmaker character and his audience, making it a self-reflexive satirical film, enlivened by some amusing recreations of early films, overblown fight scenes, and a bit of musical japery.

A Man from the Boulevard des Capucines film posterCREDITS
Director Alla Surikova Алла Сурикова; Writer Eduard Akopov Эдуард Акопов; Cinematographer Grigori Belenky Григорий Беленький; Starring Andrei Mironov Андрей Миронов, Aleksandra Yakovleva Александра Яковлева, Nikolai Karachentsov Николай Караченцов; Length 99 minutes.
Seen at Ciné Lumière, London, Wednesday 22 January 2020.

Mary Jane’s Not a Virgin Anymore (1996)

This film isn’t really about romance or even love (and certainly not about weddings), but it does say something about relationships from a woman’s point-of-view, being largely about sex (as you might surmise from the title) and one woman who is starting to find some pleasure in it, without being leering or exploitative. The date is listed variously as 1996, 1997 or 1998, depending on where you look, which speaks more to the very underground production it was, and needless to say it took quite some time to be seen (Sarah Jacobson’s complete films have only recently been collected on a Blu-ray/DVD set).


A super-lo-fi low-budget grungy indie 90s film that somehow still has a ring of transgression to it, because even now how many films are there that deal with this kind of coming of age topic from a woman’s perspective? As if to underline this, it basically starts with the titular character (who is mostly called Jane, and played by Lisa Gerstein) losing her virginity — unpleasantly, to a jerk, in an uncomfortable location — and then moves from there towards her actually finding pleasure in sex. It’s structured around a number of dialogue scenes, mostly set around the cinema where the characters work, as well as some bars, and its Super 8mm aesthetic (for all its graininess) and the rawness of the acting, certainly lends a definable aesthetic to the undertaking. Sadly the director died from cancer only a few years later, barely into her 30s, so all we have left of her work is this and a few short films, but she remains an inspirational punk DIY filmmaker and it’s a film that should be better known.

Mary Jane's Not a Virgin Anymore film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Sarah Jacobson; Cinematographer Adam Dodds; Starring Lisa Gerstein; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Friday 25 October 2019.

On the Town (1949)

Moving back through time is perhaps the best way to get a film that features some rather more successful romancing. After all, in my week nominally dedicated to love and marriage, most of my examples have been fairly undemonstrative of either of those. This 1949 musical features three sailors on furlough in the big city, so obviously there have to be some dames — though of course the structure means that they’ll all part by the end of the film.


There is, undeniably, a delight to so much of this musical. It sees Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra and one other guy who’s not really very well known (Jules Munshin) alight for 24 hours in New York City. We’re supposed to believe that none of them have ever visited before, and truly they do play up to their naivete which may strain credulity given they’re in the Navy, but sort of fits with the jovial tone of the whole film. The three of them happen across three far more worldly women, who following the comic reversals of the film are the ones whose minds are only on one thing, and it’s not sightseeing — indeed, Sinatra being the nerdy stats-obsessed one becomes one of the better running jokes. Not all the tunes are particularly memorable — although Hildy (Betty Garrett) is probably the most distinctive character, the woman cab driver who’s desperate to bed Sinatra’s character, their duet together is fairly dull — but there are plenty that do make a splash, and Ann Miller’s anthropology student Claire winking broadly at the camera for the double entendres is a real highlight (as is her dress). The costume game, in general, is on top form, with colour coordinated outfits to offset the blandness of the sailor uniforms.

This screening was introduced by Kelly’s widow, who trailed that they had difficulty getting it made into a musical because the studio head apparently feared the threat of a diverse cast given its metropolitan setting and the sequences which are filmed on location, which as an introduction was a bit of a misdirect because this film hardly celebrates diversity. Aside from the fact that the only women of colour are seen in nightclub choruses who swiftly depart stage left each time they’re seen, there’s also (to modern eyes perhaps) a woefully tone-deaf appropriation of cultural difference in the anthropology museum number. Whereas the sequence introducing Vera-Ellen’s Ivy suggests the impossibility of cultural expectations of femininity, the anthropology museum sequence is just using native dress to make cheap jokes that you feel the ensemble should really be above. And the macho bullying of the unfortunate Lucy is only passingly redeemed by Gabe’s civility to her by the end of the evening.

Still, on the whole this is a lively and entertaining musical with all the style you’d expect of a big Technicolor Hollywood production.

On the Town film posterCREDITS
Directors Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen; Writers Adolph Green and Betty Comden (based on the stage musical by Green, Comden and Leonard Bernstein, itself based on the ballet Fancy Free by Jerome Robbins); Cinematographer Harold Rosson; Starring Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Betty Garrett, Ann Miller, Jules Munshin, Vera-Ellen; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Saturday 26 October 2019.

Queen & Slim (2019)

Obviously this film is addressing a lot of issues, to varying degrees of success depending on your viewpoint, but at least one thing it’s asking is whether it’s possible to make a romance involving two people who don’t actually really seem to like each other at all (at least, initially). It’s also a lovers on the run story where it’s the forces pursuing them that are from the wrong side of the tracks, because our central characters are largely upstanding people who’ve been forced into a corner. It’s not an obvious continuation of my week’s romance theme, but it’s an interesting film.


I first became aware of this film via the responses of the film critics I follow on Twitter, a lot of whom are Black American women and it’s fair to say the reception was largely critical. This hasn’t been the response across the board of course (it has an 82% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, whatever that ultimately means), and it hasn’t even been the unanimous response from Black (or Black women) critics — and that’s as it should be, though it does make me wary of claiming to understand or critique the film, no matter that its two lead actor are British. Clearly it’s deploying a long and complex cultural history of Black American lives that I, as a white British man, couldn’t hope to fully grasp, but I somewhat expected better from Lena Waithe’s script. It’s based on a story by James Frey, whose name should presumably cause at least a few alarm bells to ring (given his own literary history), but I don’t know the background to the script. I can say it uses two largely unlikeable characters (albeit for different reasons, though Daniel Kaluuya’s Slim is clearly the more approachable at the start of the film) and has them go on a Journey — by which I mean, it’s a road movie, but it’s also a capitalised-J Journey.

As befits the director of Beyoncé’s “Formation” video, it is a gorgeous evocation of a largely unseen America, as the two journey towards the American South, with dreams of getting to Cuba and (they hope) freedom. It’s visually ravishing, and it very much captures a feeling of youth on the run, so when the script imposes certain more fixed ideas it becomes doubly disappointing. There’s a sex scene by Queen’s mother’s grave intercut with a #BlackLivesMatter-type protest in which a kid they’ve just encountered kills a (Black) cop, which is particularly odd (upsetting yes, but also misjudged) given the jarring editing, the meaning (or lack thereof) of the action, and also the fact that this protest seems to be happening hundreds of miles away from where the original incident occurred. Other events happen for equally obscure reasons — more it seems to develop a mood than strictly narratively motivated at times. It’s a rather nasty character, Queen’s uncle Earl (Bokeem Woodbine), who feels like the most fully rounded depiction, though his story is deeply layered with misogyny, which I can accept is supposed to be part of the film’s intention of excavating systemic racism and generational trauma, but doesn’t quite land.

Still, I am removed from this location and culture, so I found a lot to like in the way the film looks and moves, and hope for something even stronger from both director and writer in future. In the meantime, here are some links by writers with more understanding than I have:
* B!tch Media (by Jourdain Searles);
* Just Add Color (by Monique Jones);
* National Review (by Armond White); and
* a positive review in The Undefeated (by Soraya McDonald).

Queen & Slim film posterCREDITS
Director Melina Matsoukas; Writer Lena Waithe and James Frey; Cinematographer Tat Radcliffe; Starring Daniel Kaluuya, Jodie Turner-Smith, Bokeem Woodbine; Length 132 minutes.
Seen at Peckhamplex, London, Monday 10 February 2020.

Nights and Weekends (2008)

Greta Gerwig came out of the 2000s (and the so-called “Mumblecore” era) as something of an ‘It’ girl, at least for a moment, and parlayed that into both mainstream acting success and now as a director with her two most recent films, Lady Bird (2017) and Little Women (2019). However, she did have a co-directing credit on one of her collaborations with Joe Swanberg in that initial period, and there’s a lot that’s fascinating about the collaboration, even if it hardly takes my weddings and romance-themed week on the blog in very much happier directions.


Joe Swanberg has made a huge number of films, many of which (like Hannah Takes the Stairs (2007), also starring Gerwig, or 2011’s Art History with Josephine Decker) have a sort of improvised, raw feel to them — perhaps the result of the budgets or the shooting style, but it’s a kind of style I feel an affinity towards, because it seems to be coming from a different direction from most mainstream cinema. Still, he’s in the business of telling stories, and it’s key here that his co-star Greta Gerwig is credited as co-director and co-writer, because this feels as much about her (probably more so, honestly) than it does about his character. Both bare themselves literally (hardly unusual for Swanberg, who often delves into on-screen sexuality, whether as director or as performer), but there’s something intense about the way Gerwig presents on screen that helps you move through her emotions, far more than Swanberg, who as an actor doesn’t seem quite as upfront. That said, they both have some great scenes together that are always just held that moment (or minute, or eternity) longer than you expect, meaning they move beyond the usual relationship moments to present something more ambiguous and messy and complex. I don’t love it all, but there’s a core of something that I like very much.

Nights and Weekends film posterCREDITS
Directors/Writers Joe Swanberg and Greta Gerwig; Cinematographers Matthias Grunsky and Benjamin Kasulke; Starring Greta Gerwig, Joe Swanberg; Length 80 minutes.
Seen at home (Le Cinema Club streaming), London, Tuesday 18 February 2020.

Phantom Thread (2017)

Although the two principal characters do get married in this film, and there are certainly wedding dresses involved (for the lead character is a fashion designer), this isn’t really about marriage. It’s a relationship drama, though, and a rather twisted one at that, a three-way pull between Reynolds (Day-Lewis), his sister played by Lesley Manville, and a young woman who comes between them and tugs on Reynolds’ affections.


I was all ready to dismiss this film as yet another reworking of the eternal tropes of controlling older men and pliable younger women, an exercise in the manipulation of power dynamics via class, wealth, and the tedious tropes of masculine genius. After all, you can’t watch an awards contender, let alone a Paul Thomas Anderson film, without it being trailed in advance by untold reams of critical dissection that help you along to an opinion on a film you’ve not yet seen.

However, I think what I specifically like about it is the way that it moves from being one thing at the start — an idea of a handsomely mounted prestige costume drama (literally so: it’s about someone who makes clothes) — to something quite different by the end. To a certain extent this reflects the way the power dynamics shift, so that what starts as being about a controlling mercurial ‘genius’-like figure and the psychic toll you imagine he’ll inflict on this young ingenue-like woman, Alma (Vicky Krieps), to the way Alma starts to find power within their relationship and the way he starts to willingly submit to it, becomes really the heart of the piece.

There’s certainly something of Hitchcock to this story, as it seems to be about a man shaping a woman’s identity to his own needs (a hint of Vertigo), yet I think there’s a lot more care taken with the construction than that. For a start, Alma is really the key character here, the one who drives the film in ways that Day-Lewis’s fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock does not, for he is just a man. It’s quite fascinating the way she subsumes Reynolds’ gaze and turns his controlling behaviour back on him, to a certain extent. I won’t go into details, but I think the power dynamic (while clearly unequal) is very interestingly handled, and Lesley Manville as Reynolds’ sister Cyril/mother surrogate is a key to unpicking it. Everything, ultimately, seems to be bound up in that central metaphor of stitching and impermanence.

This isn’t all that’s going on, though. Every filmmaker at some point in their career (if they have one) will make a film about their own creativity, and this feels like that, with Reynolds being the director stand-in. He is, after all, very much just one person within an industry, and this industry relies on the labour of women, in particular. The scenes of the women arriving at the start, of his workers standing around in their smocks just quietly getting on with the work, and then when Reynolds falls ill near the end, the way they work all night on his (their) project are among the more magical sequences in the film, a sort of emotional backbone to his own fragility as an ‘artist’.

Along with its careful symbolism, Phantom Thread has the feel of classic in terms of the way it’s shot (by Anderson himself as far as I can tell, and what a lushly grainy look it has, especially on 35mm), and the period 50s fashions on display. It’s artfully studied, and that suits the story I think. Things resolve with a certain element of perversity, of wilful helplessness, articulated not least in the focus on eating. I’d not been a fan up until Inherent Vice, but I do believe Paul T. has entered the imperial phase of his filmmaking.

Phantom Thread film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Paul Thomas Anderson; Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps, Lesley Manville; Length 130 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Soho (35mm), London, Monday 5 February 2018 (and most recently on 70mm at Prince Charles Cinema, London, Sunday 5 January 2020).