Criterion Sunday 170: Trouble in Paradise (1932)

On second viewing, this still impresses as Ernst Lubitsch’s masterpiece. It’s not just in the characters — whose love affairs are delightful, particularly that between gentleman thief Gaston (Herbert Marshall) and elegant pickpocket Lily (Miriam Hopkins), handled with the ‘touch’ Lubitsch was known for, a sort of playful understanding of sex before that was a subject you were ‘allowed’ to address directly in cinema — nor the fabulous actors (oh, Kay Francis!) but in the subtler artistry. The camerawork for example, just little pans across to catch a detail (especially in that almost avant-garde sequence of clock faces dissolving into yet more clocks). Or the way a fade to black can suggest so much. It’s the way that every actor gets little tics that make them into real people, or that a famous city like Venice can be introduced by a garbage gondola in the night, undercutting with great economy the usual conventions. There are so many fine choices, articulated as part of a whole that moves towards a romantic comic resolution, and all of it in well under 90 minutes.

Criterion Extras: There’s a 45-minute long film from early in Lubitsch’s career included as an extra, Das fidele Gefängnis (The Merry Jail) (1917). Lubitsch likes the genteel contours of the sex comedy, though his famous ‘touch’ wasn’t perhaps so refined in 1917 as it would be a mere fifteen years later. Indeed, this is primarily a stagy (three act) farce, in which a frivolous dissolute womanising husband has one put over him by his wife, using the time-honoured (even 100 years ago) device of putting on a mask to fool him. There’s a side-plot about the wife’s maid and… I’m not exactly sure what’s going on with the jail, such is the economy/speed with which this 45 minute film just speeds by, but suffice to say there’s a lot of kissing — whether cheating men with other women, or jailed men with their drunken captors. Isn’t life a merry jail?

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Ernst Lubitsch | Writer Samson Raphaelson (based on the play A Becsületes Megtaláló by Aladár László) | Cinematographer Victor Milner | Starring Miriam Hopkins, Herbert Marshall, Kay Francis, Edward Everett Horton, Charles Ruggles | Length 83 minutes || Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Friday 23 May 2014 (and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 13 August 2017)


Criterion Sunday 169: Jimi Plays Monterey/Shake! Otis at Monterey (1986)

Certainly Hendrix had one of the stand-out sets at the 1967 Monterey Pop festival, so the single song he was allotted in the feature film released at the time (Monterey Pop) is expanded in Jimi Plays Monterey with what I presume is his full set, and released some years later in 1986. Most performers at the festival weren’t allowed more than about 20-30 minutes it seems, hence even the extended set’s somewhat abbreviated running time. That said, Hendrix packs a lot in, and while how he ended his set remains one of the iconic images of his short life — conjuring his fingers over a burning guitar — there’s plenty of other stuff to enjoy here, reminding me of how good he was when covering others’ songs.

Unlike the above pendant shorter film released more or less contemporaneously with this one, Shake! Otis at Monterey presents a musician’s set without contextualisation or narration (which for the Jimi film was provided by festival co-organiser, John Phillips). In this case it’s Otis Redding and one feels, given his demise very shortly after this was filmed (within six months), that a lot more context could have been given to his short but mercurial career. Luckily the music is riveting and Redding is an excellent performer, his backing band(s) among the tightest in the business. It’s only a shame he didn’t get more time, but what’s here, for 19 fascinating minutes, is great.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus | Cinematographers Nick Doob, Barry Feinstein, Richard Leacock, Albert Maysles, Roger Murphy, D.A. Pennebaker and Nicholas T. Proferes | Length 63 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 24 September 2017

Criterion Sunday 168: Monterey Pop (1968)

If you’re a fan of classic 60s rock and pop music, then there’s plenty here to enjoy, with beautifully captured performances by the Mamas and the Papas (who helped organise the festival), Jimi Hendrix, Otis Redding and Ravi Shankar, amongst many others. Of course there are still a few of those acts whose legacy has been somewhat obscured by history (I have no idea who Country Joe are, nor much surpassing interest in finding out), but on the whole it’s a fine document. The filmmakers tend to prefer the close-up which can be a little frustrating at times, and their cameras wander to the audience with regularity, though plenty of little moments are captured thereby, the film being at times as much a document of late-60s counterculture fashion and style as of the music. But with the excellent soundtrack, it all coasts by very amiably.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director D.A. Pennebaker | Cinematographers Nick Doob [as James Desmond], Barry Feinstein, Richard Leacock, Albert Maysles, Roger Murphy and D.A. Pennebaker | Length 79 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 24 September 2017

Criterion Sunday 166: Down by Law (1986)

One of Jarmusch’s early minimalist existentialist black-and-white films, structured around a fairly genre setup (crimes, trials, imprisonment, escape) without bothering to show any of the mechanics, just the interpersonal relationships of its three leads. It really looks gorgeous thanks to Jarmusch cannily recruiting Wim Wenders pre-eminent DoP of the 1970s, Robby Müller, and the style works well within that high-contrast black-and-white frame. The New Orleans/Louisiana setting is used well for its expressive architectural and natural possibilities, though the film is a little less sure-footed when it comes to race, which you’d think would be a bigger part of a story from that part of the world. But what it does do, it does with exemplary finesse, that same spare deadpan storytelling that Jarmusch would continue to deploy throughout his career. There’s also a memorable comic turn from Roberto Benigni, a figure who would become far more grating in the following decade.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jim Jarmusch | Cinematographer Robby Müller | Starring John Lurie, Tom Waits, Roberto Benigni | Length 107 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 6 August 2017

Criterion Sunday 163: Hopscotch (1980)

It’s difficult in our techno-spy thriller era to take seriously such a bumbling joking character as Walter Matthau’s CIA agent here, Miles Kendig. He’s running rings around his bureaucratic superiors (most notably Ned Beatty antagonist Myerson), but I’m not sure it is always believable. It’s more akin to a comedic farce really, likeable I suppose and impossible to really hate, but very much of its time.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Ronald Neame | Writers Bryan Forbes and Brian Garfield (based on the novel by Garfield) | Cinematographer Arthur Ibbetson and Brian W. Roy | Starring Walter Matthau, Glenda Jackson, Sam Waterston, Ned Beatty | Length 104 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 2 July 2017

Criterion Sunday 159: Akahige (Red Beard, 1965)

Undoubtedly one of Kurosawa’s stronger films, the central drama in Red Beard (named for Toshiro Mifune’s defining facial accoutrement, even if the film itself is in black-and-white) isn’t introduced with any big flourishes or self-aggrandising camerawork. The focus remains on the small events, inside a clinic where Mifune’s Dr Niide schools a cocky young intern (Yuzo Kayama as Dr Yasumoto) on what it means to be a compassionate doctor. Yasumoto’s journey towards caring about his fellow people is moved forward by a number of encounters with patients, which unfold slowly without any big setpieces (though Mifune dispatching a town of hooligans is the closest to that), just the riveting human drama of one man’s education. Fundamentally decent.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Akira Kurosawa | Writers Masato Ide, Ryuzo Kikushima, Akira Kurosawa and Hideo Oguni (based on the collection of short stories Akahige shinryotan by Shuguro Yamamoto) | Cinematographer Asakazu Nakai | Starring Toshiro Mifune, Yuzo Kayama | Length 185 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 4 June 2017

Criterion Sunday 156: Hearts and Minds (1974)

Undoubtedly this is a powerful piece of filmmaking about a war (the Vietnam War), though its lessons can be applied to many subsequent conflicts. To see former generals note that the strategy of continuing a war that killed so many people barely had any effect on the resolve of the native people to keep fighting against the foreign incursion is surely something that should have been remembered after 2001 as well, but the nature of modern warfare — the way it is played out in the media, the access they are given — has fundamentally changed. There are sequences here that are scarcely believable, like the soldiers filmed joking with each other while with respective women at a brothel. But there are other sequences — interviews with veterans, generals and politicians alike — that shed light on the attitudes that went into the war: a desperate desire to hold onto resources, and to keep face with allies even as the philosophy that propelled them to intervene (the Domino Theory about the spread of Communism) was largely debunked. The filmmaker here uses all the now familiar techniques of cannily editing footage to prove the institutional lies of the American forces, as well as occasional editorial asides that almost joke with the audience (a father who’s lost a son hymning the leadership of Nixon while a subtitle pops up at just this point to say “filmed in early 1973”). It remains a relevant film and an excellent one, for all the bias one might accuse it of, not least for the interview with the bomber pilot that runs through and concludes the film, which is beautifully poignant and powerful.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Peter Davis | Cinematographer Richard Pearce | Length 112 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 14 May 2017

Criterion Sunday 152: George Washington (2000)

I really like this spare, fugue-like elegy for the dispossessed in all its overtly Malickian sensibilities. Perhaps seeing it at a film festival when it was released, before a lot of other filmmakers had jumped on that particular ride (and the one who made this had very much jumped off), was more surprising but there’s still beauty and warmth, in those magic light colours of a place where the South meets the rust belt, and the feeling in the non-professional actors. A really vivid take on the coming of age that does most of its thematic work in little vignettes of community life and almost throwaway dialogue, preferring stretches of contemplative reflection of quiet desuetude.

Criterion Extras: Besides a trailer, there’s also quite a few interesting extras, most notably two student short films by Green, Pleasant Grove (1997) and Physical Pinball (1998). Both share quite a few similarities with George Washington, which lifts the first’s story of a boy with a stray dog who can’t take it home as a little detail for George. While this first one is a sweet slow little film that sets up some ideas that would be progressed by the feature, the second feels more fully rounded. It’s about a father-daughter relationship (both actors would return for the feature), and has a nice sense of how out of his depth the father is after his wife has passed.

Along with these is A Day with the Boys (1969), a short by actor Clu Gulager, a wordless film with a hazy nostalgic tone, all slo-mo running set to plaintive trumpet (very much of its era), jazzed up with all kinds of visual touches. It all turns a bit Lord of the Flies, as I suppose many days with the boys will, but it’s a diverting mood piece.

Aside from this there’s a Charlie Rose interview with a (very young!) David Gordon Green, which covers a few of his influences, not to mention some insights about how he cast and shot the film, though it is quite short. A deleted scene of a town hall meeting imparts a sense of some of Green’s verité reference points, as the camera does quick zooms and pans in the style of those fly-on-the-wall documentaries from the 60s. Finally, there’s a short piece interviewing its child stars a year after release in 2001, as they expound on how it was to make the film, and some of their aspirations.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer David Gordon Green | Cinematographer Tim Orr | Starring Candace Evanofski, Donald Holden | Length 89 minutes || Seen at Te Papa, Wellington, Friday 20 July 2001 (and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 7 May 2017)

Criterion Sunday 151: Traffic (2000)

Well, first up, I can’t really deny Soderbergh is a skillful director. He has a way with cinematic narrative that puts him up there with that other sibilant Steven of Hollywood preeminence. Despite a two-and-a-half-hour running time, Traffic (like the British television mini-series it’s based on) is never boring; it’s well-paced, tightly structured and it has plenty of fine performances (not least from Soderbergh regulars like Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman as a pair of cops investigating a mid-level drug dealer, Miguel Ferrer — also excellent). It’s just, at a fundamental level, I’m not sure at some of the hand-wringing arguments being made here about drugs, not least the racialised aspect of it. I mean quite aside from the Mexicans (they’re all corrupt, all of them), there’s the weirdly morally judgmental descent of Michael Douglas’s daughter (played by Erika Christensen) — he’s a high-flying government drugs czar, she’s privately-educated (and hangs out with Topher Grace of all people), her nadir apparently being sleeping with a black drug dealer. I mean maybe I’m reading too much into it, though I found the attitude towards the teenagers generally a little condescending. Also, Soderbergh was deep into his own addiction to coloured lens filters (Cincinatti is BLUE, Mexico is YELLOW, and at least DC and LA are sort of normal), which gets trying too. Anyway, it’s enjoyable enough, but I wouldn’t call it his masterpiece.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Steven Soderbergh | Writer Stephen Gaghan (based on the television miniseries Traffik by Simon Moore) | Cinematographer Steven Soderbergh [as “Peter Andrews”] | Starring Benicio del Toro, Michael Douglas, Don Cheadle, Catherine Zeta-Jones | Length 147 minutes || Seen at Manners Mall Cinema, Wellington, Sunday 25 March 2001 (and again on Blu-ray at home, London, Thursday 13 July 2017)

Girls Trip (2017)

At some level this is a black women’s twist on a gross-out comedy, which is not traditionally a genre I’ve liked, and yet… It may be too long (at 122 minutes, a good half-hour could easily have been excised), it may be quite mean about celebrity gossip journalists and women posing for selfies on Instagram (I felt like something personal was going on there), it may wrap things up with an excess of saccharine (though admirably focused on women’s friendship with one another rather than on men), but it really is very funny. At times it’s exceptionally funny, especially Tiffany Haddish as Dina, a performer I wasn’t aware of before, but whom I now expect to be in everything, and deservedly so (the scene where she imagines her revenge on a cheating man is satisfying in so many ways). It also features quite the most unexpected male nudity.

It feels like Bridesmaids was in the writers’ minds as a touchstone (not least because they have an actor, Kate Walsh, apparently doing her best to imitate Kristen Wiig), but it also has the brio of Magic Mike XXL in both its setting in the American south (here New Orleans), and its single-minded focus on the buddies-on-a-trip narrative (the presence of Jada Pinkett Smith helps in that regard; she and Queen Latifah also inspire a sweet shout-out to Set It Off, a real 90s classic of the black women buddy genre). Plus, the focus on the women means it dispenses with some of the unpleasantness that marked the women characters in the same director’s The Best Man (1999).

In all, a top comedy, which really deserves its success.

Director Malcolm D. Lee | Writers Kenya Barris and Tracy Oliver | Cinematographers Greg Gardiner | Starring Regina Hall, Queen Latifah, Jada Pinkett Smith, Tiffany Haddish | Length 122 minutes || Seen at Odeon Holloway Road, London, Wednesday 2 August 2017