Criterion Sunday 558: Topsy-Turvy (1999)

I’m not sure if this is his first period drama, but it’s certainly now a strand of filmmaking that Mike Leigh fairly regularly pursues, and he has a meticulous approach. I daresay some may construe it as boring — and I certainly did with Peterloo (2018) — though here his approach draws out a drama of artistic creation, which has a self-reflective aspect, especially as W.S. Gilbert (Willie, or “Schwenk” to his family) ruminates on how he will conceive his next project, while steadfastly refusing to engage with his audience. Jim Broadbent’s Gilbert is the highlight, bringing a finely tuned comic quality to a man who didn’t seem to find anything funny and certainly seems like an unpleasant person to have been around. Allan Corduner as the rather more boisterous and pleasant Arthur Sullivan, along with the rest of the cast, does sterling work, and there’s a lot of joy to be had in each of these performances. It’s the backstage work, the rehearsals and performances, the bickering and pettiness of the actors as they apply makeup and run their lines, which provides the heart of this endeavour, and I found the time flew by for much of these scenes.

I found too that Leigh was fairly successful in avoiding the rather large elephant in the room, which is to say the latent racism of the entire premise and execution of The Mikado, by focusing on the extremely shortsighted nature of the Englishmen and women who put it all together, along with a subtle critique of colonialist exoticism on the part of a cohort of people who never had any personal engagement with any of the places brought back to them in the imperial capitals (lauding questionable military heroes like Gordon of Khartoum in one scene, as well as the patriotic puffery of a young Winston Churchill in another passing reference). It also feels important that Leigh included a scene where a group of Japanese women could barely contain their confusion when presented with the ‘three little girls’ of The Mikado in person, as Gilbert tried to mine them for some expressive tips. For all that I don’t personally find a great deal to enjoy in the work of Gilbert and Sullivan, I can still appreciate some of its appeal, but this is a story of putting on a show and it really lives in the details of that shared endeavour, a shared madness and folly at too many points.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Mike Leigh; Cinematographer Dick Pope; Starring Jim Broadbent, Allan Corduner, Lesley Manville, Ron Cook, Timothy Spall, Martin Savage; Length 160 minutes.

Seen at the Penthouse, Wellington, Sunday 20 August 2000 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Saturday 30 July 2022).

Criterion Sunday 557: The Times of Harvey Milk (1984)

I do wonder, watching this classic documentary once again, how many figures from history are forgotten or only dimly recalled, people who have had enormous influence in their time. As the filmmaker reflects in one of the extras, you can easily imagine Harvey Milk fading from view, for while his importance at a certain point in San Francisco’s civic history may have been undoubtable, the wider significance of his work could easily have never been properly established. What this film does then is a work of urgent engagement with a public legacy, coming from a sense of injustice — not just in the way that Milk was killed, but in the way his voice took so long to be heard at all and about the easy way in which his killer was treated. But it’s not the story of Dan White that’s of interest here — his brand of neo-conservative Bible-thumping bigotry has been every bit as influential in American politics sadly — but the effervescence and life of Harvey Milk, a man who knew early on what his fate would be (as anyone who’d grown up in American politics of the post-war period surely knew) but forged ahead anyway. He has a great skill with oratory and a belief in what was right, more than can be said for some of his political colleagues who may continue to wield influence in the state of California. It’s a great film to celebrate a life, not just mourn a death, and that’s what it taps into more than anything else.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There is a wealth of documentary material included as extras here, including the film’s premiere at the Castro (although not its first screening, but the first to the local community), introduced by Vito Russo and with speeches from its director, as well as the rather more staid affair of the Oscars where it won the best documentary that year (no mean feat, given the closed way that the Documentary Oscar was for many years selected).

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Rob Epstein; Writers Epstein, Carter Wilson and Judith Coburn; Cinematographer Frances Reid; Length 88 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 30 July 2022 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, June 2000).

Fire Island (2022)

Not all the best new films are released to cinemas, especially not if it’s screening on Disney+ because they really don’t like to get their films onto big screens anymore, which is a real shame because there’s no reason why this comedic retelling of Pride and Prejudice shouldn’t be a wider hit (though to be fair it’s not soft-pedalling the gay comedy here like similar 90s films might have done).


I feel like we had that great era of classic texts being revamped — and indeed, there’s even a brief throwaway reference to Clueless (1995) at one point in this film — and why not, because at this point it’s those films I’m pegging any remakes to rather than the original texts. But if Emma. (2020) and its ilk have been trying to take the classics back to their period settings, Fire Island proves that there’s still a lot of value in finding contemporary resonances. Imagining the Bennet sisters as a ‘family’ of gay men on a final summer holiday to the titular destination of their hedonistic youth turns out to be a pretty great twist, and productive too. There’s all the finely-nuanced character work drawn from the original with a wealth of sly references to modern culture and socialising added in, but if this were all just a studied ‘spot the reference’ competition it would quickly become boring. Luckily star/writer Joel Kim Booster and his co-lead Bowen Yang really bring the pathos along with the jokes. Yang, for all his other memorable turns, is still best known to me for being a breakout star on recent seasons of Saturday Night Live but here, fabulously, his level of party-killer/boring dorky dude is set via the detail of his recapping memorable SNL skits for people who couldn’t really care less. And while the rest of the cast are largely unknown to me, I look forward to all of them guiding the future of comedy, because there’s scarcely a dull performance amongst the group.

Fire Island (2022)CREDITS
Director Andrew Ahn; Writer Joel Kim Booster 조엘 킴 부스터; Cinematographer Felipe Vara de Rey; Starring Joel Kim Booster, Bowen Yang 楊伯文, Conrad Ricamora, James Scully, Margaret Cho 조모란, Matt Rogers; Length 105 minutes.
Seen at home (Disney+ streaming), Wellington, Friday 1 July 2021.

Criterion Sunday 552: Broadcast News (1987)

This news satire, in which Holly Hunter’s TV news producer Jane opens the film arguing desperately against the erosion of news journalistic standards in chasing entertainment value and glossy smarmy hosts, already tells a story that is nostalgic, depicting a lost era when there still seemed to be some possibility to tell true stories of the world. That said, in pegging this change to Jane’s lovelife — the way she is pulled between two men, the earnest, intelligent yet abrasive journalist Aaron (played by Albert Brooks) and the unctuous, slightly vapid yet still sincere Tom (William Hurt) — is extremely likeable. As you’d expect from a veteran of television like writer/director James L. Brooks, this is both pretty incisive stuff that understands its milieu well, but also written with an eye to the funny. From an era when a lot of the most lauded films are pretty unwatchable now (and certainly Joan Cusack’s fashion choices here haven’t aged brilliantly), this makes a case for being one of the decade’s best and most watchable films and even if it’s still a product of its times, there’s a real glow from watching Holly Hunter being competent and professional.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer James L. Brooks; Cinematographer Michael Ballhaus; Starring Holly Hunter, William Hurt, Albert Brooks, Joan Cusack; Length 132 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 10 July 2022.

Criterion Sunday 550: The King of Marvin Gardens (1972)

I suppose if there’s a theme to BBS movies, the titles collected by Criterion in the box set “America Lost and Found”, then it’s a sense of the crumbling of the American Dream, or at least that peculiarly mid-20th century vision of it. I mean, it’s certainly deserved, but what these films do is shine a light on confused white men in what should be bastions of that Dream wondering what happened, and that’s no less the case with Jack Nicholson and Bruce Dern here, as brothers David and Jason. Jason has designs on Atlantic City, but keeps getting into trouble, and when David comes into town it’s largely to survey its noticeable decline. The film feels a bit unfocused at times, but then again so does American society, and the more I think about what Rafelson has put on the screen, the greater fondness I have for this rambling and at times surreal film (sequences of the two on horses on the beach make the Criterion release’s cover art, while elsewhere we have Nicholson compering an audience-less Miss America pageant, amongst other little flourishes). While watching it, I wasn’t quite sure what it all added up to, but in retrospect that may be the point: nothing quite adds up, because this is a story and a society destined to fall apart. The title explicitly anchors it in capitalism, referring to the original Monopoly board (complete with its misspelling of Marven Gardens), and this is a city that has sadly foundered on the promise of a dazzling future, just like these characters, just like all the characters in the BBS movies (whether Five Easy Pieces, Easy Rider, The Last Picture Show or even the Monkees in Head).


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Bob Rafelson; Writer Jacob Brackman (based on a story by Brackman and Rafelson); Cinematographer László Kovács; Starring Jack Nicholson, Bruce Dern, Ellen Burstyn, Benjamin “Scatman” Crothers, Julia Anne Robinson; Length 104 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 3 July 2022.

Criterion Sunday 549: The Last Picture Show (1971)

A classic, if not the defining, film of the sad people in a sad small town feeling sad at the fleetingness of all things and at their sad, uneventful futures in the dead end of the American Dream genre, which to be fair is a reasonably well-worn one. But I’d not seen this film before, and director Peter Bogdanovich is sensible to keep his focus on the actors and on Larry McMurtry’s script (based on his own youthful experiences I gather, and shot in the small Texas town he grew up in). All these different actors, whether new youthful faces like Jeff Bridges and Cybill Shepherd and Timothy Bottoms (and even Randy Quaid) all hit their marks perfectly, but in a sense this is even more a film for Eileen Brennan and Ellen Burstyn and Cloris Leachman and Ben Johnson, as the older generation who have clearly already lived the lives these teenage kids are going through and who convey an immense amount of pathos. The script is certainly on point with its metaphors, but it wouldn’t matter much were it not for the tightly controlled performances of the leads, underscored by the monochrome cinematography and crumbling small town set design.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Peter Bogdanovich; Writers Larry McMurtry and Bogdanovich (based on McMurtry’s novel); Cinematographer Robert Surtees; Starring Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges, Cybill Shepherd, Cloris Leachman, Ellen Burstyn, Ben Johnson, Eileen Brennan; Length 126 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 2 July 2022.

Criterion Sunday 546: Five Easy Pieces (1970)

As a seminal film in the ‘New American cinema’ movement, moving away from the Hollywood studio system, and a key piece in Jack Nicholson’s filmography, I must say that I like but don’t love Five Easy Pieces. It tells the story of Bobby Dupea, a man who seems pretty desperate to get away from himself, from his well-educated upper-class (for America) background, a world of conservatories and piano prodigies at a youthful age (which is what Bobby once was). Quite what he’s looking for is the drama of the film, though: some kind of pure and authentic expression of being American, perhaps, though most of the time it seems like he’s just running with no clear goal, lashing out at those who love him and constantly cheating on his girlfriend (Karen Black). It’s a great performance from Nicholson, but it’s not an easy one to love, given how rough around the edges he is, though it feels somehow quintessentially American. I can certainly understand how it hooks people in, but watching it I feel more like one of the pseuds that Bobby is so angry at all the time.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Bob Rafelson; Writers Carole Eastman [as “Adrien Joyce”] and Rafelson; Cinematographer László Kovács; Starring Jack Nicholson, Karen Black, Susan Anspach; Length 98 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Wednesday 29 June 2022.

Criterion Sunday 545: Easy Rider (1969)

I guess this film is a bit like Kerouac or any of those other self-styled poets of the American road, as in it’s something that has been influential and has attracted plenty of love, but is also equally reviled by those who just find it bloated and self-serving. To be fair, these are mostly straw man arguments to a certain extent; aside from a few snide comments I’ve seen, I’m just assuming the existence of this film’s detractors, because my mind itself is pulled in two directions. On the one hand, these characters are like empty ciphers for some metaphorical telling of the American Dream/Nightmare, drugged-up hipsters (though the more I see of the 1960s counterculture, the more segments of it feel more like libertarian neo-conservatism than real progressive belief) on a road journey that self-knowingly takes in all the contradictions of city vs urban life, hippies and drop-outs vs those on a demented vision quest, and everyone in between. You don’t really learn very much, is what I’m saying, because there’s a lot of posturing and smugness… and yet, on the other hand, there’s something a little bit gorgeous about this evocation of the road (probably in part thanks to cinematographer László Kovács), compelling in its nihilism perhaps, but I like the music and I enjoy the ride, even if I don’t always particularly like the company.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Dennis Hopper; Writers Peter Fonda, Hopper and Terry Southern; Cinematographer László Kovács; Starring Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Jack Nicholson; Length 95 minutes.

Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Monday 18 December 2000 (and more recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Sunday 26 June 2022).

Criterion Sunday 544: Head (1968)

If one of the best-known aspects about Bob Rafelson’s debut as a director — and the first (and last) outing of manufactured music group The Monkees onto film — is that it was a massive commercial flop, that’s also probably the least interesting thing about it. After all, being a failure is sort of built into its very genetic code: it was designed to be a wholesale razing of The Monkees’ image, perhaps to allow them to go onto other things. However, it’s not like it’s designed to be bad, it’s just so scattershot and weird as to be basically unwatchable in a strictly narrative sense. But it’s certainly not lacking in interest either. Some of it remains very much of its era, and some of the ways it interrogates contemporary culture are less successful than others (just showing footage of an execution from the Vietnam War alongside screaming fans at a Monkees gig seem a little bit simplistic). But Rafelson and company — including co-screenwriter/producer Jack Nicholson — are throwing so much at the screen that at least some of it still maintains the power to perplex and astonish as it does to cause concern. It’s a series of setpieces and ideas that probably seemed more fully-formed when the makers were on acid (which is both evident and also documented), but still manages to be silly and serious in almost equal measures, a predecessor to what Adam McKay does now but if it were done to challenge rather than entertain the audience.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • One extra is a recent interview with director/co-writer Bob Rafelson, who had helped to create The Monkees as a TV show (and thereby a band), who is lucid and very entertaining talking about the genesis of this film and how things worked out for everyone. It’s almost half an hour, but an entertaining one.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Bob Rafelson; Writers Rafelson and Jack Nicholson; Cinematographer Michel Hugo; Starring The Monkees (Peter Tork, David Jones, Micky Dolenz, Michael Nesmith); Length 85 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 11 June 2022.

Criterion Sunday 543: Modern Times (1936)

I am, if I’m being realistic, more than halfway through my life, which for someone who watches as many films as I do, is late to be getting into Charlie Chaplin. Of his features, I’ve only seen A Countess from Hong Kong (1967), which is probably not considered the classic way to start (his last film, although it’s certainly interesting for its era). But Modern Times holds up: a lot of its critiques of workplace relations and management pressure hardly seem to have aged at all, even if some of the technology it imagines is rather fanciful. The comedy is focused mostly into those sequences with the machines — Chaplin’s Tramp on the assembly line, getting sucked into the cogs, and doing a variety of pratfalls around the factory. However, it does feel far more strongly as if Chaplin is interested in social commentary, as well as finding an emotional thread with his relationship with the similarly marginalised Paulette Goddard’s “Gamin” character (she’s also Chaplin’s real-life wife of the time, and though 20 years younger than him is at least in her 20s for a change, even if she’s playing a juvenile delinquent). Overall it has a clarity to its comedic setups that focuses attention on the mistreatment of labour and the fallout of the Depression on people in America, with an undercurrent of poverty and desperation that I think sharpens some of the satire. I think it will take me a little while to deepen my appreciation of Chaplin, though, and so I look forward to seeing more of his classics as my Criterion project goes on.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Charlie Chaplin; Cinematographers Ira H. Morgan and Roland Totheroh; Starring Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard; Length 87 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 12 June 2022.