Criterion Sunday 470: Wise Blood (1979)

This is an odd film, sufficiently so that I’m convinced I either have it completely wrong and it’s actually a masterpiece beyond my meagre understanding, or else maybe it’s just plain odd, but in its oddness it sits apart from most of contemporary cinema. It deals with what I can only call very American themes — of a sort of autochthonous religious mania, where the open spaces of the American heartlands blend seamlessly with Christianity, sex and death, and become somewhat messed up in the head of Brad Dourif’s war veteran Hazel Motes — which war is never quite specified, though the headstone of his father, played by the director, has a birth year that suggests maybe it’s a future war, yet in tone and costuming it feels very much like World War II or maybe something earlier even. It is, in short, a very American film about something buried deep in the white American psyche, and so perhaps it is a masterpiece, but it’s one that takes a hard route to follow. One that’s perhaps worth following, but it does its best to frustrate anyone trying to do that and the hard face of Hazel, his angry bitter mien is right at the heart of that attempt, a bleak and brutal film of the American mid-20th century experience.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director John Huston; Writers Benedict Fitzgerald and Michael Fitzgerald (based on the novel by Flannery O’Connor); Cinematographer Gerry Fisher; Starring Brad Dourif, Dan Shor, Amy Wright, Harry Dean Stanton; Length 105 minutes.

Seen at a bed and breakfast (DVD), Takaka, Saturday 16 October 2021.

Criterion Sunday 463: Il generale della Rovere (General della Rovere, 1959)

This is a solid film, no doubt, though by 1959 I can’t help but feel this kind of moral drama about the end of World War II was already rather long in the tooth, as well as something Rossellini had himself already explored quite extensively. Still, it sees him collaborate with actor/director Vittorio De Sica, who plays the title role with a great deal of conviction, a small time criminal who is drafted in by the Germans to impersonate a resistance fighter they’ve accidentally killed, in order to extract key information about the ongoing resistance efforts against the Nazis in Italy, and who comes to take on more of the character of the man he’s impersonating. It takes a while for it to get to that point, and that first hour or so of the film where he’s plying his trade in 1944 Italy is compelling stuff, giving an evocative sense of Italy in this period and the kind of moral dubiousness that was at play. I can’t fault any of the filmmaking of course, but it feels like something oddly out of time just as various New Waves were starting to take hold around Europe.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Roberto Rossellini; Writers Sergio Amidei, Diego Fabbri and Indro Montanelli (based on the novel by Montanelli); Cinematographer Carlo Carlini; Starring Vittorio De Sica, Sandra Milo, Hannes Messemer, Anne Vernon; Length 132 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 19 September 2021.

Criterion Sunday 462: Le Dernier Métro (The Last Metro, 1980)

There are two stories here and I’m not convinced they are always in sync with one another. There’s the story of occupied France in the early-1940s, under Nazi control with people just doing what they can to make ends meet and escape the controlling boot of the occupying forces. And then there’s the theatre story, which is very much at the centre. It has all the feeling of Les Enfants du paradis but with opulent colour and set design and a bravura performance from Catherine Deneuve as a woman whose Jewish theatre director husband (Heinz Bennent) she says has escaped Paris but is actually secretly hiding out in the cellar. So you’ve got this behind-the-scenes story of a theatre troupe rehearsing for a new production, a bit of three-way love action courtesy of a handsome leading actor (Gérard Depardieu), and then you have Nazis. I suppose that puts it somewhat in the camp of Cabaret except with less, er, camp. It’s gorgeously shot and mounted, with some tense set-pieces involving the Germans, but in keeping its focus on the theatrical setting over the horrors of the era, it feels far more like a throwback to a classic era of French filmmaking, and that’s not a bad thing.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director François Truffaut; Writers Truffaut and Suzanne Schiffman; Cinematographer Néstor Almendros; Starring Catherine Deneuve, Gérard Depardieu, Jean Poiret, Heinz Bennent, Sabine Haudepin, Jean-Louis Richard; Length 131 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Wednesday 15 September 2021.

Criterion Sunday 454: Europa (aka Zentropa, 1991)

One of Lars von Trier’s earlier works, back when his focus was very much on being a wunderkind behind the camera and doing tricksy things with deep focus honouring his classical heroes, while also setting the stage to some extent for Guy Maddin and others, but for me it all lacks the thrill of Maddin. It certainly achieves a certain textural depth, with the graininess of the colour tinted film and the deep contrasts of the black-and-white working quite nicely with one another. The plot is a bit Hitchcockian, with its trains and machinations and a certain post-war gloominess about the idea of Europe along with Germany’s place within it. I didn’t feel an enormous amount of attachment to the characters or the story but as an exercise in style it’s persuasive.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Lars von Trier; Writers von Trier and Niels Vørsel; Cinematographers Henning Bendtsen, Edward Kłosiński and Jean-Paul Meurisse; Starring Jean-Marc Barr, Barbara Sukowa, Udo Kier, Ernst-Hugo Järegård, Max von Sydow; Length 107 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 22 August 2021 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, June 1998).

Criterion Sunday 442: 二十四の瞳 Niju-shi no Hitomi (Twenty-Four Eyes, 1954)

It’s over two-and-a-half hours long, and it feels like a great Japanese epic of wartime defeat, humbling itself on the world stage, but yet it humanises the conflict effectively by focusing on a strongly anti-war teacher and her 12 young students, who grow up from little rascals in 1928 to fighting in the war by the end of the film. We never see any war action, but it’s all filtered through the teacher (Miss “Pebble” is her nickname for much of the film, played by Mikio Naruse’s favourite Hideko Takamine), with a strong heft of sentimentality in the musical cues — not one of those twenty-four eyes is dry at any point in the film, it sometimes seems. Still, it’s a lovely film, with wide vistas of the island they all live on, contrasted with close-ups of the children’s faces for maximum pathos. Despite it all being thickly laid on, it never feels overly manipulative: this is a story about loss and sadness, but also of people whose lives continue regardless, and about the value of life itself.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Keisuke Kinoshita 木下惠介; Cinematographer Hiroshi Kusuda 楠田浩之; Starring Hideko Takamine 高峰秀子, Chishu Ryu 笠智衆; Length 156 minutes.

Seen at Courthouse Cinema, London, Sunday 22 April 2018.

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 433: 憂國 Yukoku (Patriotism aka Patriotism or The Rite of Love and Death, 1966)

I am genuinely clueless as to why this short film co-directed by Yukio Mishima wasn’t just an extra to the Paul Schrader film. I can somewhat understand it having its own release, given it’s his only film as a director and he is a totemic and divisive cultural figure, even just as an author. However, his interest in nationalist ideology, including the formation of his own militia group, made him something of what would presumably today be called a cultural influencer (and I can’t be the only one who can imagine him complaining about being silenced if he were still around), but this all becomes very clear in Patriotism. It’s a silent work with an elegant filming style that self-consciously draws on Noh theatre, but my god is Mishima not fixated on the ritual honour of seppuku, which takes up the bulk of the running time (after a long text-based introduction). Perhaps in other hands this might have functioned as some kind of critique of Japanese militarism, and certainly it’s not unreasonable for there to be critiques about Japan and its treatment after World War II, but in Patriotism the militarism and death just feels fetishised, an extreme of gore that doesn’t feel like it adds much beyond illustrating Mishima’s own pathology.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors Yukio Mishima 三島由紀夫 and Domoto Masaki 堂本正樹; Writer Mishima (based on his own short story); Cinematographer Kimio Watanabe 渡辺公夫; Starring Yukio Mishima 三島由紀夫, Yoshiko Tsuruoka 鶴岡淑子; Length 27 minutes.

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

Shadow in the Cloud (2020)

Moving onto another quite different NZ film from the documentary I reviewed yesterday, there’s this. Roseanne Liang is a NZ-born and raised director who made an interesting debut (which I shall cover later in the week) and went on a few years later — presumably it took time to bring the project together — to make this utterly ridiculous B-movie action horror thriller, which I really enjoyed but certainly pulled down mixed reviews.


I saw the trailer for this and it seemed like something I’d definitely not want to watch. After all, I’m hardly the biggest fan of the lead actor (though she’s been in some good films), and it looked silly. Well, it is silly. It is beyond absurd. But the thing about starting from a place of absurdity is that you can pretty much do anything, and this film goes to places other films don’t, or at least not since that classic era of weird off-the-wall B-movies (the 50s? maybe the 70s). It takes its low-budget constrictions and spins them off into all kinds of things in its taut running time: an intense horror-inflected chamber psychodrama; a film about toxic masculinity in war; an emotional story of domestic abuse and motherhood; an alien film; a WW2 fighter film; the kind of action film where characters climb across the outside of a moving plane; and a bunch of other stuff, although I feel that this much is in the trailer if you’re attentive. And somehow, despite the involvement of screenwriter M*x L*nd*s (who I can only assume contributed the misogyny, though that’s one of the film’s themes, and it’s pretty clear that it’s very much set against it), it all seems to work somehow — or at least it does for me. I can imagine other people finding this just downright bad, but I think it might be some kind of masterpiece. It certainly deserves a release on one of those psychotronic video labels in maybe 50 years as an undiscovered classic.

Shadow in the Cloud film posterCREDITS
Director Roseanne Liang; Writers Max Landis and Liang; Cinematographer Kit Fraser; Starring Chloë Grace Moretz, Taylor John Smith, Nick Robinson; Length 83 minutes.
Seen at the Light House Cuba, Wellington, Tuesday 16 February 2021.

Criterion Sunday 397: Ива́ново де́тство Ivanovo detstvo (Ivan’s Childhood, 1962)

Andrei Tarkovsky evolved something of a heavily image-based cinema, which favoured the grandest of visual representations for his ideas, or at least that’s the only way I can explain how so many of the shots in his films remain so indelibly in my mind years later. Which is why I was rather surprised to revisit this film, which has not much lingered in my mind, and realise there’s plenty of jaw-droppingly beautiful camera setups here too, though none stays with me like Masha (Valentina Malyavina) being held over a trench and kissed, as a sort of swooningly romantic yet somehow treacherous and bleak poetic image. There’s a lot to commend this first feature film of Tarkovsky’s, and clearly he would continue to refine and grow his craft (his second feature was the epic Andrei Rublev), but there’s still something very Russian about the sensibility, shared with other contemporary depictions of war like Ballad of a Soldier and The Cranes Are Flying, where war is nothing glorious (and, largely here, unseen) but instead a perilous backdrop to a story of a childhood lost, derailed by the conflict and which never really stood a chance. The visual quality doesn’t detract from the story but it makes it somehow just a little bit bearable to watch.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Andrei Tarkovsky Андрей Тарковский; Writers Andrei Konchalovsky Андре́й Кончало́вский and Mikhail Papava Михаил Папава (based on the short story Иван “Ivan” by Vladimir Bogomolov Влади́мир Богомо́лов); Cinematographer Vadim Yusov Вади́м Ю́сов; Starring Nikolai Burlyayev Николай Бурляев, Valentin Zubkov Валенти́н Зубко́в, Valentina Malyavina Валенти́на Маля́вина; Length 95 minutes.

Seen at Filmhouse, Edinburgh, Tuesday 5 August 2003 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Thursday 4 February 2021).

Criterion Sunday 388: Le Vieil homme et l’enfant (The Two of Us, 1967)

Given that the director’s birth name is Claude Langmann and he was born to Jewish immigrant parents in 1934, and this film, set in 1944, is about a 10-year-old called Claude Langmann who is sent to stay in the countryside by his Jewish parents, I think it’s fair to assume this is at least semi-autobiographical. In the opening scenes, we see the besieged spirit of Paris in the months leading up to the D-Day invasions (chronicled in 1975’s Overlord, just added to the Criterion Collection shortly before this film) and the liberation of Paris in August that year (covered in Melville’s Army of Shadows, also recently introduced to the collection). Claude’s parents worry about the fate of their kid under the Nazis and so they send him off to the (non-Jewish) family of a friend out in the countryside, where he is exhorted to use the surname Longuet and avoid anything that might give away his ethnic and religious identity, and that’s really where the film gets going. He’s introduced to his new grandfather figure (played by Michel Simon) and when he learns of grandpa’s antisemitic beliefs and Pétainiste solidarity, hilarity ensues. I’m only slightly joking though: ultimately the film isn’t about the terror of being Jewish under a Nazi puppet government (we never learn the fate of his parents back in Paris, for example, and there are no scenes of threat or violence against the boy, mercifully) but instead there are a lot of gently comedic scenes which hint at his situations, like his desperate attempts to avoid anyone looking at his penis, or the exchanges with his grandpa where Claude subtly mocks his antisemitism by using his own prejudices against him. The film largely progresses this way, and while it’s not perhaps fair to say it’s soft-pedalling the war, it definitely has a sentimental view of the past, and this much is acknowledged by the opening text: it’s a child’s-eye view of the war, spent in relative bliss in a rural setting.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Claude Berri; Writers Berri, Gérard Brach and Michel Rivelin; Cinematographer Jean Penzer; Starring Alain Cohen, Michel Simon; Length 87 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Saturday 9 January 2021.