Criterion Sunday 97: Do the Right Thing (1989)

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It’s been over 25 years since this film was first released — the film that very much put Spike Lee on the map, even if he’d had a few features before this which had garnered attention. It still fizzes with energy, a bold primary-coloured work of cinematic joie de vivre that, thanks to its sterling cinematography from Lee’s collaborator Ernest Dickerson, has a warm filter placed over everything. Every surface seems to drip with sweat and refract with the heat of this, the hottest day of the year. It’s shot and set in the Bedford-Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn NYC, and presents a warm-hearted portrait of a community that certainly isn’t perfect but is trying to get along. There’s a foothold to an older generation of Italian-American immigrants (the traditional white working class of Sal and his sons, running a popular corner pizzeria), whose ancestors may have made up much of the original population but who by the late-20th century have also largely fled to other areas further out in Queens and on Long Island (so-called ‘white flight’). There are the Black Americans who’ve also been there for some decades, and who are the beating heart of the modern community. There are Puerto Ricans in the mix, there is a newer influx of Asian immigrants (the Koreans who own the corner grocery opposite Sal’s, somewhat stereotyped), and there are even signs of a monied white middle-class moving in to start gentrifying the block. And everything would largely be fine except for the blasted heat which seems to fry everyone’s brains, leading to the film’s denouement. The one thing the heat can’t fully be blamed for — and the one area where Lee’s generosity to his characters is notably absent — is the action of the New York city police.

If the film still feels contemporary, still feels like a relevant angry broadside, it’s not just because fashions come back around, or that the urgent music of Public Enemy never really dropped out of style, or because of the stridency and subtlety of much of the acting. There’s Danny Aiello as Sal who tries to get along but is still marked by his racist upbringing, Richard Edson and John Turturro as Sal’s divided sons, Spike Lee in the central role of the rootless Mookie who can’t really manage his adult responsibilities, Rosie Perez as his angry girlfriend, angry as much from Mookie’s inaction as from the stress of raising their son, and the range of Greek Chorus figures like Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee as the elderly witnesses to their neighbourhood, the unemployed men sitting out on the sidewalk commenting on the action which passes them by, and Samuel L. Jackson as Mr Señor Love Daddy, the radio DJ. These are all very strong performances, and keep the film seeming fresh. But mostly it’s still contemporary because the interactions between American police and the neighbourhoods they are supposed to be policing doesn’t appear to have moved on, even as a generation has since passed by. Do the Right Thing testifies to the illegal deaths of Black men in police custody (not to mention a passing graffito reference, “TAWANA TOLD THE TRUTH”, to a notorious rape denial case of the era), and the sad thing is that news headlines of 25+ years later have scarcely moved on. The film makes the useful point, one that never really becomes tired, that racism and injustice affects everyone in a community. Hence: do the right thing.

Criterion Extras: It’s a packed edition, one of the early tentpoles for the growing collection. Most notably is the hour-long documentary Making “Do the Right Thing” (1989, dir. St. Clair Bourne), which is more than just a puff piece making-of that you’d get on a mainstream release. This is very much a cinematic work, one that tracks the progress of the shoot from its very earliest beginnings, but also talks to and gauges the response of the locals who’ve been affected for almost six months by this production, as Lee’s team builds sets along a block, and then for eight weeks is out there filming, shutting down the street and calling for silence for chunks of the summer. Suffice to say, not everyone is happy, and the film hears their voices, but is also watches carefully as the actors grapple with their characters (Danny Aiello in particular has trouble grasping the essential racism of Sal). It’s a very fine bonus feature indeed.

Alongside this, there is also a significant amount of (somewhat shakily amateur handheld) videos documenting the rehearsal and filming process with Spike Lee and his actors. The 1989 Cannes press conferences is reproduced in full, replete with slightly confused questions from the white European journalists present, and a short piece in which Lee and his producer revisit their locations 12 or so years on. There’s Lee’s video for Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power”, which contextualises their words within a tradition of protest as seen on archival film footage. And there’s an interview with Lee’s editor Barry Brown talking about the challenges of the work. Each of these extras is prefaced by a short Spike Lee introduction, and he also wraps up with some final words.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Spike Lee | Cinematographer Ernest Dickerson | Starring Spike Lee, Danny Aiello, Ossie Davis, John Turturro, Rosie Perez, Richard Edson | Length 120 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 22 May 2016 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, February 1997, and at university, May 1998)

Criterion Sunday 96: Written on the Wind (1956)

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Of all Sirk’s vibrantly-coloured over-the-top domestic melodramas of passionate lives curtailed by societal mores, for me Written on the Wind is the very finest. It sets up its privileged setting and protagonists over the opening credits: the Hadley family mansion in small-town Texas, where dissolute son Kyle (Robert Stack) and wayward daughter Marylee (Dorothy Malone) fight over the affections of stolid lower-class boy Mitch (Rock Hudson), an engineer who works for their oil tycoon dad, and has been friends with them all his life. Lauren Bacall plays Lucy, an advertising executive who gets married to Kyle and is able to provide an outsider’s viewpoint on the tumultuous story, but really this is about that three-way relationship triangle between the Hadleys and Mitch. This means that the homoerotic readings are certainly available, and there’s plenty of play with phallic imagery (Marylee caressing a model of an oil well is only the most memorable of many), but it all operates on that coyly suggestive level typical of the repressed 1950s. Malone won an Academy Award, but in retrospect her performance seems the very hammiest of the lot. That said, it works well within the film’s seething context, so perhaps those 50s Academy voters were just more aware of the many ironic levels of interpretation on offer here. It’s a masterpiece, in any case, and I love it.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Douglas Sirk | Writer George Zuckerman (based on the novel by Robert Wilder) | Cinematographer Russell Metty | Starring Rock Hudson, Lauren Bacall, Robert Stack, Dorothy Malone | Length 99 minutes || Seen at Paramount, Wellington, Wednesday 21 July 1999 (also on VHS at the university library, Wellington, April 1998, and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 24 April 2016)

Criterion Sunday 95: All That Heaven Allows (1955)

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Douglas Sirk was a director from Germany who was working within mainstream Hollywood cinema in the 1950s, where he had great success though at the time his pictures were largely sidelined as merely ‘women’s interest’. They later came to influence a diverse range of directors, not least his countryman Rainer Werner Fassbinder (whose 1974 film Angst essen Seele auf largely remakes the one under discussion here), but his style is perhaps at its most refined in All That Heaven Allows. Certainly it looks spectacular (a palette borrowed by Todd Haynes for his own 2002 hommage Far from Heaven), and boasts some fine acting from Rock Hudson — just coming into his own around this period — as well as veteran A-list star Jane Wyman. The story concerns itself with the repressed middle-classes and the cumulative power of society’s judgement on Wyman’s widowed matriarch Cary, who falls for a younger man, her gardener Ron (Hudson). More than his age, it’s class which is the chief battleground, and Cary’s self-esteem is progressively whittled away by her friends and frightful selfish children. There’s a rather implausible denouement, albeit clearly tacked on where the story really finishes, and little opportunity is spared to heighten the campness of the settings (the appearance of a deer is particularly memorable), but this is a gorgeous, emotional film which still resonates.

Criterion Extras: There’s a commentary track by a couple of British academics, who draw attention particularly to the design and lighting of the film, but also favourably towards the acting and draw out some of the meanings of melodrama and camp at work in the film. There’s an hour-long excerpt of a 1979 British TV show Behind the Mirror about Sirk, based around an interview with him at his home in Switzerland, as well as a shorter French TV piece about him from a few years later, again featuring his own words. One of the actors in the film (William Reynolds, who played Cary’s son Ned) talks about working with Sirk from a vantage point of 50 years later. There’s also a rather glorious trailer.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Douglas Sirk | Writer Peg Fenwick | Cinematographer Russell Metty | Starring Rock Hudson, Jane Wyman, Agnes Moorehead | Length 89 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 24 April 2016 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, January 2002)

L’Avenir (Things to Come, 2016)

The last two films I’ve seen at the cinema have been this and Andrzej Żuławski’s Cosmos, both French films by directors with non-French ancestry, both set amongst a close-knit group of intellectuals gravitating away from the city, but otherwise films with quite a different temperament. For where Cosmos is dead set with every fibre of its creation against bourgeois affectations, Things to Come instead mounts something of an apologia for the bourgeoisie.

However, I’m getting ahead of myself, and the comparison comes from happenstance, so I shan’t get too bogged down in such comparisons; suffice to say I enjoyed Mia Hansen-Løve’s new film very much (and I am clearly also partial to the consolations of the middle-class). Its pleasures are not immediate, but come from an intense focus on the character of Nathalie (played by an ever-excellent Isabelle Huppert), a philosophy teacher at a French high school, who prides herself on opening her students’ minds, even as her own marriage seems stuck. For characters whose lives are so mired in stasis (whether existentially or literally — there are a lot of very abstruse books, and most characters crack them open to read on a regular basis), the camerawork and staging for much of the film is filled with movement. My feeling of it, though, is that this constant movement settles down after a succession of personal setbacks (Nathalie’s husband resolves to leave her, and her mother dies suddenly). She is left to reassess her life, living for a while with her mother’s cat Pandora at a former student’s countryside commune.

As I said, the film’s pleasures are chiefly in the observation of Nathalie’s life’s rituals, and in little amusing details. I particularly liked, as just one example, the sequence where she tries to angrily consign her now-moved-out-husband’s consolatory flowers to the bin, but finding it too narrow for their showy proportions, bags them up in a blue Ikea bag and throws them in her flat’s rubbish skip, pauses, then goes back to retrieve the Ikea bag. I’m not even sure the divorce is really the key to the film (it seems central to a lot of the film’s write-ups), so much as a structural conceit. Things to Come is more interested in the life of a woman who has moved away from predicating her existence on men (or indeed any sense of community, it sometimes seems); it somewhat reminds me of Gertrud in this respect, even if it doesn’t share many of Dreyer’s formal qualities or staginess.

The film may not have the edginess or punch of some young directors’ works (or indeed that of Żuławski), but it is reminiscent instead of the best of bourgeois French cinema (Assayas, say, or Téchiné), seemingly gentle on the surface yet hiding barbed insights.


L'Avenir (Things to Come, 2016)

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Mia Hansen-Løve | Cinematographer Denis Lenoir | Starring Isabelle Huppert, Roman Kolinka, André Marcon, Édith Scob | Length 102 minutes || Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Saturday 3 September 2016

Criterion Sunday 94: I Know Where I’m Going! (1945)

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This is a light, frothy and rather silly romance from Powell and Pressburger, made towards the end of World War II. It’s not exactly a comedy, but the way that the ceaseless forward momentum of Wendy Hiller’s middle-class Joan founders on the rocks of Roger Livesey’s unflinching Torquil is a comic scenario expertly mined by the writer-directors. Joan is marrying a wealthy industrialist on the remote Scottish island of Kiloran he’s leased, while Torquil is the Laird of Kiloran, not rich but happy for the income. He’s staying with a friend in a mainland port town where Joan has become stranded due to bad weather, waiting to get out to the island. Where the comic setup gets silly is in a local curse that’s been placed on the Lairds, which is invoked in the denouement. Still, that’s all of a piece with this snappy film, which really conveys a great sense of the windswept bleakness of this stretch of coast: the viewer really feels all that rain and wind, especially in a boat-set scene so churning one is happy for the camera to return to stable land.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors/Writers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger | Cinematographer Erwin Hillier | Starring Wendy Hiller, Roger Livesey | Length 88 minutes || Seen at National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 5 May 1999 (and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 17 April 2016)

Criterion Sunday 93: Black Narcissus (1947)

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Having recently revisited my previously low opinion on Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes, I’d hoped the same would happen for me with their big beautifully-coloured studio-bound epic of the year before. It’s an exoticist take on India, as Deborah Kerr plays Sister Clodagh, selected to run a new mountain outpost in rural India and swiftly despatched with a selection of other nuns, including the unstable Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron). The sets and filming is undeniably gorgeous, and there’s a lot of high camp to the proceedings, only heightened by that Technicolor. The fierce competition between Clodagh and Ruth largely takes place across their faces, with Mr Dean (David Farrar) stuck manfully in the middle, dispensing his sardonic advice about how best to get along with the locals. The film’s big misstep is in the whitewashing of Indian roles (with the exception of Sabu’s ‘little’ General), which may be a feature of contemporary filmmaking, but doesn’t make it any easier to watch, much though Jean Simmons in particular does her best to steal her scenes.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors/Writers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (based on the novel by Rumer Godden) | Cinematographer Jack Cardiff | Starring Deborah Kerr, Kathleen Byron, David Farrar, Sabu, Jean Simmons | Length 100 minutes || Seen at National Library, Wellington, Thursday 20 May 1999 (also on VHS at home, Wellington, April 1998, and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 17 April 2016)

Criterion Sunday 92: Fiend Without a Face (1958)

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After the previous week’s The Blob comes another film from the same year, but from the other side of the Atlantic — not that you’d necessarily guess, given its Canadian setting and imported actors (okay, Surrey stretches credulity even as Manitoba, and some of the accents are ropey to say the least). It’s a deeply silly sci-fi story of mind control gone awry, and the audience is kept waiting for the big reveal of the slithery brain monsters by the narrative contortions whereby these creatures remain invisible while they are drawing on… NUCLEAR POWER. It’s no less badly acted than any other similar film of the era, and there’s a hammy turn from English veteran Kynaston Reeves as a demented professor, while the leads are clean-cut Major Jeff (Marshall Thompson) and the professor’s stalwart student Barbara (Kim Parker, who has a stronger role than the poster’s depiction of her in a bath towel might suggest).


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Arthur Crabtree | Writer Herbert J. Leder (based on the short story “The Thought Monster” by Amelia Reynolds Long) | Cinematographer Lionel Banes | Starring Marshall Thompson, Kynaston Reeves, Kim Parker | Length 77 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 10 April 2016

Criterion Sunday 91: The Blob (1958)

© The Criterion Collection

Criterion occasionally pulls out a vaguely exploitational B-movie from the vaults, and this is no less enjoyable than, say, Carnival of Souls or Blood for Dracula, and hinges on a similarly low-budget aesthetic that maximimises the scares by only obliquely referring to the terror at its heart. In this case, it’s the gelatinous threat of the title, and the film’s unsurprisingly hokey effects are pushed into the background by a story that focuses on “teen” couple Steve (McQueen) and Jane (Aneta Corsaut) and their friends in a close-knit small town. The teenagers aren’t the wild rebels that Corman had started to capitalise on earlier in the decade, but largely conservative law-abiding ones (they do all look firmly in their 30s, to be fair), and occasional moments of tension between them and the authorities are quickly subsumed by a shared desire to defeat the unknown threat. You get the sense, given the era, that this is allegorising any number of things, but most notably the Red Scare of Communism, meaning its outcome may never be in question but the ending has an amusingly provisional quality. Of course, if you remember anything, it’s likely to be the jaunty and goofy Burt Bacharach-penned title tune.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Irvin S. Yeaworth Jr. | Writers Kay Linakar [as “Kate Phillips”] and Theodore Simonson (based on an idea by Irvine H. Millgate) | Cinematographer Thomas E. Spalding | Starring Steve McQueen, Aneta Corsaut | Length 86 minutes || Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 10 April 2016

Bayou Maharajah (2013)

This film seems to have had a long trail from festivals to release, and as there’s a 2016 date at the end of the credits, I assume there’s been some re-editing in the interim. It’s certainly an interesting piece, not least because its subject is himself an interesting character (James Booker, a multi-talented largely-jazz pianist from New Orleans; black, gay, one-eyed) but also one who is relatively obscure: obviously this isn’t more than anecdotal evidence, but I’d never heard of him. That said, the director here makes the choice to present much of his music in full and that’s a strong statement about the quality of his playing, something a lot of music documentaries (even ones about acknowledged ‘geniuses’) don’t do. And yes those performances are worth watching in full.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Lily Keber | Writers Lily Keber, Aimée Toledano and Tim Watson | Cinematographer David S. White | Length 90 minutes || Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Monday 18 July 2016

La Belle saison (Summertime, 2015)

Who amongst us isn’t a sucker for likeable sun-dappled French lesbian romances set against the background of feminist struggles in the early-1970s? This film focuses on a romance between two unlikely women — a young farmer’s daughter, Delphine (Izïa Higelin, apparently better known as a singer), and Carole, a Parisian feminist activist (Cécile de France, who despite her name is actually Belgian). Delphine struggles to hide her feelings from her rural family and friends, so moves to Paris, where she quickly falls in with the ostensibly straight Carole at a feminist meeting. This setting is familiar from earlier works like Agnès Varda’s L’Une chante, l’autre pas (1977), but it’s captured well here, with the fierce political polemics and passionate leafletting in support of a shared cause. The two women fall for one another of course, though not all the plot contortions are believable. Nor can I hardly speak to the emotional truth of what it is to be a woman in love with another woman, but I’m also willing to believe that the writers and director of this probably know more than the guy behind, say, Blue Is the Warmest Colour. Still, the performances by the two leads are vibrant and really nicely done, so I liked this film.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Catherine Corsini | Writers Catherine Corsini and Laurette Polmanss | Cinematographer Jeanne Lapoirie | Starring Cécile de France, Izïa Higelin, Noémie Lvovsky | Length 105 minutes || Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Monday 18 July 2016