This is technically not a silent film, but it’s also not not a silent film. In fact for much of its running time, it’s an exemplary advertisement for the freedom and artistic possibilities that the medium had reached in the year after the similar Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans was released, because when the brief segments with synchronised sound come they literally stop the film in its tracks. What is a city symphony for New York City, with loose impressionistic photography, heady use of lap dissolves and location shooting, suddenly becomes for about a minute each time a static and ugly dialogue scene with an unmoving camera and no real sense of place. Luckily, those scenes pass quickly, largely self-contained, leaving Lonesome to be a sweepingly romantic film about two people who find each other by chance, visit Coney Island, then are separated just as (un)fortuitously (by the cops no less, going above and beyond their duty of care), and that’s pretty much the plot of the thing. However, it’s a fairly swooning film that for all its slender plot still manages to carry you along.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Pál Fejős [as “Paul Fejos”]; Writers Edward T. Lowe Jr., Tom Reed and Mann Page; Cinematographer Gilbert Warrenton; Starring Barbara Kent, Glenn Tryon; Length 69 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Friday 10 March 2023.
This is a filmed version of one of Spalding Gray’s famous stage monologues, which tend to involve him sitting behind a desk with his notes in an otherwise unadorned black box space. Of course director Steven Soderbergh has done his best to make this format more visual, with his full bag of tricks, but the origins and format of the show are still fairly clear. This, then, is a film that’s primarily about words, which makes sense because its subject matter is the loss of vision. It incorporates little spliced-in interviews with random people on the subject of eye health, and as a fair warning to those who aren’t expecting it, those stories can get pretty gruesome (the release also includes footage from Gray’s actual eye surgery, and it’s fair to say I won’t be watching that). This film, however, is certainly likeable, for it rests largely on Gray’s ability to tell a story, which by this point he is a master of doing, and as Gray is likeable so is the film.
NB: The Criterion Collection lists the date as 1997, although the film premiered at 1996’s Toronto International Film Festival so that’s the year I give here.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Steven Soderbergh; Writers Spalding Gray and Renée Shafransky; Cinematographer Elliot Davis; Starring Spalding Gray; Length 79 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), Melbourne, Saturday 18 February 2023.
Spalding Gray was an American literary raconteur primarily known for his monologues, with which he toured like any stand-up comedian, and which too were committed to film (the Criterion Collection has followed up this film with Gray’s Anatomy in its list of releases). This in certain respects is like those — it’s a film narrated entirely by Gray in clips from his monologues, interviews and other on-stage events — but instead it tries to tell the story of his life from beyond the grave (he committed suicide in 2004). It’s a way of a telling a life story without resorting to familiar stand-bys like the talking head interview or archival footage (written texts on screen, photos and the like), and makes this final testament to the man more like one of his own works, and that makes sense given the involvement of his widow and son (who does the music). It all zips by rather nicely, and gives you a sense of him as a public figure and hints towards himself as a private individual too, about some of the life issues he was going through (which always would be grist to his monologuing, but became more fractured as a source after his debilitating injury sustained on holiday in Ireland). It’s a work that’s evidently made with love, and that shows.
- There’s a nice little piece with interviews with producer (and Gray’s widow) Kathie Russo, as well as the film’s editor Susan Littenberg (for once not a pseudonym for the director and an actual person) and director Steven Soderbergh explaining the genesis of the idea and how the film came together. Nice to hear from them all about the project, and about the choices made in telling it. Turns out, for a man who chronicled his life and experiences for his art, there was plenty to choose from.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Steven Soderbergh; Starring Spalding Gray; Length 89 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), Melbourne, Thursday 16 February 2023.
I can’t really be considered part of the cult following of Charlie Kaufman. The tone of his work just doesn’t resonate with me so much, and there’s a lot here too, in what must surely be considered his foundational work, that leaves me a little cold (though it clearly works for a lot of people). That said, like plenty of classic comedies (albeit with an ironic 90s tone), this film throws so much at the screen that plenty of it does hit, and some of it really is quite affectingly off the wall. Specifically, the way that the film utilises Cameron Diaz is very much against type, and Catherine Keener too has never been more striking (usually those two actresses would be playing these roles the other way round, you feel), but together they create an emotional bond via the mediation of the titular figure that almost erases John Cusack’s puppeteer from the film entirely. By the final third, things have been put in motion that pull the film off in all kinds of weird directions, and the constant accrual of detail makes for a rather rich and perplexing series of thematic explosions that have a cinematic pyrotechnic value at the very least, though some even achieve emotional resonance. It remains a film I still admire more than fully love, but that’s on me; it’s a singular American achievement both coming out of the 1990s and drawing a line under it for a new decade.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Spike Jonze; Writer Charlie Kaufman; Cinematographer Lance Acord; Starring John Cusack, Catherine Keener, Cameron Diaz, John Malkovich, Orson Bean; Length 113 minutes.
Seen at the Penthouse, Wellington, Saturday 27 May 2000 (and on VHS at home, Wellington, May 2001, and most recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Sunday 29 January 2023).
For all that this is from a different era of filmmaking — when earnest, socially engaged white men made films about the immigrant and Black experience (the director of this film was also writer and cinematographer for the excellent 1964 Nothing But a Man) — this also feels like a prescient film, and a contemporary one too. It’s about a young Mexican man who goes to America to get work to help feed his family, and there becomes entangled with forces intent on preventing him from working, cops and traffickers (including a memorable small role for Ned Beatty) and such. It’s a film that without making any grand speeches, eloquently lays bare the way that migrant workers (who may have illegally entered but are so clearly necessary for many industries) are treated and the lack of rights afforded to them. At some point, these kinds of stories became less trendy to depict, perhaps, and nowadays the creative talent behind the cameras would likely have the personal experiences of those on screen, but this is a fantastic bit of engaged 1970s filmmaking that deserves a wider audience. It must surely be one of the more overlooked standalone Criterion titles.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Robert M. Young; Cinematographer Tom Hurwitz and Young; Starring Domingo Ambriz, Trinidad Silva, Linda Gillen, Ned Beatty; Length 96 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 21 January 2023.
Having not been much of a commercial (or indeed, critical) success at the time of its release, like a lot of the New American cinema of the 1970s, this film has attained a certain cult status. It’s easy perhaps to see why, with its unconventional story of the odd, cherubic-faced, yet morbidly death-obsessed young Harold (Bud Cort) falling in love with the elderly Maude (Ruth Gordon) after meeting at funerals which they’ve been in the habit of crashing. As we see in the early part of the film, Harold has a flair for staging elaborate suicide scenes for the benefit (well, not ‘benefit’ exactly) of his status and image-obsessed mother (Vivian Pickles). Indeed their grand home is not unlike a mausoleum, with its rich mahogany surfaces and elaborate ornamentation. I can’t be entirely sure I like the resulting film, though it surely has its moments, and the romance (such as it is) is treated fairly obliquely. The two characters have contrasting, but complementary, personalities, as Maude seeks to teach Harold something about why life is worth living, and there’s a gratuitous shot of a fading tattoo on her forearm near the end just to drive that point home. But for the most part this is a pleasantly agreeable little black comedy about an odd couple, and made with assured directorial flair by Hal Ashby.
(Written on 30 December 2014.)
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Hal Ashby; Writer Colin Higgins; Cinematographer John Alonzo; Starring Ruth Gordon, Bud Cort, Vivian Pickles; Length 91 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Sunday 28 December 2014.
The full list of my favourite films of 2022 is here but I’m posting fuller reviews of my favourites. There aren’t too many animated films in there, because I don’t go to so many of those anymore, which it turns out is fine because Disney is barely making an effort to get them into cinemas, so most need to be watched via their streaming service. Hence this one, which I gave a shot to because it seemed to come from a more interesting perspective than fairytale princesses, and it is indeed very lovely.
It’s somewhat sad to me that Pixar films are so rarely nowadays shown in cinemas, because the attention to detail in the design and the animation that shows in films like this, or the previous year’s Soul, deserve the big screen but instead we have to subscribe to Disney+, which somehow lessens them. It also leads to factoids like it being the biggest money loser for a cinematic release (even though I’m fairly certain it was barely placed in any cinemas worldwide).
However, Turning Red still strikes me as one of the better recent crop of animated films, which both tells a discernable story from a specific perspective (a young girl from a Chinese background growing up in Toronto, voiced by Rosalie Chiang), but makes it both metaphorically rich and also cartoonishly cute at the same time. A lot of elements feel familiar from any coming of age/high school American movie, with its cliques of friends and confected schoolyard drama, but there’s a real strength to its focus on the setting, the details of the family temple such that even the supernatural plot twist (and I think the posters and marketing make it fairly clear that a large anthropomorphic red panda is involved) feels grounded in an authentic expression of familial ties and Chinese-Canadian culture.
Director Domee Shi 石之予; Writers Julia Cho, Shi and Sarah Streicher; Cinematographers Mahyar Abousaeedi and Jonathan Pytko; Starring Rosalie Chiang, Sandra Oh 오미주, Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, Ava Morse, James Hong 吳漢章; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at home (Disney+ streaming), Wellington, 2 July 2022.
Continuing my round-up of my favourite films of 2022 (full list here) and there was no shortage of opinions in either direction about Jordan Peele’s third feature, after Get Out and Us. In a sense, that’s what it was made for, so it succeeded brilliantly well, in conjuring up all kinds of conversations, not all of them particularly positive, but in the end it worked for me.
I’ve seen some fairly underwhelmed reviews of this film, but I do wonder if that’s not just from elevated expectations. The pace is somewhat lugubrious, although I do think it consistently builds tension throughout, and there’s a subplot involving Steven Yeun as a child star in a sitcom which doesn’t quite sit very comfortably with the rest of the film to my mind. However, its central premise — of a family of Black horse trainers whose history is deeply tied into filmmaking, trying to figure out a mystery happening around their homestead high out above Hollywood. There are evidently (maybe) aliens involved, possibly hiding behind a cloud, and the way this unfolds is nicely grounded in comedy, as one might expect. Its central conceit is grounded in the idea of looking, about the terrors and dangers of the image, and thus is tied pretty strongly into filmmaking, but while it never truly horrifies, it looks gorgeous and holds together nicely.
Director/Writer Jordan Peele; Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema; Starring Daniel Kaluuya, Keke Palmer, Steven Yeun 연상엽, Michael Wincott, Brandon Perea; Length 130 minutes.
Seen at Alamo Drafthouse Cinema New Mission, San Francisco, Wednesday 10 August 2022.
The full list of my favourite films of 2022 is here but I’m posting fuller reviews of my favourites. This big historical action epic comes from the very dependable Gina Prince-Bythewood, one of the better directors working in Hollywood, and it’s a powerful evocation of an era not much seen on screen.
Just to kick things off: I really enjoyed this movie, especially as a big screen cinematic experience. It has an old-fashioned sense of an historical epic, albeit about a little corner of African history that isn’t often represented on-screen (primarily because it doesn’t revolve around white heroes or saviours, and surely the time for patriotic stories of European conquests over tribal peoples has long since passed). But it’s curious that this African story is written by two white women; given the other talent involved I don’t think that meaningfully invalidates any positive representation the film can provide, but it might give a hint as to the way in which the film tends towards a platitudinous Hollywood liberal sense of injustice being righted, as Viola Davis leads her Agojie (the so-called “Dahomey Amazons”) as a righteous force dedicated to eradicating slavery.
Clearly there are experts in this history — of which I am not one, nor are many of the online commentators peddling the criticisms to be fair — who acknowledge that the situation was more complicated than it’s portrayed here. Just my cursory awareness of our modern online world leads me to the understanding that it’s perfectly possible for groups of women to come together to actively promote and defend patriarchal systems of oppression, fascism and hate speech. The film doesn’t deny that the Dahomeys were just as involved in slavery as their enemies, the Oyo Empire. So the feel-good roles of Davis as Nanisca, her second-in-command Izogie (the brilliant Lashana Lynch) and young recruit Nawi (an impressive Thuso Mbedu) may not quite reflect real history, but that’s fine by me because this is primarily a film and an entertainment that hopefully leads people to learn more about this historical time and context.
However, whatever your caveats, it’s undeniably a well put-together epic with the appropriate levels of heart-tugging sentiment and brutal warfare action scenes. Gina Prince-Bythewood has come a long way from Love & Basketball and that sweetly saccharine film The Secret Life of Bees with one of the Fannings in it. She made the fantastic Beyond the Lights and her recent foray into action with The Old Guard was the rare superhero film I actively enjoyed, and so she is not short of directing skill, nor is her team lacking in their ability to both capture the location and people (cinematographer Polly Morgan), or the nuances of the acting — and this in particular seems like quite a departure in the type of role Viola Davis is usually seen in, and she surely deserves some awards love for it. There may be all kinds of ways to criticise it, but I admire any film that tries to tell a bit of history we’ve not seen played out before.
Director Gina Prince-Bythewood; Writers Dana Stevens and Maria Bello; Cinematographer Polly Morgan; Starring Viola Davis, Thuso Mbedu, Lashana Lynch, Sheila Atim, John Boyega; Length 135 minutes.
Seen at Light House Cuba, Wellington, Thursday 3 November 2022.
I listed my favourite films of 2022 here but I’m trying to post fuller reviews of them as well. One that was again a 2021 favourite was one that showed up on streaming probably some time early in 2022 (maybe the year before, I don’t know; streaming seems so vague in terms of release dates), so I only caught up belatedly though in truth I was hoping for some cinema screenings. Fat chance I guess. Maybe one day in a retrospective, or if some enterprising soul does a season of mediaeval-set movies.
Kogonada’s follow up to the well-reviewed (and well-liked by me) Columbus is a strange futuristic tale, albeit one that doesn’t overwhelm with its technological aspects (there are human-like cyborg robots, but we don’t get too much into how they’re engineered or even how widespread they are, beyond a sense that their existence is more or less a commonplace). It’s a future largely connoted by modernist architecture and a sense of calm (although partly that’s Colin Farrell’s father and his obsession with tea), and the film rarely attains the same sense of ecstatic joy that comes during the dance-based credits sequence near the beginning.
Although she’s not a major part within the whole film, in a sense it’s Sarita Choudhury’s museum curator who is the key to this film, as it feels at times like a film about museum curation as much as Columbus was about architects: a story that locates the human, lived experience that those professions are only abstractly about. And like many films that feature robots, it’s actually a way of talking about what it means to be human, what it means to love and to remember, and the strength of memories across a family and across generations, linking together people who don’t even know one another, which is in a sense what curating a museum exhibit or a gallery is about.
Director/Writer Kogonada 코고나다 (based on the short story “Saying Goodbye to Yang” by Alexander Weinstein); Cinematographer Benjamin Loeb; Starring Colin Farrell, Jodie Turner-Smith, Justin H. Min, Sarita Choudhury, Haley Lu Richardson; Length 96 minutes.
Seen at Cinema Nova, Melbourne, Thursday 28 April 2022.