Criterion Sunday 536: The Thin Red Line (1998)

I have seen this film many times on the big screen, but have never tried to put into words what I love about it. And while it’s fair to say it’s one of my favourite films, and I’m happy to rate it five stars (or 10/10 or whatever metric you want, although apparently two green ticks is what I currently use here), I don’t particularly hold that it is perfect in every detail. Perhaps what I love about it is more some of the effects that Terrence Malick achieves as a filmmaker, poetic and empathetic achievements, the deployment of actors, the development of its narrative, and the way it stands in relation to other war movies. Because if we want to get into criticism, then I think some of the tropes are still a little bit underdeveloped — particularly Ben Chaplin’s Pvt Bell and his relationship with his wife back home (Miranda Otto), conveyed in largely voiceless flashbacks of them holding each other in pre-war times and followed up with an almost literal “Dear John” letter (his name is actually Jack in the film) and his anguished responses in the twilight and rain of the R&R following a major battle, all of which feels a little bit convenient and familiar.

What’s not so familiar is the elegiac tone, which differed wildly from the other major World War II-era film released that same year of 1998 (Saving Private Ryan). Where Spielberg’s film, or at least its opening, was forceful in its evocation of the brutality of combat, Malick’s film instead subsumes everything into a sort of continuum with nature. The voiceovers — which come from many different characters and create almost a shared voice of humanity joined in pain and confusion — cue this up almost from the outset, the very first words we hear asking “What is this war in the heart of nature, why does nature vie with itself?” while we look on gnarled old swampland trees, overgrown with vines and tendrils. Even when we see our first combat casualty, it’s part of a sequence of the new troops making their way quietly through the jungle, and so the brutality of the vision of a mangled body becomes just part of the evocation of the darkness within nature. The extended battle scenes too alternate Nick Nolte’s Lt Tall shouting down the phone at Cpt Staros (Elias Koteas) with long languorous shots of the Guadalcanal hills, long grass flecked with sun, winds blowing them aside as the troops advance towards the Japanese positions.

So when I say that the film’s imperfections don’t matter to me so much, it’s because this to me is a film about humanity (specifically men, of course) within nature, about death as part of a continuum of life, about the search for the light. This central metaphor of the light is clearly a religious one, and Jim Caviezel’s subsequent film work playing the Christ in Mel Gibson’s self-flagellating film of the Passion (and others) finds its origins here in what is undoubtedly supposed to be a Christ-like figure, rebelling against authority and trying to find the light and goodness in his fellow men. I’m not convinced about the way Malick uses the indigenous Melanesian people in the opening ‘paradise’ sections as well as the subsequent commentary on their fall due to the war which has been unwillingly brought to them, but for me it’s nevertheless a beautiful sequence that combines John Toll’s cinematography with Fauré’s Requiem and Melanesian choirs orchestrated by composer Hans Zimmer, to convey in musical and visual terms this search for the light that ends the film too. Again and again, the restless camera cranes away towards the sky and the sun, and either we see it through the roofs of the homes in the flashback sequences, or it’s obscured by the jungle trees, perceived only as light filtering through the crevices between the leaves, or in holes that nature has made through them.

So yes, while I cannot say that do not see flaws in The Thin Red Line, they are the flaws perhaps of overreaching, of Malick and his fellow collaborators on this film, trying to get at something essential in humanity or how they see humanity as part of the world. It’s a poetic evocation of a world that owes as much to the Bible as it does to James Jones’s novel or to (what I imagine is) the experience of war itself, and so it’s a film I love and happily continue to watch over and over again.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Terrence Malick (based on the novel by James Jones); Cinematographer John Toll; Starring Jim Caviezel, Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, Ben Chaplin, Elias Koteas, Dash Mihok; Length 171 minutes.

Seen at Manners Mall, Wellington, Tuesday 2 March 1999, at the Embassy, Wellington, Monday 7 June 1999, at Riverside Studios, London, Thursday 18 March 2004, and at the Embassy, Wellington, Sunday 15 November 2020 (and on VHS, DVD and Blu-ray at home, in Wellington and London, on several occasions in between).

Criterion Sunday 485: The Last Days of Disco (1998)

This film was released just as I was starting to properly get into film so I imagine I may have turned my nose up at it. Apparently I did see it on a visit to London in 1998, the day before watching Velvet Goldmine, the memory of which has stuck with me far more vividly (perhaps because it embodies the qualities that this film seems designed to erase, but more on that later). I imagine at the time it just seemed a bit odd and stilted but with the benefit of hindsight, I think it’s lovely.

Of course, it has a specific point of view: that of a straight white man with an acerbic New York aloofness surveying the landscape of his youth and you could say it suffers for that, but I prefer to think of it as a self-critique. It’s a film set during the disco era, absolutely packed from start to finish with classic tunes, but it’s a film about the gentrification of a scene, of that slightly hollow sadness when looking around at what was once about parties and drugs and, most importantly, its acceptance of, if not predication on, queerness and diversity (the things that made so many people unironically want to express their hatred for disco music at the time).

It’s not called The Last Days of Disco for no reason: the club here is half populated by bankers in suits with the kind of floppy hair that says 90s to me more than 80s but perhaps that’s apt. There’s nothing transgressive, though even among the dad-dancing on the disco floor there is still a bit of joy, and it’s largely within the relationship between its two leads played by Chloë Sevigny and Kate Beckinsale, the latter of whom has some of the films best lines, shady comments delivered almost as asides to Sevigny. It’s a curious balance this movie achieves between fun, snarky and eminently quotable bitchiness and the hollow empty nostalgia of 20-something aimlessness.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • Four deleted scenes are shown, in unfinished rough cuts, for those that want more of these characters hanging out in their slightly depressing railroad apartment.
  • A behind-the-scenes featurette is very much in the mould of five-minute bonus features made by studios that have a sort of blandness to them (the blandness of advertising, which is apt given the broadsides at one such character in the film itself) but you do get to hear a few little soundbites from the actors at the time.
  • The stills gallery includes plenty of contextualisation of what we see, making it something of a production diary or a reflection on the film by its director.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Whit Stillman; Cinematographer John Thomas; Starring Chloë Sevigny, Kate Beckinsale, Chris Eigeman, Mackenzie Astin, Robert Sean Leonard; Length 113 minutes.

Seen at a cinema, London, Saturday 28 November 1998 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Thursday 2 December 2021).

Pasti, pasti, pastičky (Traps, 1998)

Having started a Czech-themed week of films on the blog, I expect this won’t be the only review I’ll be posting of a Věra Chytilová film, given that her work looms large, certainly in my own appreciation of Czech cinema, though she is also one of the key filmmakers of the post-war period in that country. Today I’m covering one of her later works, a strange and darkly satirical film confronting rape culture, shot on video.


Well, this is an intriguing film, made some decades after Chytilová gained fame for Daisies (1966). Shot on video, it goes for a sort of slapstick style comedy, with two foolish men in the lead who are largely objects of abject amusement for their idiocy, but who — like many men — are, despite this, capable of inflicting great harm. The set-up of the film is that the two men (one a government minister, the other an advertising man) pick up Lenka (Zuzana Stívínová), whose car has broken down, and then rape her (and even talk about killing her), an unsettling and violent act and not played as a joke, but which is somehow integrated into the film’s aesthetic — the film after all starts with graphic footage of pigs being castrated before cutting straight into a sex scene. Taking us back to those opening shots, the woman is a vet and so she drugs and castrates the men, which cues up the remainder of the film, as these two fools return to their ordinary lives, which end up intersecting with Lenka’s life in various ways. Of course, their threatening nature doesn’t abate following the castration, and part of the film’s satirical viewpoint is just how little power women have in this situation when confronted with ingrained patriarchy and deeply-running societal reserves of misogyny. Rape is not, therefore, a joke in this film, but the idea of being able to get justice for it (however it may be administered) sort of is.

Traps film posterCREDITS
Director Věra Chytilová; Writers Chytilová, Tomáš Hanák, Eva Kacírková, Michal Lázňovský and David Vávra; Cinematographer Štěpán Kučera; Starring Tomáš Hanák, Miroslav Donutil, Zuzana Stívínová; Length 124 minutes.
Seen at Close-Up Film Centre, London, Thursday 21 February 2019.

Drylongso (Ordinary) (1998)

Another interesting film touching on the African-American experience, is this low-budget indie from 1998 which can be seen online (on the director’s Vimeo channel). It may not be as polished as some of the debut films coming out in cinemas, but it has its own energy.


There’s a lot that’s likeable in this low-budget indie production which I’d heard about back when I was first getting into films in the late-90s but which never reached me in NZ, and largely disappeared after its initial release. It’s on the filmmaker’s Vimeo account in the absence of any screenings, and it fizzes with a sort of foundational energy, of wanting to tell stories about Black women in their own communities that avoid the usual tropes (the ones that were so prevalent in the 90s, certainly). As a background to the action, there’s a hooded attacker attacking other people by night, but it’s not a gang-based thing, it’s just one of many issues touching directly on the lives of the two young women who are at the centre of the story. One (April Barnett) is trying to get away from an abusive relationship and the other (Toby Smith) is chafing against the restrictions of her photography course: she prefers to take polaroids of young Black men, whom she feels are under threat. It’s not perfect, but the performances are really solid and it has a low-key humour that underlines some of its more dramatic reaches.

Drylongso film posterCREDITS
Director Cauleen Smith; Writers Smith and Salim Akil; Cinematographer Andrew Black; Starring Toby Smith, April Barnett, Will Power; Length 86 minutes.
Seen at home (Vimeo streaming), London, Saturday 28 March 2020.

Down in the Delta (1998)

Last week I focused on female-directed new releases, and this week sees the (online) release of Never Rarely Sometimes Always by Eliza Hittman, a well-reviewed abortion drama from the woman who directed Beach Rats (I’ll get to that later this week). Anyway, this week I’ve decided to focus on a week of American films directed by women. I’ve done films directed by African-American women already, but I’ll kick off with the only film directed by the legendary poet and autobiographer Maya Angelou. In terms of availability, I had to order a DVD (a German one, as it happens) off eBay, but it was pretty cheap.


There’s a lot that’s odd and clunky about this film: it tells a story of a Chicago woman with drug problems who is barely fit to raise a family, rediscovering her roots in Mississippi, finding herself again and uncovering her potential to both change herself and move her own narrative towards redemption and positive change for her community. And if that sounds a little programmatic in its development then it certainly comes across that way watching the film. It’s directed (if not, crucially, written) by the author and poet Maya Angelou, though, so whatever it loses in technical efficiency, it gains a lot in feeling. This is a film, ultimately, that succeeds on the basis of its acting. However simplistic her character arc may be in some respects, Alfre Woodard is a real force and imbues it with a feeling that suggests something far deeper. There’s in general a range of acting talent all of which adds to this drama, and eventually it does get to me. However much I may try to resist, this does have its power and its own peculiar beauty.

Down in the Delta film posterCREDITS
Director Maya Angelou; Writer Myron Goble; Cinematographer William Wages; Starring Alfre Woodard, Al Freeman Jr., Esther Rolle, Mary Alice, Wesley Snipes; Length 112 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Friday 10 April 2020.

The Prince of Egypt (1998)

I thought I’d throw in an extra film this week on the Saturday because it’s another date-appropriate release, which is to say it’s a film that deals with the story of Passover and we are now in the middle of that Jewish holiday. It’s a classic animated film, of sorts, depending on who you are; it’s my first time coming to this film so I apologise if my analysis is a little shallow.


I don’t know if I’m really in a position to critique this, but it’s a telling of the story that informs the Jewish holiday of Passover, and it cleaves to a lot of the Biblical narrative fairly closely really, but with songs. It does feel, though, like it’s trying to grapple with the big question in terms of the extent to which God’s punishments of Pharaoh (Ralph Fiennes) impact on his people, which is to say how much is Moses responsible for the death, and that bit doesn’t quite resolve. Killing the firstborn is after all pretty bad whoever does the act. But this is a story of revolutionary anger leading to political change, and the niceties can sometimes be lost. In a sense it’s applicable even now: revolution requires action, which means that difficult choices sometimes need to be made. The original story, and this film too, is fairly clear that you can’t effect change by being a pacifist, and some level of fundamental disruption is going to occur. Perhaps that’s a message people need to hear, but it’s always going to be a hard one to pull off, especially in an animated family film.

The Prince of Egypt film posterCREDITS
Directors Brenda Chapman, Steve Hickner and Simon Wells; Writer Philip LaZebnik (based on the religious text שְׁמוֹת Shemot “Book of Exodus”); Starring Val Kilmer, Ralph Fiennes, Michelle Pfeiffer, Sandra Bullock, Jeff Goldblum, Danny Glover; Length 99 minutes.
Seen at home (Amazon streaming), London, Friday 10 April 2020.

Two Films by Barbara Hammer: Tender Fictions (1996) and The Female Closet (1998)

Continuing my week’s theme of documentaries about women artists (photographers, filmmakers, painters et al.) are these two hour-long Barbara Hammer video pieces. One is autobiographical, while the other focuses on three different women living in different eras, whose image-making work intersects with their (sometimes contested) sexuality.

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The Decline of Western Civilization trilogy (1981/1988/1998)

I’m still going back posting reviews of my favourite films I saw for the first time in 2019, as I try to catch up to the inevitable end-of-year and end-of-decade lists, and one notable trilogy is this one covering the LA punk scene by Penelope Spheeris from the late-70s through to the late-90s. It’s one of the rare trilogies in which its final part is probably the strongest, indeed in my opinion it only gets better as it goes along, mainly because Spheeris builds a broader picture of sub-cultural changes with each successive film. It’s very much her greatest achievement, I think, and well worth watching.

Also, today is Christmas Day as it turns out, so happy Christmas for those who are celebrating, and have a nice holiday in any case. I can thoroughly recommend these films as fine holiday watching if you are thus inclined.

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海上花 Haishang Hua (Flowers of Shanghai, 1998)

Hou Hsiao-hsien remains probably Taiwan’s most famous filmmaker, though his films can be rather forbidding to casual viewers in their austerity (beautiful though they undoubtedly often are). He made his masterpiece in 1989 with A City of Sadness, but followed it with further important works, culminating with this period film, made close to the turn of the millennium (albeit restored to its original glory in the last year), but harking back a hundred years earlier on the mainland. His later work started to move towards more European collaborations, and sometimes settings, though still with his delicate style and sensibility.


I first saw this 20 years ago on its initial release, and it is still both bewitching and perplexing in equal measure. The film never leaves these interior settings, the chambers of various courtesans around Shanghai, but the camera glides around, moving first left and then right to take in the characters sitting in repose, gambling or smoking opium. There’s an almost constant drinking of tea and smoking of pipes and the word I have written in my notes most often, underlined at one point, is “languid”. This is a film that slips by, the emotions of the women trapped in this life, almost imperceptible and yet clearly fierce. Aside from the iconic face of Tony Leung Chiu-wai, most of these characters and their stories tend to slide into one another, and what you recall are the rooms, the noise, the quiet repetitive musical theme, and, yes, the languid atmosphere.

Film posterCREDITS
Director Hou Hsiao-hsien 侯孝賢; Writer Chu T’ien-wen 朱天文; Cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-bing 李屏賓; Starring Tony Leung Chiu-wai 梁朝偉, Michiko Hada 羽田美智子, Vicky Wei 魏筱惠, Carina Lau 刘嘉玲; Length 130 minutes.
Seen at Cinema Arlecchino, Bologna, Thursday 27 June 2019 (and originally at the Embassy, Wellington, Tuesday 27 July 1999).

Women Filmmakers: Lynne Ramsay

As I write this, Lynne Ramsay is poised to sweep the boards at all major awards shows for her most recent film You Were Never Really Here (2017, although it was given wider release in 2018) — except, of course, no she’s not, for various systemic reasons which are all far too obvious and have been written about widely. Indeed, aside from a single BAFTA nomination, she is not even nominated, which is absurd given how much more directorial flair she has than most other living British directors. Of course, I don’t imagine my keenly amateurish post here will change much, and she’s already well regarded in the critical community, but it’s always worth paying her films some attention. Many other talented women haven’t had the career trajectory of Ramsay, and she’s still only managed to make a film every 6-8 years or so, which is a real shame, but at least it means when they do come they are mostly exquisite. Certainly that most recent film has a taut focus that’s lacking in too much filmmaking, coming in under 90 minutes and with a narrative economy that elides as uninteresting many of the generic conventions she’s working within, instead going straight for a character portrait of a comprehensively broken man.

William Eadie in Ratcatcher
William Eadie in ‘Ratcatcher’ (1999)

Continue reading “Women Filmmakers: Lynne Ramsay”