Criterion Sunday 521: Mystery Train (1989)

Having not seen this film for many decades, not since the first flush of my cinephilia in my early-20s, I was inclined to assume this was a fairly minor Jarmusch, but honestly I think it may be one of his best. Sure the plot itself is slight — various people converge over a single night in Memphis, centering around a run-down hotel presided over by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and Spike Lee’s younger brother. First up there’s the young Japanese tourists (Masatoshi Nagase and Youki Kudoh) who seem to be on a train journey across the country’s musical heritage spots and land in Memphis for an evening, then an Italian widow (Nicoletta Braschi) stranded in the town trying to get back to Italy, and finally a trio of barfly characters who get into trouble because of Johnny (Joe Strummer), who’s in a bad mood as a man who’s lost his job and his girlfriend (the other two are Steve Buscemi in an early role, and Vondie Curtis-Hall). The circumstances this trio in particular get into seem to stretch the otherwise quiet and observant tone of the rest into something close to melodrama, but overall the film is a brilliant evocation of a particular little heart of Americana, with a deep love for old music and an eye (no small thanks to Robby Müller’s beautiful cinematography) for the picturesquely derelict byways of culture. Even when the high drama starts to pile up, it somehow doesn’t ruin the mood that Jarmusch has built up, and somewhere buried in those showy characters is a keen sense of economic instability and of a country and a culture balanced on a fine edge of a precipice.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jim Jarmusch; Cinematographer Robby Müller; Starring Masatoshi Nagase 永瀬正敏, Youki Kudoh 工藤夕貴, Nicolette Braschi, Joe Strummer, Steve Buscemi, Vondie Curtis-Hall; Length 110 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Friday 1 April 2022 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, September 1997).

Criterion Sunday 495: “The Golden Age of Television”

Back in the 1950s, a lot of filmmakers and actors made their breaks in filmed plays, initially an hour in length but later longer, both in the United States and in the UK too. Dramas were staged regularly, after a few weeks’ rehearsal, and shown live on television, mainly because pre-taping didn’t exist. However, it does seem as if they were filmed for posterity and while they may not be perfectly preserved, at least they do exist, unlike a lot of early television, which has been wiped forever. The Criterion’s set seems to follow the selections made for a repeat in 1981, and the introductions made at that time for each of the films are presented in this collection as well.


The first film in the collection, 1953’s Marty, is also the one which went on to greatest acclaim later, remade two years later as a feature which swept most of the major Academy Awards for that year (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor and Best Screenplay). Looking back at the original TV production at almost 70 years’ distance, it feels as if this is a cute twist on the idea that women are constantly pestered for marriage, but flipping it on its head: here it is the lumpen titular character (Rod Steiger), nearing the age of 40, who is constantly pestered as to when he’s getting married. He has a large Catholic family, and all of them seem to have been paired off, but the problem is: he’s perceived as ugly. Perhaps that’s just the fishbowl lenses of these clunky old TV cameras (they add more than 10 pounds), but at least he’s not a “dog”, as seems to be the insult for unattractive women (the ones we see don’t seem to have weight issues like Marty). It’s hard to find oneself in these old dramas, of course; Marty, for all his unluckiness in love, is also a little bit too persistent and comes across at times as rather an unlikeable character, prone to mumbling then shouting, liable to press for a kiss a little too eagerly. Still, we’re encouraged to be on his side, and I suppose there is an empathy developed for his character. The primitive technology is used nicely by the director for some dramatic camera movements, but mostly this sticks to the play-on-screen format with a tight structure (the complaints of Marty are matched nicely with the moaning of the mothers about their sons abandoning them, though the expected roles for women remain very much of the period) and a small number of settings for the action.

It’s easy to forget that these 1950s TV plays were filmed live. Sometimes that can be obvious for various reasons, but in a film like Patterns (1955) it’s almost hard to tell, so fluid and elegant is the camerawork. It’s obvious the cameras were clunky and the picture is weirdly distorted, but there’s a freewheeling sense to this boardroom drama, as various egos are torn and frayed and words are exchanged back and forth. It gives a particularly visceral sense of the American office which eschews interpersonal drama for a battle of the wills between the company head and his vice-presidents. That said, there’s a lovely speech from our lead character’s wife that sets out the moral compass of the film by being realistic and hard-nosed rather than preachy and virtuous, a tone that you sometimes forget the 1950s was capable of, but is present in the darkness that underlies plenty of that decade’s cinematic output.

More than the first two productions, No Time for Sergeants (1955) seems particularly stagey. The other films managed to find ways to adapt their teleplays into something visual, even on the primitive recording equipment available, but this sticks with non-naturalistic effects like stage lighting and very simple sets. In a way that makes sense because it’s a comedy, but it harks towards a future of TV sitcoms rather than prestige films, and its star Andy Griffith went on to dominate that medium after all. It’s likeable enough, a wartime-set comedy about a slightly foolish Southern man who signs up and bumbles his way through various scenarios, seemingly good natured in his eagerness to please but managing to get his sergeant into hot water along the way — Griffith plays this straight rather than knowing, but he’s certainly less of an idiot than he seems from his accent, and this production exploits that tension nicely.

A Wind from the South (1955) is set in Ireland, which leads to a lot of fairly painful (but certainly could be worse) stabs at an accent. Julie Harris does a good job in the central role, a repressed woman whose brother is the controlling force in her life, who’s been brought up in the traditional ways but starts to feel something for a man who comes through town. There’s some nice work here but it still feels a bit unfocused at times, and perhaps I just react a little negatively towards all those on-screen Irish stereotypes.

After having watched a few of these films, I think it’s the simplest ones that work best, because after all there’s not a lot of budget (or technical ability) to do much more than a few small rooms. Bang the Drum Slowly (1956) draws attention to its staging by having our hero, a baseball player whose nickname is “Author” due to his constant writing (which within the play itself doesn’t seem particularly accomplished), introduce us to his story and break the fourth wall throughout by guiding us the audience through the events. It’s a nice touch but it allows us to forget the very basic sets and focus on the interrelationships between “Author” (a young Paul Newman, and already a pretty magnetic screen presence) and his roommate (Albert Salmi), who’s had a terminal cancer diagnosis and whom he is trying to protect within the team. You get a good sense of the workplace management situation (or lack thereof), the behind the scenes bullying and jockeying for position, it’s all very nicely done and — as mentioned already — well-acted from its cast packed with plenty of talents.

Throughout this collection, Rod Serling (as writer) continually proves his worth. After Patterns the previous year dealt with ad men, Requiem for a Heavyweight (1956) is a boxing drama, which has always been a sport that translates particularly well to the screen. We don’t even see any of the matches themselves, as the focus remains on the difficult decisions that both Jack Palance’s boxer and Keenan Wynn’s coach need to make to survive, the latter by entering into shady deals with dodgy guys that push him towards bad decisions, and the former who’s belatedly coming to the realisation that he needs to remake himself and find some new life because he’s reached the end of the line in the ring. It’s all passionately acted, not least by Palance and Wynn, though it’s also good to see Keenan’s dad Ed mixing it up with some serious dramatic work as well. There are some big scenes and big emotions, but this is the soul of this kind of small scale TV drama and it works really well.

Serling had some of the snappiest scripts of all the films featured and another of his, The Comedian (1957), is also that: a high-tone melodrama about a comedian at the top of his game (Mickey Rooney) who behind the scenes is a bullying tyrant of a man, who treats his brother (Mel Tormé) like dirt and has frequent run-ins with his head writer (Edmond O’Brien, continuing to channel all those noirs he was in over the previous decade). Somehow, despite these characters being in the world of entertainment, they all still feel like heavies, mainly because they are all deeply flawed people scurrying around like rats trapped in a cage trying to get out. And I think it could really land except that maybe because it’s shot live for television, there’s something just a little hammy about it. Too often it feels like Rooney, O’Brien, all of them have just been asked to be a little bit extra, go a little bit further, and so there are spittle-flecked scenes of shouting, characters screaming in one another’s faces, where perhaps a little bit of subtlety might have been rewarding? I don’t know, but it feels like a very aggressive film, I guess because it’s about such difficult people, and that is, after all, the world they all operate in. Given the live filming, it’s incredible that some of the scenes came off, montage sequences, a freewheeling jaunt through a TV studio bouncing from character to character that could have come straight from an Altman film. There’s a lot here that’s genuinely quite great, but then again director John Frankenheimer was even by this point a seasoned veteran of live television.

Indeed, there’s no doubt Frankenheimer was a slick director at the format. And while by 1958 there was a small amount of pre-taping that was possible apparently, for a largely live production this all cuts together superbly well. The problem I have in the case of Days of Wine and Roses (1958) is the broadness of the acting. It’s about alcoholism and the toll it takes on people, but this is straight up a soap opera level of melodrama, with Cliff Robertson and Piper Laurie alternately bawling and spluttering drunkenly at each other. It has a certain intensity to it, but it’s all too easy to laugh — something I attribute more to changing expectations of subtle dramatic work over the ages rather than anything inherent to their choices. It’s all very nicely done, but like the characters it’s all a bit messy.

  • Each of the seven films has an introduction taken from a 1981 series of broadcasts that presented these films again to television audiences for the first time since their original broadcast. In it, a famous host introduces a series of interviews with cast and crew, who talk about the filming and the time and contextualise the importance of these works for viewers of the early-80s, for whom some of the actors first seen on TV in these shows were now household names.
  • There is an additional 15-20 or so minutes of footage of John Frankenheimer being interviewed in 1981 talking about his two productions, and he’s a good interview subject, eloquent about his work and with a pretty good memory given how many films he made.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
The Philco Television Playhouse: Marty (1953)
Director Delbert Mann; Writer Paddy Chayefsky; Cinematographer Al McClellan; Starring Rod Steiger, Nancy Marchand; Length 52 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Tuesday 4 January 2022.

Kraft Television Theatre: Patterns (1955)
Director Fielder Cook; Writer Rod Serling; Starring Richard Kiley, Ed Begley, Everett Sloane, June Dayton; Length 53 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Wednesday 5 January 2022.

United States Steel Hour: No Time for Sergeants (1955)
Director Alex Segal; Writer Ira Levin (based on the novel by Mac Hyman); Starring Andy Griffith, Harry Clark; Length 50 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Thursday 6 January 2022.

United States Steel Hour: A Wind from the South (1955)
Director Daniel Petrie; Writer James Costigan; Starring Julie Harris, Donald Woods; Length 51 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Friday 7 January 2022.

United States Steel Hour: Bang the Drum Slowly (1956)
Director Daniel Petrie; Writer Arnold Schulman (based on the novel by Mark Harris); Starring Paul Newman, Albert Salmi; Length 52 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Saturday 8 January 2022.

Playhouse 90: Requiem for a Heavyweight (1956)
Director Ralph Nelson; Writer Rod Serling; Starring Keenan Wynn, Jack Palance, Kim Hunter, Ed Wynn; Length 73 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 9 January 2022.

Playhouse 90: The Comedian (1957)
Director John Frankenheimer; Writer Rod Serling (based on a story by Ernest Lehman); Starring Mickey Rooney, Edmond O’Brien, Kim Hunter, Mel Tormé; Length 74 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 9 January 2022.

Playhouse 90: Days of Wine and Roses (1958)
Director John Frankenheimer; Writer JP Miller; Starring Cliff Robertson, Piper Laurie; Length 80 minutes.
Seen home (DVD), Wellington, Monday 10 January 2022.

你好,李焕英 Ni Hao, Li Huanying (Hi, Mom, 2021)

Earlier on this year, I took a punt on a random Chinese film which now has turned out to be the second-highest grossing film of the year (probably because China was one of the most unaffected film markets given everything that happened in 2021). It’s also pretty good fun and sweet, so I can recommend it, not that it likely says anything too controversial about the country’s recent past.


So apparently this is (currently) the highest-grossing film ever directed by a woman, which is pretty cool, and it’s a shame that more Western audiences won’t see it, if the audience at the screening I saw is anything to go by, but then I guess it doesn’t fit the model that most distributors go by when it comes to the kinds of Asian films that get seen widely in the West. Sure, this doesn’t offer any deep messages about alienation or bitterly-observed insights into Communist China, but it is deeply likeable. Its director (Jia Ling) is also the lead star (as Jia Xiaoling), and while she doesn’t exactly pass for a teenager, she almost makes up for it with her dimpled smile and direct, engaging energy, and the story is apparently drawn from her own life.

It starts in 2001, as an accident threatens the life of Jia Xiaoling’s mother (Li Huanying, who is named in the Chinese title and played by Zhang Xiaofei), and it catapults Xiaoling back twenty years to just before she was born, in 1981. This is where much of the film takes place and, despite the rather harrowing set-up, the tone remains pretty light and comedic throughout. There were some jokes that clearly landed with a Chinese-speaking audience, but plenty too that was genuinely funny, and the central emotional core of the film landed pretty effortlessly, as the film switches gears into slightly sentimental weepie territory. Still, the sentiments which come through feel pretty earned, and the whole thing is put together with a slick craft that makes even the hokiest elements seem integral — and crucially, they are all acted with good humour and earnest feeling that doesn’t feel forced. Look, I’ve seen some pretty bad generational family dramedies, and this one stays sweet through to the end.

Ni Hao, Li Huanying (Hi, Mom, 2021)CREDITS
Director Jia Ling 贾玲; Writers Jia, Sun Jibin 孙集斌, Wang Yu 王宇, Bu Yu 卜钰 and Liu Honglu 刘宏禄; Cinematographers Liu Yin 刘寅 and Sun Ming 孙明; Starring Jia Ling 贾玲, Shen Teng 沈腾, Zhang Xiaofei 张小斐, Chen He 陈赫; Length 128 minutes.
Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Friday 26 March 2021.

The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun (2021)

I don’t know that I can say that this new film from Wes Anderson in any way grapples with the contemporary position of journalism, but I’m not sure that many would expect it to. In a year in which the Nobel Peace Prize went to a pair of journalists doing work in the most difficult circumstances, this film instead looks back fondly to a time (well, various times during the mid-20th century it seems) of what can best be described as gentleman journalism. There are outsiders, criminals and revolutionaries, but no real sense of peril or expectation of change. I can easily imagine a way to damn the film for this, but I chose in this case to go with it, making this a pleasant divertissement.


Everyone now must have a pretty good idea about whether they’re a Wes Anderson person or not. If you find his style in any way irritating, or his subjects just a little bit too affectedly pretentious, then you’ll probably run screaming from this. I thought I was done with him — as with the Marvel Cinematic Universe (albeit for different reasons) — but I ventured along and… it was quite likeable. Of course it has all his hallmarks. Right from the start you can see that it’s a love letter to The New Yorker as well as to Europe. I’d say to France, but I do wonder how the French would take it, as it’s just so doggedly adherent to so many stereotypes of French people that I imagine it would seem vaguely absurd and perhaps offensive. You can also tell it was written by a bunch of guys the moment Léa Seydoux arrives on screen. But for the most part this portmanteau film, essentially a number of shorter films tied together with a loose framing structure, is quite delightful. I especially loved Chalamet and Lyna Khoudri as student revolutionaries, with plenty of cribbing from 60s Godard movies (Khoudri being styled to look like Anna Karina) with plenty of other visual references throughout, but there was a sort of emotional core at the heart of that particular story which seems a bit hit or miss elsewhere. It blends black-and-white and saturated colour pretty liberally, and it never bored me. I wonder at the end what deeper meaning I’m supposed to take other than, ah yes a golden age of journalism and engagement with the life of the mind. But maybe that’s enough.

The French Dispatch (2021) posterCREDITS
Director Wes Anderson; Writers Anderson, Roman Coppola, Hugo Guinness and Jason Schwartzman; Cinematographer Robert Yeoman; Starring Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Benicio del Toro, Léa Seydoux, Tilda Swinton, Adrien Brody, Frances McDormand, Timothée Chalamet, Lyna Khoudri, Jeffrey Wright, Mathieu Amalric; Length 108 minutes.
Seen at Penthouse, Wellington, Saturday 18 December2021.

NZIFF 2021: ドロステのはてで僕ら Droste no Hate de Bokura (Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes, 2020)

In marked contrast to the very long and very melancholic films screening at any given film festival, not least last month’s Whānau Mārama – New Zealand International Film Festival, is this Japanese film. It has a short running time and a very high concept, so there’s not much to it (certainly not much in the way of budget) but it’s made with love, an old-fashioned amateurism with all the etymological meaning of that word, and the enthusiasm shows.


This is undoubtedly a slender film, and not just in its concise running time. It’s a classic high concept premise elaborated on a shoestring budget (the closing credits show behind the scenes views of the filming setup) and feels rather like an extended short film in some senses. Like any time travel film, thinking about it too deeply is probably a mistake, but it throws so much energy at the screen that it’s hard to find time to do that thinking. Generally, it has the feeling of a farce put on a theatre company (which it may well be, after all) and the narrative follows its repetitious journey with small changes each time until eventually it’s all you can do to keep up with the almost infinitely recursive loops of time it creates. It’s as clever as it is silly, and would outstay its welcome if it were any longer, but it has a certain something.

Droste no Hate de Bokura (2020) posterCREDITS
Director/Cinematographer Junta Yamaguchi 山口淳太; Writer Makoto Ueda 上田誠; Starring Kazunari Tosa 土佐和成, Aki Asakura 朝倉あき, Riko Fujitani 藤谷理子; Length 70 minutes.
Seen at the Embassy, Wellington, Monday 15 November 2021.

NZIFF 2021: Śniegu już nigdy nie będzie (Never Gonna Snow Again, 2020)

Following up with the last few reviews from films screening at Whānau Mārama – New Zealand International Film Festival, this Polish-German co-production has had a UK cinematic release recently, and it’s certainly the kind of diverting, prettily shot and slightly magical comedy-drama that could do well. In the context of a festival, it feels like a little bit of whimsy, but we all need that from time to time.


When you see the title and hear its words spoken (right at the start of the film), you know that it definitely is going to snow at some point, and the dreamily distanced tone suggests clearly — again, pretty early on — that not only will it snow, it will be metaphorically Meaningful. This film has the carefully composed artfulness of a Kieślowski film, though it strikes a far more magical realist tone in being about a mysterious man (Alec Utgoff) who seems to have supernatural powers, and its hinted that it has something to do with his childhood near Chernobyl. But for the most part it plays out as something of a satire on the bland, depressed and heavily medicated nouveau riche middle classes, living in cookie cutter houses at the edge of some industrial city, presumably in Poland (where it was made and filmed). The film has a contemplative tone, a bit like Donnie Darko perhaps if not even a bit meditative like Tarkovsky, and even if it does have that heavy metaphor weighing down on it, it still makes for a pleasant film about wealth, class and privilege punctured by the post-war histories of Eastern Europe embodied in our man Zhenia.

Sniegu juz nigdy nie bedzie (2020) posterCREDITS
Directors/Writers Małgorzata Szumowska and Michał Englert; Cinematographer Englert; Starring Alec Utgoff Олег Утгоф, Maja Ostaszewska, Agata Kulesza; Length 113 minutes.
Seen at Penthouse, Wellington, Friday 19 November 2021.

Criterion Sunday 489: Monsoon Wedding (2001)

This film is about a wedding, as you might expect from the title, and so it’s hardly bereft of stress, or free from drama — both within the family and beyond it. There are some plotlines that go in quite dark directions, and yet all the time we’re brought back into something regenerative and vibrant, as this Punjabi family prepares to celebrate the arranged marriage of their daughter Aditi (Vasundhara Das). The film is made in a loose manner, at times not unlike a documentary, but still retaining an elegance and most importantly some rich and vibrant colours. The father tells off the unreliable wedding planner P.K. Dubey (Vijay Raaz) at one point for trying to use white for a marquee, but the film is generous enough to allow even Dubey a romance of his own. But that’s where the film is so good, leaving you with a feeling of warmth and regeneration at the end, never wallowing in the paths not taken.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Mira Nair मीरा नायर; Writer Sabrina Dhawan सबरीना धवन; Cinematographer Declan Quinn; Starring Naseeruddin Shah नसीरुद्दीन शाह, Vasundhara Das वसुंधरा दास, Shefali Shah शेफ़ाली शाह, Vijay Raaz विजय राज़, Tillotama Shome তিলোত্তমা সোম; Length 114 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 18 December 2021.

NZIFF 2021: Ninjababy and El Planeta (both 2021)

My reviews of films I saw last month at Whānau Mārama – New Zealand International Film Festival has been getting a bit grim. That is somewhat the nature of festivals, to focus on the darker works that maybe aren’t so commercial, but here’s a Norwegian and a Spanish film that are both a bit more fun. Sure both deal with young women who are sort of sad and listless. The first one gets pregnant and tries to get an abortion and then spends the rest of the film getting anxious about this baby inside her, while the other she is just living beyond her means. But for the most part these are pretty enjoyable and funny even.


Ninjababy (2021) [Norway, certificate 15]

It’s interesting, and a positive corrective, that the more women who come into filmmaking, the more stories we see not about awkward indie dudes trying to pursue their art, but instead about depressed, creative young women beset by annoying indie dudes who believe they have something to say. The day before I saw the Spanish-set El Planeta (see below) and now here’s this Norwegian film, also about a young woman who fits a similar bill (Rakel here is a comics artist), but the twist is that she’s become pregnant despite her best efforts to the contrary. Having created this dilemma, it’s both acutely sensitive to the emotional terrain she experiences as a result, but also a bit anarchic (not unlike, say, Alice Lowe in Prevenge, which also gave voice to an unborn baby, albeit that film was a horror where this is sort of a… romcom?). In any case, it never quite slows down and it’s even a bit touching at times, as Rakel has to deal with her own body and feelings about children in a way that tends to resist the usual paradigms in movies like this one. And, being a comedy, there’s a broadly positive outcome to her story, but it’s not necessarily the one you expect.

Ninjababy (2021) posterCREDITS
Director Yngvild Sve Flikke; Writers Flikke and Johan Fasting (based on the graphic novel Fallteknikk by Inga H. Sætre); Cinematographer Marianne Bakke; Starring Kristine Thorp, Arthur Berning, Nader Khademi; Length 104 minutes.
Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Sunday 14 November 2021.


El planeta (2021)
El Planeta (2021) [Spain/USA, black-and-white]

Although this is a film that deals with some pretty heavy sadness, there’s also a lightness to it and a certain idiosyncrasy that both points back to the French New Wave (shooting on location in black-and-white with a loosely improvised feel to the whole thing and an Anna Karina-like look from the writer/director/star Amalia Ulman) but also to the talkier elements of say contemporary Korean cinema (I was thinking of Heart if only because it’s another film by a writer-actor-director which has a slightly brittle sense of absurdism that I saw recently). Here the Argentinean/Spanish Ulman casts herself as Leo(nor), and right from the start — where we get a brief cameo by fellow director Nacho Vigalondo — you know that things are going to get weird. Mostly it’s in rather delightful ways albeit ones that highlight the precarity of this Spanish family, the wide-eyed desperation of Leo who has skills but no ability to really find work given her economic situation and her scamming grifter of a mother, both of whom are equally trying to make ends meet. It’s a film about the connectedness yet distance in the modern world that doesn’t manufacture hope for any of its characters, but still leaves you having enjoyed their brief chaotic presence in your life. And then it ends.

El planeta (2021)CREDITS
Director Amalia Ulman; Cinematographer Carlos Rigo Beliver; Starring Amalia Ulman, Ale Ulman; Length 79 minutes.
Seen at Light House, Wellington, Saturday 13 November 2021.

NZIFF 2021: Shiva Baby (2020)

Moving into the second week of Whānau Mārama – New Zealand International Film Festival last month, I went to another fairly commercial film that I hope will be back here on big screens, though it’s already been released in most of the rest of the world. It’s a jolly American indie film with a single setting and that makes the most of its expressive actors.


The lead character Danielle (Rachel Sennott) is a mess, as a lot of people still at university in their early-20s tend to be, but this is exacerbated by the pressure and anxieties of being at a shiva (a mourning gathering) with her extended family and some strained former friends and lovers. In certain ways — the intense anxiety the film captures, by sticking to a lot of close-ups, moving through tight spaces with the threat of elderly relatives jumping out at any moment like a horror film, but most of all from the scraping dissonant score — this reminded me of Uncut Gems, but unlike that film, the cushion of family and the setting means there’s no real sense of physical danger as there is there. Still, there’s very much a sense of things unravelling at every turn, so the fact that it wrings plenty of laughs and humour from this situation is testament to the writing and the performances, from familiar stalwarts like Fred Melamed or the younger newcomers (I definitely want to see more of the actor who plays Maya, Molly Gordon). The characters might be confused and messy, but the film feels carefully controlled.

Shiva Baby (2020)CREDITS
Director/Writer Emma Seligman (based on her own 2018 short film); Cinematographer Maria Rusche; Starring Rachel Sennott, Molly Gordon, Danny Deferrari, Fred Melamed, Polly Draper; Length 78 minutes.
Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Thursday 11 November 2021.

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).