Criterion Sunday 529: Underworld (1927)

Josef von Sternberg’s silent crime movie is generally considered to be the one that laid in place a lot of the tropes that would persist (and continue to do so) in gangster films over the years. We have the gregarious mobster “Bull Weed” (George Bancroft) who shows pity on the alcoholic “Rolls Royce” (Clive Brook), helping him to clean up and work again as a lawyer, in which role he’s able to help Bull while also getting close to Bull’s girl “Feathers” (Evelyn Brent), a classic three-way love story that motivates the divided loyalties of the film’s climactic shoot-out with police (because there’s always got to be a shoot-out). Despite being pre-Code, there are still strong moral lessons that bad guys need to learn, but the film keeps what now comes across as pretty hackneyed content relatively fresh. The camera doesn’t move too much, but somehow the film gives the impression of a whirl of action and movement, with pools of murky darkness befitting the setting. In short, it still holds up.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Josef von Sternberg; Writers Ben Hecht, Charles Furthman and Robert N. Lee; Cinematographer Bert Glennon; Starring Clive Brook, Evelyn Brent, George Bancroft; Length 81 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), Wellington, Monday 21 February 2022 (and earlier on VHS in the university library, Wellington, June 2000).

Criterion Sunday 502: Revanche (2008)

I was impressed by this film so it’s no surprise to read — on doing a little research — that Austrian director Götz Spielmann had been working for some time before he made this (although surprisingly hasn’t really made a big splash since then). He shows a fair bit of control over his subject and the performances, with a steely gaze to his camera that adds an edge to the moral drama playing out on screen, between a (fairly low-level) criminal and a police officer who has, shall we say, caused quite a lot of pain in his life and to whom he finds himself unexpectedly living next door. That particular setup seems a bit far-fetched, as does a relationship with the police officer’s wife, but yet somehow it all seems to make sense in the universe that this thriller plays out in. It’s a world of small towns, close-knit communities, and which even allows for a modicum of hope amongst all the bleakness. It’s a shame that it boils down to essentially a film about two men confronting one another over the women in their lives, but the way it’s handled is excellent.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Götz Spielmann; Cinematographer Martin Gschlacht; Starring Johannes Krisch, Ursula Strauss, Andreas Lust, Irina Potapenko Ирина Потапенко; Length 122 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 30 January 2022.

Criterion Sunday 493: Gomorra (Gomorrah, 2008)

This film about the Camorra, a criminal organisation operating around Naples and Campania, harks back to those films so popular in the 1990s, in which multiple different strands cohere into a full narrative picture. There’s not much in the way of overlap in terms of the characters between these five stories, but together they give a sense of the grunt work involved in propping up the business interests of a gang. There’s the expendability of the foot soldiers, especially when they become damaging to the organisation, but also the limitless resource of workers disaffected through poverty and urban alienation; there’s the middle managers, guys just trying to keep their heads down and get by but who nevertheless get dragged into violence and revenge; and then there are the artisans (like the tailor Pasquale) who have little interest in the vested interests, but cannot help but be pulled in and affected by the control wielded by those with power. We don’t see any kind of coherent power structure, just a bunch of loud older guys with guns in the background, and a lot of meek and young people up front in this film, which ultimately seems to be about the corrosive effects of corrupt government and poverty leading to few available choices for its protagonists. And for all its multiple strands, it manages to cohere nicely by the end with a lot of small character-based touches that deepen the film’s interest and reach.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Matteo Garrone; Writers Garrone, Roberto Saviano, Maurizio Braucci, Ugo Chiti, Gianni Di Gregorio and Massimo Gaudioso (based on Saviano’s non-fiction book); Cinematographer Marco Onorato; Starring Gianfelice Imparato, Salvatore Cantalupo, Toni Servillo, Salvatore Abbruzzese, Marco Maror, Ciro Petrone; Length 137 minutes.

Seen at the Ritzy, London, Friday 24 October 2008 (and on DVD at home, Wellington, Thursday 30 December 2021).

Criterion Sunday 486: Homicide (1991)

There are definitely things I like about a Mamet film. It looks great for a start (Roger Deakins shot this), moody in just the right ways. The characters are strong types, generic in a way, but in a rather pleasing way, but that’s partly the familiarity you have with policiers. There’s definitely a format by which crimes get solved. The cops aren’t exactly heroes, but they are apparently more effective than the FBI. Still, the ones we see here know how to get stuff done, none more than Joe Mantegna’s Bobby Gold (he’s playing Jewish American here). Still, you have to have a real love for Mamet’s dialogue to get with his films fully, and perhaps I just lack that. It’s distinctive I admit, but it has a musical patter to it that pulls me out a bit (if there had been dancing, then… maybe I’d be fine). In any case, there are fine performances and a lot to like here, even for those who don’t love their Mamet.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer David Mamet; Cinematographer Roger Deakins; Starring Joe Mantegna, William H. Macy, Ving Rhames; Length 101 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 12 December 2021.

NZIFF 2021: @zola (2020)

The first film I saw at Whānau Mārama – New Zealand International Film Festival is probably the most ‘commercial’ of the lot, though it still fits in a lot of darkness to its otherwise gaudily-toned story of… well, of Florida. It’s a setting that’s been done many times before (think Magic Mike for a start), but I can’t deny that there’s an energy to this setting that energises plenty of films, this one no less than any other.


Nobody’s really out there adapting Twitter threads and I can only applaud the ways the filmmakers here find to transfer some of that era-specific energy (Twitter, Facebook and… Tumblr all get a mention, because of course). There are bravura touches (a lot of toilet-focused exposition that’s revealing without being gross), a lot of humour (Cousin Greg!! sorry I mean Nicholas Braun, best known for his role in Succession) and the constant presence of Taylour Paige as Zola, being cool under pressure and rolling her eyes back into her head at Riley Keough’s character Stefani. Keough has played this type before but yet I didn’t recognise her; Stefani feels like a different character and a very specific one. It’s not all jolly laughs — there’s some very credible terror and some nasty men (okay those things are somewhat related) — but it is pulled through by the narrative voice and a sense of self-mythologising that’s ongoing and inherent to the narrative itself.

@zola (2021)CREDITS
Director Janicza Bravo; Writers Bravo and Jeremy O. Harris (based on the Rolling Stone article “Zola Tells All: The Real Story Behind the Greatest Stripper Saga Ever Tweeted” by David Kushner and the original tweets by Aziah King); Cinematographer Ari Wegner; Starring Taylour Paige, Riley Keough, Nicholas Braun, Colman Domingo; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Friday 5 November 2021.

Criterion Sunday 475: The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973)

It’s not as if I don’t feel that I’ve seen variations on this film before, but somehow this film, from this particular era of the 70s — with its slightly washed out, grainy look, its desolate landscapes, its lack of the glamour you might get from a more photogenic locale (this film is set in Boston I believe), and its world-weary acting — all combine to elicit something somehow more affecting. Robert Mitchum is towards the later years of his career and so he shuffles about with the sense of being someone who’s a lifer, who’s never going to get out despite all the young feds (like Richard Jordan) telling him to reform his ways. He continues to supply guns to criminals, and it’s weighing him down and he never quite gets out from under it. Along the way we get hints at the vicious younger kids under him (like Steven Keats as his contact for the guns), but the film doesn’t try to give a sense of an older generation with more scrupulous morals: everyone in this racket is living on borrowed time and can be vicious when they need to be, criminals, cops, the lot. And by sticking to Mitchum’s character for the most part, it keeps it anchored in something human and approachable, rather than being about the process — the thrill of the heist or the satisfaction of piecing it together via policework. In that sense, it reminds me of Melville’s flicks with Alain Delon, just him and some glum streets and the choices he needs to make to keep himself alive moment to moment.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Peter Yates; Writer Paul Monash (based on the novel by George V. Higgins); Cinematographer Victor J. Kemper; Starring Robert Mitchum, Richard Jordan, Peter Boyle, Steven Keats; Length 102 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Wednesday 27 October 2021.

Criterion Sunday 469: The Hit (1984)

Stephen Frears directed his first movie at the start of the 70s and then spent most of the next decade working in TV, though this is the era when Ken Loach and Alan Clarke were creating distinctive visions on the small screen, so by the time Frears returns with The Hit, you can’t really accuse him of not having some style. It’s set in Spain, so it doesn’t lack for beautiful light and arresting backdrops; at times Frears seems to be going maybe even a little bit too hard on the quiet, empty shots of these locales, though he matches it with striking framings (such as an unexpected overhead shot during one tense encounter). Still, there’s a lot that feels very 80s here, and it’s not just Tim Roth being a young hard man (not as fascist as in Alan Clarke’s Made in Britain, perhaps, but still a thug) but also some of the patronising attitudes (towards women, for example, or the Spaniards they encounter). Of course, that’s as much to do with the characters, who are after all small time criminals. Terence Stamp isn’t a million miles from Ray Winstone’s retired criminal in Sexy Beast, a man who may be retired but is aware he’s never going to be fully out of the racket, and when John Hurt pops up to carry out the titular action, he puts across a weary indefatigability. Ultimately this is a strange blend of genres, with black comedic elements and a strong road movie vibe (a saturated Spanish version of what Chris Petit or Wim Wenders were doing in monochrome, perhaps). I admire it more than I love it, but it has its moments.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Stephen Frears; Writer Peter Prince; Cinematographer Mike Molloy; Starring Terence Stamp, John Hurt, Tim Roth, Laura del Sol; Length 98 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Monday 11 October 2021.

Criterion Sunday 453: Chung Hing sam lam (Chungking Express, 1994)

Thinking back on it, it’s difficult to sum up what the plot of this film is exactly, but made in a break from filming his grandiose epic folly Ashes of Time, it’s fair to say that Wong Kar-wai is going for a looser feel here, two stories of people passing by one another in a busy city, barely enough time to make a connection that’s lasting. Thinking back to when I saw it several decades ago, my abiding memory is its heavy use of the song “California Dreamin'” but watching again it’s not in it all that much and just in the second story, certainly not to Godardian levels of replaying snippets of music, though you get the sense that Godard’s New Wave work is one of Wong’s touchstones. But there’s both a denseness to the imagery — of a crowded city, of colourful lights and rain-slicked streets, of bustling shopping streets and little food stands — but also a lightness to the tone, with two flirtatious stories that touch on crime (because in the first, Brigitte Lin is engaged in drug dealing and kills those who double-crossed her, though the second just features Tony Leung as a cop stopping by for food on his downtime near where he lives) but really are about the feelings of the central characters in each, Takeshi Kaneshiro (also apparently a cop though we don’t see him in uniform like Leung) and the mesmeric Faye Wong who takes a job at a snack bar and, yes, plays that Mamas and the Papas song a lot. There’s an oneiric sense to Chris Doyle’s camerawork and a sense of fleetingness to each story, as if these characters will soon disappear into Hong Kong’s bustle never to be seen again, and indeed they seem to do that. It’s a very film-y film ultimately, but grounded in a very specific place and time — in many ways, to me, it is the apex of 90s filmmaking.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Wong Kar-wai 王家衛; Cinematographers Christopher Doyle and Andrew Lau 劉偉強; Starring Faye Wong 王菲, Tony Leung [Chiu-Wai] 梁朝偉, Takeshi Kaneshiro 金城武, Brigitte Lin 林青霞; Length 102 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Wednesday 11 August 2021 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, December 1997).

Criterion Sunday 450: Bottle Rocket (1996)

This is, of course, Wes Anderson’s debut feature and we all now know how his career went after this. In retrospect it’s easy to glean hints of what would become central to his style, which due to the budget is not so much in the production design, but certainly there are quirks of costume and staging that are quintessentially of this filmmaker. What’s striking is the non sequitur style of comic writing that he and Owen Wilson already have perfected by this stage, but also the musical cues that add energy to these madcap comic heist sequences (my favourite naturally being the Proclaimers). I think a lot is in place here from a filmic perspective, and there’s a certain something extra that comes from being a first-time director, a certain almost amateur energy at times which I especially appreciate given how incredibly controlled and perfected Anderson’s vision would become over time, but this remains an enjoyable caper.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Wes Anderson; Writers Anderson and Owen Wilson; Cinematographer Robert Yeoman; Starring Luke Wilson, Owen Wilson, Robert Musgrave, James Caan; Length 91 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 25 July 2021 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, December 1999).

Criterion Sunday 448: Le Deuxième souffle (1966)

The year before Le Samouraï and Melville’s last film in black-and-white. They may all be wearing trenchcoats and being laconic in both films, but it’s incredible the way this feels like another era, a holdover from the 40s. There’s something almost Bressonian in the way that the early scenes unfold (though that’s perhaps no surprise given it’s a prison break): no music, just people going through the motions, wordlessly and almost like a dream. Gu (short for Gustave, and played by Lino Ventura, a stocky stand-by of the gangster film since Touchez pas au grisbi) has just broken out of jail and is now looking to retire, but — as is the way — is sucked back into one last job. How badly could it go? Have you ever watched a movie? You know how badly it could go. For all that, Melville is clearly starting to strip back his style, such that the trenchcoats and the hats, the Gallic sangfroid, the guns and the gangsters, the deep expressionist shadows of the film noir genre, all of these things seem to hold more depth in them than the plot itself, though it’s all very well done, and by this point in his career Ventura has an iconic energy that is perfectly channelled here.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jean-Pierre Melville (based on the novel by José Giovanni); Cinematographer Marcel Combes; Starring Lino Ventura, Paul Meurisse, Raymond Pellegrin, Christine Fabréga; Length 144 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Friday 9 July 2021.