Criterion Sunday 336: Dazed and Confused (1993)

I avoided this when it was first released in cinemas, though I was about the same age as the characters in the film, because it was marketed as a stupid high school movie and it didn’t appeal to me at the time. It also had the sense of being a very indulgent nostalgic look back at the 70s, and that’s a criticism that’s more difficult to avoid because in a sense it is, in addition to which indulging his characters is very much a Linklater trademark. Watching it again many years on, though, that feels like the thing that’s aged best — this sense that almost all the characters have some redeeming quality even if they are sleazy creeps (like McConaughey’s older Wooderson, cruising the high school to pick up girlfriends) or big dumb jocks (like Sasha Jenson’s Don). There’s even a glimmer of humanity in Ben Affleck’s O’Bannion, but not much because he’s the real bad guy here, a grinning sadist who has to retake his final year at school. However, there’s no manufactured hostility between the jocks and the geeks here; sure there’s a bit of back and forth in the conversations, but nobody avoids anyone else and friendship groups seem to cut across these distinctions, plus there’s a sense of generational camaraderie even in the sadistic hazing rituals.

However, like much of Linklater’s oeuvre, it’s a hang-out film where nothing really happens. People just cruise around and ping off each other — not as literally as the tangential sidetracking of Slacker (1990) — but still with no clear sense that they’re all working towards anything except the next beer or the next party. But that sense of aimlessness going towards college and the future, which is encapsulated in the final shot on the road, that’s something that Linklater’s been doing for decades in many of his films, capturing a mood or an era, a sense of uncertainty in his characters, and it’s perfectly done here, with lots of people who would go on to have acting careers (or not), but who just seem right for the roles.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There are plenty of extras, but the main one is Making Dazed (2005, dir. Kahane Corn), a pretty straight-down-the-line documentary about the making of a film, albeit one that had been in production for over a decade it seems. The director has extensive interviews with the cast both at the time of filming and a decade later, as several of them gather for an anniversary screening. Of course many of the faces are now familiar to us (or at least a bit more familiar) and they all clearly have fond memories of the film that was the first experience of filmmaking for a lot of them. It’s good to hear the stories, and see some of the making-of footage, and it’s good to think about how far some have come from these horny Texan teenagers, but it evokes a warmth of feeling at the very least.
  • A lot of the footage from the making-of documentary is also available as extras, including the full clips of most cast members in the first week of filming explaining their characters, as well as interviews conducted on set and behind-the-scenes footage of the filming. Amongst these are also a few more recent interviews — including one with Linklater, his casting director and McConaughey speaking about how the latter got involved (some of which is also in the finished documentary) — and some brief footage from the anniversary cast reunion.
  • Most of the audition tapes of the various cast members are also included as extras, which can be interesting to watch, although the quality is obviously rather poorer, being shot on video.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Richard Linklater; Cinematographer Lee Daniel; Starring Jason London, Wiley Wiggins, Sasha Jenson, Parker Posey, Matthew McConaughey, Adam Goldberg, Ben Affleck; Length 102 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Saturday 11 July 2020 (and earlier on TV at home, London, Saturday 19 April 2014).

Step (2017)

I suppose this kind of milieu, the inner-city school, isn’t particularly uncommon, nor even focusing on athletic achievements in that venue (The Fits, although a fiction drama, isn’t so removed from this). And indeed there’s a whole (and great, in my opinion) franchise of films dedicated to this dance style, Step Up. Still, it’s nice to see the dance form tied to a story that’s grounded in a sociopolitical context, and though it’s always worth being attentive to the means of production (the film crew appear to be largely white), I think the resulting film avoids exploitation and is empathetic towards its subjects.


See, I get the reviews calling this film uplifting or inspirational, because that vibe definitely exists here, at least in part. But it’s set in a Black girls’ school in Baltimore, and the context — as we’ve seen only too often, and recently as well — is tough for them. That much the documentary makes clear at the outset. Still, this is about three young women who each approach their goal of getting into college via different means, but all of whom are into step dance. Those sequences could be better filmed (choppy editing and close-ups are all too common in dance films and really don’t help viewers appreciate it), but the pathos is all there, and by the end I think the film really allows for some empathy with its stars. Well, I shed a few tears.

Step film posterCREDITS
Director Amanda Lipitz; Cinematographer Casey Regan; Length 83 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Sunday 13 August 2017.

Unexpected (2015)

Another filmmaker working in the same vein of improv and talky comedy-drama as Lynn Shelton and the “mumblecore” scene is Kris Rey (née Williams), credited at the time of this, her third film, as Kris Swanberg, given she was married at that time to Joe. I think it’s fair to say she has her own sensibilities, of course, which find good expression in this solidly-wrought and well-acted small ensemble piece.


I wonder if maybe the title is a joke, because really there’s nothing particularly surprising that happens here, but maybe I’m just becoming used to Cobie Smulders appearing in this kind of low-stakes gently-twee American indie/improv film (she was in Andrew Bujalski’s Results the same year, as well). That said, focusing on a pregnancy isn’t all that common a theme — outside jokey Knocked Up-type films about loser dads — and everyone does a good job. Smulders is a teacher, while Anders Holm has another of those smugly infuriating nice guy roles as her husband (he had a similar role in The Intern, again made the same year). The film loops in class concerns by having a parallel story of one of her black school students (Gail Bean) who’s in the same situation, though without Smulders’ race- and class-based privileges that she is entirely unaware of, and that’s really what the film is interested in exploring. It may not be challenging, but it’s sweet and pleasantly undemonstrative and after some of her former-partner’s works that can definitely be a very good thing.

Unexpected film posterCREDITS
Director Kris Rey [as Kris Swanberg]; Writers Megan Mercier and Rey; Cinematographer Dagmar Weaver-Madsen; Starring Cobie Smulders, Gail Bean, Anders Holm, Elizabeth McGovern; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Thursday 15 September 2016.

The Fits (2015)

This isn’t a new film (and it took a couple of years to make it to London), but I wanted to fit it into my week of American films directed by women, as I really liked it. You can rent it on BFI Player or YouTube, and it’s well worthwhile, a really strong atmosphere piece.


At a superficial level there are similarities with the previous year’s The Falling, but this film is very much its own thing, and a striking debut at that. It deals with young women, part of their high school’s dance team, having fits, but actually that’s only one element, sort of an allegorical rendering of what we already see in lead character Toni’s story (played by the incredibly named Royalty Hightower). It’s really a film about fitting in, though initially I had yet another reading of the title, as I assumed it was about people who were just particularly into fitness (the pre-credits sequence is Toni doing sit-ups, and there’s a lot of repetition of exercise throughout). Indeed I’d say that one of the strong threads in the film is the idea that you can become good at something through repetitive practice (Toni starts out as not very good at dancing), and if sport and dance are the only things we see these kids doing at school, there’s an implication there too about their life options perhaps. What hooks me most though, the acting aside, is the filmmaking vision. The framing is very precise and there’s a minimum of shot-reverse shot sequences (several scenes have characters showing Toni something while the camera just look at her watching). I think this director has great promise, but most of all this is a compelling film about school, in an already crowded field.

The Fits film posterCREDITS
Director Anna Rose Holmer; Writers Holmer, Saela Davis and Lisa Kjerulff; Cinematographer Paul Yee; Starring Royalty Hightower, Alexis Neblett; Length 72 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Friday 24 February 2017.

The Half of It (2020)

We used to talk about films sneaking out under the radar on streaming services (or on home video back in the day), but right now online is the only game in town, so the difference is whether you’re seeing it on subscription services like Netflix, or pay-to-play VOD, and Netflix can be a bigger platform than some cinemas (though as they never release their viewership, it’s difficult to be sure, aside from the vagaries of cultural impact). This is the case for the release of the new film from Alice Wu, or should I say the second film she’s been able to make in over 15 years, disappointing given how fundamentally solid her writing is. Anyway, it’s worth checking out.


This is a rather sweet film, and it’s a shame that it’s been 16 years since the last (and first) film by the same director, Saving Face (which I also very much enjoyed) — though I daren’t assume that the market for Asian-American-focused gay love stories has become any more viable in the intervening years. This one rather soft pedals the gay love story, focusing more on the relationship that develops between the jock, Paul (an appropriately lunkish Daniel Diemer), and the bookish Chinese-American girl, Ellie (Leah Lewis), who helps him write a love letter to his (far smarter) enamorata, Aster (Alexxis Lemire), the daughter of a Spanish pastor. Like a lot of high school-set quirky comedy-drama coming-of-age stories, it gets a magical/cutesy at times, pushing its characters at times beyond credulity, but it’s in the service of what is essentially a character-led film about three people trying to find their way in a deeply conformist little corner of America (a fictional town in, I think, New York state?). The three leads are all winning and likeable in their own ways, and the film never really gets dark, beyond a bit of love-based humiliation, when Paul wants to open up about his love (also an awkward scene in a church near the end). It’s an easy watch that may capitalise on the success of To All the Boys, but definitely goes in its own specific direction.

The Half of It film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Alice Wu 伍思薇; Cinematographer Greta Zozula; Starring Leah Lewis, Daniel Diemer, Alexxis Lemire; Length 104 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Wednesday 6 May 2020.

Selah and the Spades (2019)

The milieu this film sets itself in — a fairly well-heeled boarding school — is hardly new to cinema, but the telling of this tale is distinctive enough that I think there’s a lot of promise in this director (and of course, the cast, most of whom are fairly new faces, though Jharrel Jerome was seen in Moonlight).


Certainly a distinctive debut in the crowded marketplace of high school-set films, though something about the tone feels a little older than that, since it eschews the usual bright poppiness of that milieu for something darker and more reflective. The tone throughout is rather elliptical and with lots of little flashes of details, slightly off-centre close-ups of little tics and expressions, small touches that create an impressionistic sense of this time of life as somehow heightened and laden with feelings that go beyond just what is happening at a plot level. Entire sequences feel rather abstract in some ways, and plot becomes very much a minor part of the film at times, which pushes it into interesting territory that maybe isn’t always fully successful in its realisation but makes it preferable to something boring and safe (which is, to be fair, where most of this genre is pitched). The minor characters too feel a little underdeveloped, with Paloma (Celeste O’Connor) the standout — some of her dialogue felt contrived, but at other times, when she was just quietly observing, she seemed like the most interesting person on-screen. I’ll look forward to the director’s future work.

Selah and the Spades film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Tayarisha Poe; Cinematographer Jomo Fray; Starring Lovie Simone, Celeste O’Connor, Jharrel Jerome, Ana Mulvoy-Ten, Gina Torres; Length 97 minutes.
Seen at home (Amazon streaming), London, Saturday 18 April 2020.

Booksmart (2019)

Look, I tried to put it off, but after weeks dedicated to Netflix, Mubi and the BFI Player, I turn now to Amazon direct video and Amazon Prime. Whatever you think of Amazon — and I do earnestly encourage you to think bad things about them — they have been involved for a number years in producing their own original content, and have plenty of films (both new and old) available to watch. We’ve been paid-up members on and off (but mostly off) over the years for various reasons, usually because of deals or offers, and I cannot in all good faith tell you to give any more money to Amazon (their owner is offensively wealthy and its warehouse workers are grossly exploited). However, if you also happen to have Amazon Prime, you may be looking for things to watch, hence this week’s theme.


Some of the best American comedies are set in high school, and Booksmart is surely up amongst them. It has a kind of Clueless or 10 Things I Hate About You vibe (every bit as broad and brightly-coloured in a constructed way, but with less self-consciously based-on-a-literary-classic inspiration), and doubles-down on the female friendship angle, as two best friends (played by Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever) increasingly desperately try to find a graduation party. Yes these characters are all insanely privileged but I see that as part of that particular lineage of teen genre films. Indeed, Beanie Feldstein’s opening ensemble is assuredly a reference to Alicia Silverstone as Cher in Clueless (the film is filled with little vignettes that hark back to that film, both in the costuming and several of the scenes, like them being stuck in a remote location with no phone signal). In a very lowkey way it makes the valuable points that it’s possible to have fun at school and still do academically well, and although it does the obligatory high school cliques opening, it refuses to pit them against one another (unlike the rather darker Mean Girls). It has some nice bittersweet moments, but unlike the recent Eighth Grade, this film is not really trying to find the heartbreak (and truth, such as it is, is more in the feelings than in creating a realistic high school environment); rather it is just raucously fun. There are plenty of memorable small roles popping up (such as party girl Gigi, played by Billie Lourd) and strong, likeable, relatable turns from Feldstein and Dever in the lead roles.

Booksmart film posterCREDITS
Director Olivia Wilde; Writers Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Susanna Fogel and Katie Silberman; Cinematographer Jason McCormick; Starring Beanie Feldstein, Kaitlyn Dever, Billie Lourd, Jessica Williams, Jason Sudeikis; Length 105 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, 25 May 2019 (and most recently on Amazon streaming at home, London, Friday 3 April 2020).

Criterion Sunday 294: The Browning Version (1951)

I’m pretty sure that most people going into this film aren’t exactly expecting anything thrilling. After all, as a film it exudes exactly the atmosphere of the scenario it depicts, black-and-white photography capturing the fusty old corridors of a large overprivileged English public school where Michael Redgrave plays a Classics teacher, Mr Crocker-Harris. He has a quote from Aeschylus’s Agamemnon permanently chalked up on the board behind his desk as he dispassionately surveys his classroom and speaks in a flat monotone to the boys, all but one of whom very much dislike him. It takes its time, too, for the drama to get going, but it works in some of the same ways, as, say, Brief Encounter in tracking these minute little changes of emotional register among a small group of central characters. It’s easy to miss what’s going on, and I suspect it only improves on re-watching, but this impressed me far more once it had finished than I had any expectation upon starting.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There’s a five-minute clip from British TV in the late-1950s with Redgrave being interviewed about acting and how he gets into roles, during which he briefly touches on this film.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Anthony Asquith; Writer Terence Rattigan (based on his play); Cinematographer Desmond Dickinson; Starring Michael Redgrave, Jean Kent, Nigel Patrick, Brian Smith; Length 90 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Wednesday 12 February 2020.

Criterion Sunday 289: Hoop Dreams (1994)

I’m not exactly a big sports fan (and I know nothing about basketball), but it seems to me that when your team wins, you get happy not just for the drama of the contest but the hope that this win will lead to bigger and better things, and eventually your team will be the champions. We watch a fair few clips of basketball games in Hoop Dreams, but it’s not the teams’ wins that matter, but those of the two boys whom the film is following, and the hope — which sometimes seems as distant as the idea of a championship win to some of these teams — that their lives can be better.

After all, this ultimately is a film about what it takes to make something of yourself in America, specifically when you’re born poor and Black and live in an area of a big city (Chicago in this case) where there’s little enough money to be made honestly, and only crime and drugs seem to be good options. I think that’s a story that became particularly familiar during the 1990s in cinema — when making cinema about the African-American experience seemed to be all about ghettos and crime. But if that’s a background that has dogged Arthur Agee’s dad (as only the most notable example within the film), what’s excellent about is that he’s never just those things in the film. Indeed, like all the characters, he has many levels, and most of all we remember him as a dad (and a particularly effusive and supportive one), which by the end of the film both Arthur and William also are.

This film follows both of these guys over a period of about five years, as they go from promising 14-year-old kids scouted by a high school recruiter on the poorly-maintained courts of the Chicago suburbs where they live, through a peculiarly American high school system, where kids with sporting talent get scholarships and money and chances, as long as they perform. Of course, they have to travel for hours to get to these nice schools in predominantly white neighbourhoods, to play ball and win leagues. But Arthur doesn’t quite make the grade for that school, so finds himself busted down to a less wealthy local school.

You end up caring about it all, because it’s not about the Game but about the people just trying to make a chance in life, doing their best not to be worn down or overtaken by the Game, though it’s always looking for new talent and the chances move by all too quickly at times. It’s also about families and community, and that’s probably what lingers the longest for both these players, and whatever their own personal successes and failures (both within this film and since it was released), it’s the time with the families that sticks around.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • One of the film’s big champions from its very first appearance at Sundance Film Festival in January 1994 was the Siskel and Ebert film review show, and we see clips of Gene and Robert talking about the film on their TV shows, from Jan 1994, through its wider American release, as well as in episodes leading up to and after the Oscar nominations, and then an end-of-year best of list (in which both named it as their favourite film) and finally at the end of the decade, after Gene’s passing the previous year, when Roger named it his favourite film of the 1990s and talks briefly to Martin Scorsese about the film.
  • In the clips of Roger Ebert, we see him imagining a return to the same characters after a number of years have passed, and as if in answer to that is Life After Hoop Dreams (2015), a 40 minute follow-up directed by Steve James and Abbey Lustgarten (a Criterion producer). It is primarily filmed ten years after the original film, but then picks up with some interviews a further 10 years on from that (like a very abbreviated 7 Up). Obviously it can’t stand up to the original, but it’s interesting to see how the boys we saw in the first film have grown up, putting into perspective their childhood dreams and the great maturity they’ve gained through life experience and — to an extent — tragedy, as both have lost people close to them. What is clear that the love and dream of basketball hasn’t died in either, though we see that like the parents in the original documentary, it’s their children who are now more of the focus for each.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Steve James; Writers James and Frederick Marx; Cinematographer Peter Gilbert; Length 170 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 2 February 2020.

Jinn (2018)

Stories about the conflicts and difficulties of growing up within faith-based communities haven’t really been covered very strongly within American cinema, I don’t think — or at least not outside of engagement with Christianity. This West Coast-based film deals with a Black Muslim-American family and their daughter, who is struggling to reconcile this new identity with her life and her school-age peers. It didn’t entirely work for me, but there’s plenty to commend it all the same.


This film, although set in Los Angeles, is based on the writer-director’s experiences growing up as a young Muslim girl in Oakland (the setting for a number of recent excellent films touching on the Black experience in the United States). The performances from its actors are all uniformly excellent, not least Zoe Renee as the lead character, aspiring dance student Summer, whose mother Jade (Simone Missick) has converted to Islam. Summer finds herself drawn into her mother’s life and faith as a result, which provides the dramatic tensions for the rest of the film. It’s undermined a little by the at times didactic script, which creates a conflict between her and her mother, and has a lot of very pointed dramatic exchanges about being Black and Muslim in American society, about the nature of faith, and the struggles of the characters to find their way within the teachings of Islam (though as someone who has myself started participating in a religious community fairly late in life, I definitely felt some resonances). There’s a lot of judgmental behaviour, though the script ensures everyone gets their learning moment. Although I saw it at the London Film Festival with the producer and stars present to speak to the film afterwards, I think this film would work strongly on a streaming service (and given it never received a British cinematic release, I suppose that’s how most people will see it): it has likeable, interesting characters and develops its drama in a pleasing way, and I look forward to more stories from the director.

Jinn film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Nijla Mu’min; Cinematographer Bruce Francis Cole; Starring Zoe Renee, Simone Missick; Length 92 minutes.
Seen at Odeon Tottenham Court Road, London, Friday 12 October 2018.