Criterion Sunday 531: The Docks of New York (1928)

Sternberg’s last surviving silent film reaches a feverish peak that he would sustain over his next run of sound films starring Marlene Dietrich. It conjures the atmosphere of the titular location, beautifully using light and shadow, smoke and fog, and gliding camerawork. The actors are pretty great too, with George Bancroft giving his ship’s stoker character, Bill, a burly menace softened by his evident warmth of feeling towards Betty Compson’s suicidal prostitute Mae. There’s a generosity towards both characters, a lack of moral judgement, and the drama is in whether Bill will overcome his compulsion to fulfil the manly archetype he seems to hold of the sweaty stoker committed to his backbreaking labour, and whether Mae is willing to accept the possibility of a better life for herself. It’s all fairly compact and stays focused on the poetic evocation of this setting, doing a beautiful job of capturing what ultimately is a romance — and a hopeful one at that.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Josef von Sternberg; Writer Jules Furthman (from the story “The Dock Walloper” by John Monk Saunders); Cinematographer Harold Rosson; Starring George Bancroft, Betty Compson; Length 75 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), Wellington, Monday 7 March 2022 (and earlier on VHS in the university library, Wellington, July 2000).

Criterion Sunday 530: The Last Command (1928)

Emil Jannings won the very first Best Actor Academy Award for this performance (though actually, in this first Oscars ceremony, actors could be nominated for multiple roles, so technically it was not just for this film). Looking back in retrospect, it can be difficult to judge whether such awards were justified. After all, as is typical of the silent era, there’s a lot of gestural and facial work that seems to modern film viewers rather broad and a little lacking in subtlety. But if you get through those (which come partly from the wordless form, and are partly typical of just the style of acting prevalent at the time), you can see at the core there is indeed something rather fascinatingly complex about Jannings’ work here.

Himself a lauded German actor (as in Murnau films like The Last Laugh), Jannings here plays a grand Russian military figure, perhaps the most senior after the Tsar, fighting desperately against the Bolsheviks in the Russian Revolution of 1917. Finding sympathy here is no natural task — the Tsarist forces aren’t exactly on the side of the people, and as far as I understand from history, America was hardly as virulently anti-revolutionary and anti-Communist back then as it later became — but Jannings and director Sternberg achieve something similar to what Renoir was doing in France: evoking empathy for those relics of history like Jannings’ military man. Along the way he pulls out all kinds of camerawork that has a vibrancy and lightness to it, with movement and momentum matching those of the characters, which would take a while for cinema to regain in the sound era. It’s a film that looks forward to some of Sternberg’s masterpieces of the sound era with Marlene Dietrich, a blend of European and brash American sensibility that’s quite enticing. Plus there’s a young William Powell as a revolutionary turned film director in the framing story.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Josef von Sternberg; Writers John F. Goodrich and Herman J. Mankiewicz (from a story by Lajos Biró); Cinematographer Bert Glennon; Starring Emil Jannings, Evelyn Brent, William Powell; Length 88 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), Wellington, Monday 28 February 2022 (and earlier on VHS in the university library, Wellington, June 2000).

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).

Charlie’s Angels (2019)

Look, nobody’s claiming this is a masterpiece. Indeed, the superspy action genre is pretty threadbare as it goes, but it generally provides fun thrills, and those are here too. It got a critical kicking, and for some reason loads of people really disliked it, but maybe I’m just a big fan of Kristen Stewart? I don’t know, but I liked this. I watched it a second time on a plane, which seems like its more natural home, so maybe it’ll do better on TV.


Well, I genuinely don’t understand what people have so taken against this film for. It’s forgettable of course, following as it does a sort of by-numbers genre playbook involving wealthy guys, fabulously complicated technology with the proviso that [whatever it is or does] can be subverted for the gain of bad guys who want to destroy the world, fast cars, jokes about fast cars driven furiously, chase sequences, stuff being blown up, and espionage intrigue involving gadgets. So far, so boilerplate. The action sequences are also all perfectly competently put together; I’ve certainly seen worse fight choreography in Marvel movies. But you’ve also got Kristen Stewart flirting with everyone and being generally brilliant fun (and funny!), sporting a great haircut, and such an array of fantastic outfits that just for that you’ve redeemed your price of admission. The other two women in the team are largely unknown (to me anyway), but I liked them, especially the dorky (but obviously still glamorous) scientist type played by Ella Balinska, and I even suspended my disbelief during the fight sequences against heavily tattooed Eurotrash heavies. What the film has, though, is a sense of fun and a cutting sense of self-deprecation about what it’s doing — plus it has sub-plots which show a basic care for other people in need, and it tips its head (very lightly) towards a more inclusive, diverse feminism — but for all that it’s still really just about Kristen Stewart looking hot and being great, and I am always here for that. This film should have been a big hit.

Charlie's Angels film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Elizabeth Banks; Cinematographer Bill Pope; Starring Kristen Stewart, Naomi Scott, Ella Balinska, Elizabeth Banks, Sam Claflin, Noah Centineo, Patrick Stewart; Length 119 minutes.
Seen at Odeon Tottenham Court Road, London, Tuesday 3 December 2019 (and again in-flight from Singapore to London, Friday 13 March 2020).

Honey Boy (2019)

The Israeli director who made Bombay Beach and LoveTrue — both of which I admired and both of which lurk uncomfortably somewhere between documentary and staged drama — gets an ostensibly fiction feature with this one written by its star Shia LeBeouf. However, it turns out to occupy a similar territory adjacent to Shia’s own lived experience, and tells a fairly traumatic story in an engaging and visually inventive way.


Shia LaBeouf is one of those actors I’ve always wanted to like — perhaps because some of the media excoriation of him has been so very ad hominem for so long — but finally this is a performance of his I can really get behind. He plays a fictionalised (only lightly, I gather) version of his own father in a screenplay he wrote and it very much puts him in the same territory that Joaquin Phoenix has been going over for years. It gets big and ugly at times, proper emotional turmoil, but it’s all underpinned by a deep vein of tenderness. That’s helped along significantly by Noah Jupe, who plays the younger version of himself, and very much holds his own in what is essentially a two-hander between the two actors (there are also some scenes with an older version of Shia, played by Lucas Hedges, but the dynamic between father and son remains similar). Director Alma Har’el has made a number of fine films in the past decade, which at least ostensibly have been documentaries, although these have always had a strong sense of performance at play — as if finding the characters at the heart of real people — so perhaps this step into fiction (but fiction based on reality) is a natural progression for her. In any case, she makes films with verve, humour and warmth, and that’s always evident.

Honey Boy film posterCREDITS
Director Alma Har’el עלמה הראל; Writer Shia LeBeouf; Cinematographer Natasha Braier; Starring Shia LeBeouf, Noah Jupe, Lucas Hedges, FKA Twigs; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Friday 6 December 2019.

Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) (2020)

This was released back when cinemas were still open, but has since gone to streaming-on-demand services (where you can pay some money right now to rent it). It got a bit of flack from the usual quarters, but it’s a really solid, colourful and beautifully-orchestrated superhero action film, a genre I have been very wary in recent years of dipping back into (having gone to see far too many of the Marvel films, and having been burned on some of the DC ones) but this one somehow managed to renew my interest. The director’s 2018 debut film Dead Pigs had some success on festival circuits, certainly a distinctive if divisive work, and she gets a bigger budget and brighter palette here.


I swore off superhero movies some time ago, but I was drawn back in by the creative team. It’s surprising to me too the way that Margot Robbie has really come into her own in the last five years; there’s a scene in this film where a girl is in awe of all of Harley Quinn’s achievements (that’s the title character played by Robbie), but it feels like she’s talking directly to Robbie. No, it turns out that between director Cathy Yan, the producer/star, the fabulous ensemble and the tireless work of her production designers and set dressers and costumiers, that I low-key loved this film. It does its critiques of toxic masculinity (Ewan McGregor and Chris Messina, both on top form) without ponderousness, giving them vignettes of pure malevolence and just letting them linger without distracting soundtrack choices or cutaways: when things are bad, they are allowed the space to be bad. But then there’s the fun, colourful, hyper, truly comic book fizz of the rest of the film, especially the kinetic fight sequences which make most of the Marvel ones (in fact, most of the fights in most other comic book films) feel badly staged. The ensemble camaraderie is real, and Winstead is a particular stand-out, albeit perhaps just by virtue of sort of playing against the cartoonish colourfulness of everyone else, but this feels like effortless fun (and I imagine it was anything other than effortless to create).

Birds of Prey film posterCREDITS
Director Cathy Yan 閻羽茜; Writer Christina Hodson (based on characters from DC Comics); Cinematographer Matthew Libatique; Starring Margot Robbie, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Ella Jay Basco, Rosie Perez, Chris Messina, Ewan McGregor; Length 109 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Victoria, London, Tuesday 11 February 2020.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019)

Another film which comes on the heels of the same director’s excellent work on The Diary of a Teenage Girl and Can You Ever Forgive Me? and plunges her back into another gently middlebrow and lightly period piece about the anxieties of artists. I found it likeable, and it’s well worth checking out.


There’s something almost aggressively middlebrow about this film, indeed about a number of the season’s films, and perhaps I only say that because it fits into a certain kind of Oscar-ready category, but I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing here. It’s about a television personality (one I was not at all familiar with, as my upbringing did not feature Mr Rogers), and the film at times has a deeply televisual feel in the way it’s constructed — I don’t know that I can explain it, just that something about the way the shots were constructed, the musical cues, the scene transitions (both the editing and the interstitial model toy sets) felt almost uncannily like this film was intended to be a Very Special extended episode of Mr Rogers’ Neighborhood (though as mentioned above, I obviously don’t know the original show except as it’s shown within this film). But rather than the TV personality, the film’s story focuses instead on Matthew Rhys’s journalist, an angry resentful man who’s trying to find an angle on Tom Hank’s Fred Rogers; the film and Hanks’s performance almost seem to play along, and he has these ways of staring intensely that suggest some deep buried secret is going to come out — certainly the legacy of 70s light entertainers on British TV led me to worry where this might lead. But no, in fact, Rogers seems like a genuinely decent guy, who cares deeply about the way that children are spoken to, and I think that all comes across really effectively in the film. It would also make an interesting double-bill with A Hidden Life (which was out in UK cinemas the week beforehand, hence was on my mind), because I think both are films deeply imbued with a very Christian faith, though in rather more subtle ways here, expressed primarily by silence (there’s one particularly striking scene in a diner) and by a sense of ritual.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood film posterCREDITS
Director Marielle Heller; Writers Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster (based on the article “Can You Say… Hero?” by Tom Junod); Cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes; Starring Tom Hanks, Matthew Rhys, Chris Cooper; Length 109 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Friday 31 January 2020.

The Guilt Trip (2012)

Another day of Amazon Prime films, and what do you know, today is the first day of the Jewish holiday of Passover, so pesach sameach to those celebrating it, albeit in rather unusual circumstances this year, which somewhat torpedo the tradition of eating a meal together. Anyway, to celebrate this occasion, I’ve selected a movie with Jewish themes… broadly — look, it’s a comedy and it stars Barbra Streisand and Seth Rogen, so I think that’s probably qualification enough.


I’m not Jewish, and perhaps Barbra Streisand’s over-fussy mother might be grating if I were, but the family dynamic is still pretty familiar all the same. Seth Rogen plays a scientist and entrepreneur who’s trying to sell his ecologically-friendly cleaning product, and he takes his mother with him on his sales trip in order to reunite her with her college sweetheart. It’s a slender excuse really to get these two people in close confines with each other, and the road movie is a venerable format for two disparate characters to learn about each other, open up emotionally, and — in theory — grow. All that happens of course, and it skirts closely at times to being treacly, but there’s something in both Rogen (whom I’ve always found to be an engaging screen presence, though apparently he has his detractors) and Streisand which keeps it pretty level. I found this film likeable.

The Guilt Trip film posterCREDITS
Director Anne Fletcher; Writer Dan Fogelman; Cinematographer Oliver Stapleton; Starring Seth Rogen, Barbra Streisand, Adam Scott; Length 95 minutes.
Seen at home (Amazon streaming), London, Wednesday 7 August 2019.

Uncle Drew (2018)

In my week of films available on Amazon (or which I watched on Amazon anyway), there will probably be some fairly strange choices, because I’ve already featured a lot of the stuff I’ve seen there during other themed weeks. This means we’re left with stuff I watched that I haven’t yet written up, and as I haven’t done a week on basketball movies yet, have Uncle Drew, which is exactly the kind of thing you think you’ll hate — and look, I don’t know you, maybe you will — but maybe also it might be quite enjoyable for all that. It’s hardly a taxing film in any case.


A genuinely very odd film which is also, oddly, quite likeable I think. It’s a basketball story (so already that means I have no idea what’s going on or what half the jokes are) based on a series of commercials (that I obviously haven’t seen), but developed into a classic narrative of the underdog trying to win the big competition. In this case, it focuses on a bunch of elderly former basketball players trying to win a street basketball tournament in which Nick Kroll is the bad guy (because of course he is; does he ever play nice guys?), with the avuncular title character (Kyrie Irving) along the way teaching the “young bloods” his elderly team are up against, how to play the game properly. The old guys are all (so I gather) well-known basketball players, albeit in a lot of ageing make-up and prosthetics, so the athleticism somewhat strains credulity, but it remains broadly fun and pleasing for most of its running time, with the lead actor (Lil Rel Howery) firmly in the Kevin Hart mould, and a fairly underwritten role for Tiffany Haddish to just do her thing for a bit, which is always fun. Now that I’ve seen this and High Flying Bird (a Netflix film), though, I reckon I must be an expert at the game.

Uncle Drew film posterCREDITS
Director Charles Stone III; Writer Jay Longino; Cinematographer Karsten Gopinath [as “Crash”]; Starring Lil Rel Howery, Kyrie Irving, Nick Kroll; Length 103 minutes.
Seen at home (Amazon streaming), London, Saturday 16 February 2019.

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).