Criterion Sunday 555: Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

Watching this is very much an exercise in looking for the glimmers of hope and possibility in a story about people whose lives (all of them, really) have been derailed or sidelined, and who have turned to anger and sarcasm to get them through their lives (well those as well as drinking, lashing out, the usual kinds of things). It’s a film set in East London, not the trendy cool bit, but the Essex bit, out in Dagenham and Barking and beyond, stuck in a place where there doesn’t seem to be much of a way out. There’s an emaciated horse, the hope of five pounds stashed away to buy a few cans of super strength cider, dancing in parking lots with your friends, a sunny day away to a reservoir. Still, Andrea Arnold keeps it all moving along, just on the right side of hopelessness as our teenage protagonist Mia (Katie Jarvis) struggles to find some way to connect; Michael Fassbender as her mum’s boyfriend Conor seems to offer some hope for their family to come together, but then it turns out he’s just another rotten one, perhaps the worst, but yet somehow catalyses some feeling of change for Mia. You don’t want to watch it at times, but it hurtles forward with the brash energy of youth.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Alexander Mackendrick; Writers Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman (based on Lehman’s novelette Tell Me About It Tomorrow! in Cosmopolitan); Cinematographer James Wong Howe 黃宗霑; Starring Tony Curtis, Burt Lancaster, Susan Harrison; Length 96 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 23 July 2022 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, June 2000).

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 505: Make Way for Tomorrow (1937)

I guess the Tokyo Story comparisons are obvious — it clearly is an inspiration on that film (Ozu loved his American melodramas, as is clear enough from film posters that show up in his early films) — although stylistically it’s rather different of course, but it hits just as hard in many ways. There’s a lightly comedic way it has of setting up its characters and their situations, and then when the families get to fussing and arguing, it could be straight out of 50s Sirk or 70s Fassbinder in the bitter undercurrents, the glances shared between the elderly mother’s son and daughter-in-law, the wearied sighs and desperate attempts to shift the burden of care amongst one another. But actually it’s the kindness that strangers and even sometimes family show one another that makes it most difficult to take, because nobody here is trying to be horrible or difficult, and the way the elderly couple at the film’s centre are forced apart is almost inevitable once it begins. They do get one last chance to revisit their youth and their love, but by the time the train trip beckons, there’s an overwhelming sorrow that puts it firmly among even the Criterion releases that precede it (films like Germany Year Zero and Hunger). Somehow even the sentimentality and humour makes it even more bleakly relatable, because tomorrow is always coming, and at an ever faster pace.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Leo McCarey; Writer Viña Delmar (based on the play by Helen Leary and Noah Leary, itself based on the novel The Years Are So Long by Josephine Lawrence); Cinematographer William C. Mellor; Starring Beulah Bondi, Victor Moore, Thomas Mitchell, Fay Bainter; Length 92 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 6 February 2022.

Summer of Soul (…or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) (2021)

In my round-up of favourite films of the year I’ve not yet posted reviews of, I touched on Todd Haynes’s The Velvet Underground yesterday, but probably the best music documentary of the year — also dealing with music in NYC in the late-60s — was this one made by Questlove (or ?uestlove if you will), the drummer for The Roots and multi-hyphenate artist and creator. It mostly presents (grainy, video-shot) footage of a series of concerts from 1969 in Harlem, following the classic documentary formula of ‘never before seen… until now!’ Thankfully the footage has enough quality to capture the vibrant performances but also the incredible level of music, and is interspersed with interviews with those surviving participants and organisers.


This documentary clearly needs a deluxe edition box set to include all the concert footage, but what it does is still pretty great. It takes the footage unearthed of this 1969 series of the Harlem Cultural Festival, a themed summer of gigs with gospel shows, jazz shows, soul, funk and R&B, from slick Motown pop to the fuzzed-out psychedelia of Sly & the Family Stone, straight up gospel from Mahalia Jackson and the Staples Singers, blues, African rhythms, Afro-Cuban and Puerto Rican sounds, Hugh Masekela on the trumpet, and finishes up with the peerless Nina Simone, all orchestrated to tell a story of a community and a people in a state of change. It links its story to recent history and civil rights of course, but also to wider cultural currents in fashion and hairstyle, revolution and self-actualisation, the celebration of African and Afro-Latinx heritage, and the powerful role of Christ and the church within all of these struggles, and does so in an accessible, glorious way using as the basis the colourful footage of the concerts themselves and interviews with surviving participants and audience members. It’s all pretty great, even when ambushed by Lin-Manuel Miranda at one point, and it needs that deluxe edition, or maybe a series of further films. It deserves it own cultural festival just to celebrate everything in here.

Summer of Soul (...or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) (2021)CREDITS
Director Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson; Cinematographer Shawn Peters; Length 117 minutes.
Seen at Light House, Wellington, Saturday 11 September 2021.

West Side Story (2021)

The big budget Hollywood musical seems to be back in this year. Maybe the film financiers thought the world was due a bit of levity, but as far as I can tell from the box office stats, that’s not necessarily what’s been shifting the tickets. That said, I’m not a Hollywood financial analyst, nor do I care to be. We’ve already had one big bright spectacular set in New York City during the summer, which was In the Heights, and now here’s another, albeit with a slightly longer stage pedigree. Neither is perfect, but both are entirely competent at what they do, and both showcase a bright and wide talent pool drawn from Latinx musical performers (and Ansel Elgort, who is none of these things). Actually one of the standouts here is Mike Faist as Riff, a character who’s never really been the most interesting, but against the slightly damp central pairing, he and David Alvarez as Bernardo — the rival gang leaders — really do shine out.


This is a long film but it’s one that’s not short of high production values or visual inventiveness, as you’d expect from Spielberg and his team. It opens with some gliding and vertiginous camera movements around what feels like a bombsite but instead turns out to be a slum clearance to make way for the Lincoln Center, as the central groups of young men are introduced, finger-clicking their way down the street in classic style. They look foolishly young, but that’s the point of course: they are kids, somewhere on the cusp between playground fights and becoming proper hoodlums. So the baby face of Ansel Elgort isn’t really the problem, not even the absurd idea that he’s spent any time in prison. After all, this is a musical and there’s a certain expectation of stylisation and non-naturalism. A bigger problem is that he just isn’t very good, either as a singer or as an actor; he has a certain presence I suppose (he’s very tall), but against a cast of largely musical theatre kids, the lack of experience really shows. Newcomer Rachel Zegler as Maria is much better, but it’s the supporting characters like Mike Faist’s Riff, David Alvarez’s Bernardo and Ariana DeBose’s Anita who really steal the limelight, not least in the big showstopper “America”, which remains the highlight of this film as of any production. Just that strength and depth of minor roles is enough to carry the film, along with the polished set design and — another nice touch — the use of extended stretches of (untranslated) Spanish for the Puerto Rican characters. It’s a different beast from the 1961 film adaptation, and it makes some excellent changes too, but that’s also such an iconic juggernaut of 20th century American culture that maybe nothing could ever be fully satisfying. Still, this does a great job all the same.

West Side Story (2021) posterCREDITS
Director Steven Spielberg; Writer Tony Kushner (based on the musical by Jerome Robbins, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents); Cinematographer Janusz Kamiński; Starring Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler, Ariana DeBose, David Alvarez, Mike Faist, Rita Moreno; Length 156 minutes.
Seen at Penthouse, Wellington, Sunday 19 December 2021.

The Velvet Underground (2021)

Among my favourite films of the year is this music documentary contender, which is almost teasingly pitched between a conventional talking head sort of style (John Cale still has plenty of style to spare in his interviews) and something a bit more experimental, in keeping with much of the direction of the music. There are split-screen effects, an interesting narrative structure and plenty of messing around at the edges of this film. Both informative even for those fairly au fait with the Velvets’ music, but also a good primer.


If there’s something I can say about Todd Haynes it’s that he’s not likely to do something that has no visual interest, even if he’s making what is ostensibly a fairly down-the-line documentary. Indeed, one does get the standard tropes — archival footage, talking heads (though not, let’s be clear, the band Talking Heads), and a largely chronological order. But nothing’s is quite so straightforward, so we often get these things intertwined or superimposed. Artfully shot interviews match the Warhol screen test footage of each of the band members, audio snippets, contextualisation from other artists, and of course a densely rich soundtrack all add up to a pretty great portrait of not just the band but also the culture ferment that produced them — and Cale, being the most alive and most eloquent of the band, leads a lot of that early material (and seems like one of the most interesting characters, both personally and musically, in much of this artistic scene anyway). I was surprised to discover that La Monte Young is still around, as an aside, but it’s nice to see Moe Tucker and hear from other collaborators of them, as well as those strongly influenced by their sound as well (of which there is hardly any shortage).

The Velvet Underground (2021)CREDITS
Director Todd Haynes; Cinematographer Edward Lachman; Length 110 minutes.
Seen at home (Apple TV+ streaming), Wellington, Saturday 30 October 2021.

NZIFF 2021: Ailey (2021)

I’ve seen a range of different documentaries at Whānau Mārama – New Zealand International Film Festival, and if this one fits into the rather more didactic end (which makes sense as a film best intended for public television), it’s no less interesting for that. Any documentary is going to succeed on the interest generated by its subject, and the Black American dance pioneer Alvin Ailey certainly is one such figure.


Not every film I go to see is moving or memorable because of its formal sophistication. This is a fairly straightforward documentary in that respect, blending people talking with archival footage, but the story it tells remains fascinating, being that of African-American dancer and choreographer Alvin Ailey, who founded his own school of dance (which is still going as we see them rehearse a piece for its 60th anniversary) and toured the world. Part of what I like, though, especially watching the old footage — part of what moves me — is just the form: there is nothing like dance and ballet that seems quite as much like magic to me. How the dancers can put their bodies into the form that they do for such a long time, so gracefully and seemingly without effort (though clearly it is a punishing endeavour), it’s remarkable when it’s done well and clearly here it’s done very well. So just to learn about Ailey’s life and work is moving enough, just to see extended footage of him and his company at work, and makes the film (which seems to have been made for TV and would fit that format perfectly well) a worthwhile one for anyone keen to learn about 20th century art.

Ailey (2021) posterCREDITS
Director Jamila Wignot; Cinematographer Naiti Gámez; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at Penthouse, Wellington, Saturday 13 November 2021.

NZIFF 2021: Te llevo conmigo (I Carry You with Me, 2020)

I’ve reviewed documentaries of every type seen so far during Whānau Mārama – New Zealand International Film Festival, but this one breaks the mould a little bit by incorporating fictional restaged elements. It’s all very cannily done by a seasoned documentarian, but it’s a beautiful film that deserves a wider audience.


This film starts out with the feel of a documentary about a chef in NYC but then slips between various time periods in the childhood and early-20s of the same man growing up in small town Mexico. The struggles he has with same-sex attraction and holding down a relationship under the judgemental eyes of his family and those in the community around him have a certain familiarity, but are handled very beautifully here. Part of that is from the way the film surprisingly blends fictional narrative and documentary, becoming evident later in the film, and which deepens the richness of the 80s and 90s-set sections. It all makes sense as a move on the part of a long-time documentary filmmaker, and it certainly makes me intrigued to see more of what she produces, as this film has a very polished, gracious and beautifully shot sense of atmospherics with a slight touch of Malick at times.

Te llevo conmigo (I Carry You with Me, 2020)CREDITS
Director Heidi Ewing; Writers Ewing and Alan Page Arriaga; Cinematographer Juan Pablo Ramírez; Starring Armando Espitia, Christian Vázquez; Length 111 minutes.
Seen at Light House, Petone, Monday 8 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 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.