Criterion Sunday 326: Metropolitan (1990)

This film feels like the New Wave if that movement were about spawning the Noah Baumbachs and Wes Andersons who would come to define the genre of ‘brittle New York-set comedies of manners skewering the affectations of the urban haute bourgeoisie’ (well, that’s what they call themselves in Metropolitan, “uhbs” for short). Then again, I suppose this kind of confected class paradigm has always been part of the NYC milieu, but Whit Stillman is particularly good at capturing the absurdity without also making me hate the characters — although I did certainly dislike most of them. That self-important sense of a man who lectures a more educated woman about Jane Austen before at length revealing grandiosely that he doesn’t like to read novels, only literary criticism; or the exceedingly designer-clad woman who declares to all that she despises snobbery; or the earnest invocation of French socialists at a tuxedo-clad debutants party. Part of the film’s affectation is to present these quaint society throwbacks of the Upper East Side (apologies if I’m getting the geography a bit wrong, as I’m not from NYC) in a slightly arch framework, with the title cards and graphics all suggesting a world-preserved-in-aspic quality, a sort of faux Gilded Era of society wits with a youthful sense of their own mortality and impending worthlessness (only briefly punctured when they meet an older version of themselves who doesn’t quite align with their self-mythologising). The key is, though, it’s well-written, which carries the film’s at times amateurish feeling — though I do genuinely mean that in a generous way, in the sense of someone who really loves what they’re depicting but perhaps hasn’t quite yet acquired the polished skill that Whitman would come to possess.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There are a couple of short clips presenting multiple takes of alternative casting, including the actor who plays the hated Rick as the central character Nick, and Troma director Lloyd Kaufman as a music producer.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Whit Stillman; Cinematographer John Thomas; Starring Edward Clements, Carolyn Farina, Chris Eigeman, Taylor Nichols; Length 98 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Thursday 18 June 2020.

Skate Kitchen (2018)

Crystal Moselle is a New York filmmaker whose debut was a few years ago, so quite some time after the heyday of no-budget filmmaking in the 2000s, though her films have a similar observational, improvised quality (moving more into a documentary feeling). Certainly many of the filmmakers of that era and the stories they tell can be very white and middle-class, so it’s been good to see a new generation telling more diverse stories. Moselle’s first film was The Wolfpack (2015), a documentary which blurred the lines between real life and reenactments of movies, and one that was compelling although I didn’t love it. However, her first fiction feature is one I do unreservedly love, being a fictional narrative but which uses real people in a very unforced depiction of their lives, and which could probably be programmed together with the same year’s Minding the Gap. Moselle has a TV series now out on HBO called Betty which follows some of the same characters, and I’m certainly interested in tracking that down.


One of the things I hate in art/literature/journalism is when someone seizes on [thing the young people do now that we didn’t used to do] and makes it into some kind of big metaphor about how all of society is in decline and we should all just give up now, because how can we even function as humans anymore when things have come to this. I’ve seen a lot of that kind of hand-wringing about social media, and it’s tiresome. Anyway, I’m not even sure that little mini-rant is entirely justified, but yeah there are kids on their phones in this film (we only really see them on Instagram), and it’s just… not a big problem? Like, it’s how they meet up, and it’s fine and there’s no Weighty Statement being made.

I like the way this film approaches its story in an almost documentary-like way. Indeed, it feels like more of a documentary than a “real” one such as All This Panic (also about New York City girls), not to mention this director’s own first film, which has an archness to its choice of documentary subjects. The central drama here, such as it is, comes out as a sort of background detail, which is just as well because it’s pretty rote (overdemanding mother at home, friendship group interrelationships being stretched to breaking point by a boy). Instead what we get are lots of scenes of kids just hanging out, having a good time, sometimes getting into tussles, but it’s cool, they’re just down, doing their skating thing.

It’s really quite delightful. I love its sense of space, of the city as a character here, and the almost thrown-off haphazard way it takes in scenes. Also, the actors — who clearly are real skaters — have an unforced quality to them, and positively glow in the NYC light.

CREDITS
Director Crystal Moselle; Writers Aslıhan Ünaldı, Moselle and Jennifer Silverman; Cinematographer Shabier Kirchner; Starring Rachelle Vinberg, Dede Lovelace, Jaden Smith; Length 105 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Soho, London, Friday 28 September 2018.

Two Crime Thrillers by the Safdie Brothers: Good Time (2017) and Uncut Gems (2019)

Neither of these films is ‘mumblecore’ or even independent, but the Safdie brothers come from that kind of no-budget background; their first film The Pleasure of Being Robbed (2009, directed by Josh, though Benny was involved in editing) has a very loose narrative centered on a woman who’s a kleptomaniac (I’ve seen it, and liked it, but I barely managed to write more than a sentence). It’s only with their last couple of features that they’ve really broken through, and perhaps that’s the involvement of bankable screen names, but if so their style is still very much firmly planted in the grainy textures of their 16mm roots, harking back to a certain kind of gritty 70s NYC-based crime thriller. In both films, there’s a propulsive energy that rarely seems to let up, as characters make bad decision upon bad decision, compounding their situation ever more precariously as the films continue. These are thrillers, but grounded in the characters and their struggles.

Continue reading “Two Crime Thrillers by the Safdie Brothers: Good Time (2017) and Uncut Gems (2019)”

The Assistant (2019)

The biggest release of the past week in the UK has been this very minimal office drama, almost a chamber piece (it rarely moves outside of the office setting, aside from brief bookends of the darkened city streets), which engages with some of the dramas within the film industry in a frank way, while also making a strong point about casual misogyny ingrained in office culture, yet barely ever raising its voice, and a lot of that is down to Julia Garner’s performance (who until now has had more work on TV, as well as memorable supporting turns, such as in 2015’s Grandma).


This film is not quite what you expect when you read the précis, but if anything it’s more powerful for what it withholds as for what it shows — specifically, you barely ever actually see the Weinstein-like boss that our titular character works for. He is glimpsed, heard on the phone, read in subtly negging e-mails, and generally understood by everyone present to be the person being talked about when any talking happens about “him”. Of course it happens to be set in the world of film (and this one sure does have a lot of producers attached), but the non-specificity means it could be set in any office. It’s only as the film goes on that you start to pick up that he’s a film producer: the attractive women who always seem to be coming into the office; the tasteful poster art in the background; references to filming that become more pronounced as the story goes on, though the most we ever see of the actual art is a home-taped audition one of the women drops off (a woman who gets belittling comments once she’s gone, but, of course, she’s a good actor it turns out, not that anyone seems to care). What is effective (and affecting) is the way that it’s just the little microaggressions that build up, dismissive behaviour in the elevator, thrown bits of paper in the office, the expectation that she (of the three assistants, the other two are young men) will deal with “his” kids when they’re brought in, or will go fetch the food. As such, it requires a lot of discipline from Julia Garner as the lead actor — it’s very much her on whom the whole movie depends — and she does wonderfully well, and even the biggest setpiece (her confrontation with Matthew Macfadyen’s HR director) scarcely draws much more than a wounded look, as her defences are subtly but decisively battered down over a potential complaint she wants to make. This is in some ways a masterclass that shows how much you can achieve within a tight budget, evoking so much in its (long-)day-in-the-life portrait of this one woman.

The Assistant film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Kitty Green; Cinematographer Michael Latham; Starring Julia Garner, Matthew Macfadyen; Length 85 minutes.
Seen at home (Curzon Home Cinema streaming), London, Wednesday 6 May 2020.

Films by Khalik Allah

Khalik Allah has built up a distinct style over a number of short films and now a couple of feature films — lyrical imagery of people at the bottom of the power structure, previously the down and out denizens of NYC street corners (of his early shorts and first feature), as well as the inhabitants of Jamaica in his most recent feature Black Mother and an earlier short. His filmmaking seems to have predated his photography, but having taken up the latter form, it has become integral to his vision as a filmmaker, it appears. Sound and image, in particular, are usually rendered separately in his films, often working together but sometimes juxtaposed to make points that photography itself cannot always do so successfully. His art feels particularly masculine, though even in the gritty urban portraits there’s a softness to his approach, an empathy so often lacking in such environments. He has also notably contributed to Beyoncé’s film Lemonade as a cinematographer. A number of his short films are available on YouTube, which is where I watched many of them and hence I’m fitting this post into my seen-on-YouTube themed week.

Continue reading “Films by Khalik Allah”

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.

On the Town (1949)

Moving back through time is perhaps the best way to get a film that features some rather more successful romancing. After all, in my week nominally dedicated to love and marriage, most of my examples have been fairly undemonstrative of either of those. This 1949 musical features three sailors on furlough in the big city, so obviously there have to be some dames — though of course the structure means that they’ll all part by the end of the film.


There is, undeniably, a delight to so much of this musical. It sees Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra and one other guy who’s not really very well known (Jules Munshin) alight for 24 hours in New York City. We’re supposed to believe that none of them have ever visited before, and truly they do play up to their naivete which may strain credulity given they’re in the Navy, but sort of fits with the jovial tone of the whole film. The three of them happen across three far more worldly women, who following the comic reversals of the film are the ones whose minds are only on one thing, and it’s not sightseeing — indeed, Sinatra being the nerdy stats-obsessed one becomes one of the better running jokes. Not all the tunes are particularly memorable — although Hildy (Betty Garrett) is probably the most distinctive character, the woman cab driver who’s desperate to bed Sinatra’s character, their duet together is fairly dull — but there are plenty that do make a splash, and Ann Miller’s anthropology student Claire winking broadly at the camera for the double entendres is a real highlight (as is her dress). The costume game, in general, is on top form, with colour coordinated outfits to offset the blandness of the sailor uniforms.

This screening was introduced by Kelly’s widow, who trailed that they had difficulty getting it made into a musical because the studio head apparently feared the threat of a diverse cast given its metropolitan setting and the sequences which are filmed on location, which as an introduction was a bit of a misdirect because this film hardly celebrates diversity. Aside from the fact that the only women of colour are seen in nightclub choruses who swiftly depart stage left each time they’re seen, there’s also (to modern eyes perhaps) a woefully tone-deaf appropriation of cultural difference in the anthropology museum number. Whereas the sequence introducing Vera-Ellen’s Ivy suggests the impossibility of cultural expectations of femininity, the anthropology museum sequence is just using native dress to make cheap jokes that you feel the ensemble should really be above. And the macho bullying of the unfortunate Lucy is only passingly redeemed by Gabe’s civility to her by the end of the evening.

Still, on the whole this is a lively and entertaining musical with all the style you’d expect of a big Technicolor Hollywood production.

On the Town film posterCREDITS
Directors Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen; Writers Adolph Green and Betty Comden (based on the stage musical by Green, Comden and Leonard Bernstein, itself based on the ballet Fancy Free by Jerome Robbins); Cinematographer Harold Rosson; Starring Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Betty Garrett, Ann Miller, Jules Munshin, Vera-Ellen; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Saturday 26 October 2019.

Nights and Weekends (2008)

Greta Gerwig came out of the 2000s (and the so-called “Mumblecore” era) as something of an ‘It’ girl, at least for a moment, and parlayed that into both mainstream acting success and now as a director with her two most recent films, Lady Bird (2017) and Little Women (2019). However, she did have a co-directing credit on one of her collaborations with Joe Swanberg in that initial period, and there’s a lot that’s fascinating about the collaboration, even if it hardly takes my weddings and romance-themed week on the blog in very much happier directions.


Joe Swanberg has made a huge number of films, many of which (like Hannah Takes the Stairs (2007), also starring Gerwig, or 2011’s Art History with Josephine Decker) have a sort of improvised, raw feel to them — perhaps the result of the budgets or the shooting style, but it’s a kind of style I feel an affinity towards, because it seems to be coming from a different direction from most mainstream cinema. Still, he’s in the business of telling stories, and it’s key here that his co-star Greta Gerwig is credited as co-director and co-writer, because this feels as much about her (probably more so, honestly) than it does about his character. Both bare themselves literally (hardly unusual for Swanberg, who often delves into on-screen sexuality, whether as director or as performer), but there’s something intense about the way Gerwig presents on screen that helps you move through her emotions, far more than Swanberg, who as an actor doesn’t seem quite as upfront. That said, they both have some great scenes together that are always just held that moment (or minute, or eternity) longer than you expect, meaning they move beyond the usual relationship moments to present something more ambiguous and messy and complex. I don’t love it all, but there’s a core of something that I like very much.

Nights and Weekends film posterCREDITS
Directors/Writers Joe Swanberg and Greta Gerwig; Cinematographers Matthias Grunsky and Benjamin Kasulke; Starring Greta Gerwig, Joe Swanberg; Length 80 minutes.
Seen at home (Le Cinema Club streaming), London, Tuesday 18 February 2020.

Criterion Sunday 291: Heaven Can Wait (1943)

Ernest Lubitsch made some classic films, and there are plenty of moments of elegantly satirical comedy in this one too, starting with Don Ameche’s elderly philanderer Henry Van Cleve showing up to an appointment in Hades, but finding a bit of resistance from the gatekeeper there. Thereupon he recounts his story, which largely revolves around his likeable old codger of a grandfather (Charles Coburn) along with his stuck-up parents and cousin. Gene Tierney as his love interest Martha shows up altogether too late, and seems rather poorly used by both Henry and the director (especially as she ages during the film). The film rather coyly suggests Henry’s infidelity, but also lets him off the hook for it, hinting at a clear double-standard at play, which is all played for delightful laughs, even if it hasn’t exactly aged brilliantly. Still, it all looks fantastic, shot in lush Technicolor, and played with spirit by the supporting cast (including an ever amiable Eugene Pallette, playing pretty much the same character as in The Lady Eve).

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There’s a half-hour 1982 TV episode dealing with writer Samson Raphaelson’s career, including some interviews with him, which touch on this film amongst others he worked with Lubitsch on.
  • We also get a few minutes’ worth of snippets of home recordings featuring Lubitsch playing the piano, accompanied by some personal photos, introduced by his daughter (I think).

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Ernest Lubitsch; Writer Samson Raphaelson (based on the play Születésnap “Birthday” by Leslie Bush-Fekete); Cinematographer Edward Cronjager; Starring Don Ameche, Gene Tierney, Charles Coburn, Eugene Pallette; Length 112 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Wednesday 29 January 2020.

Blank City (2010)

As part of the my ‘documentaries about women image makers’ themed week, this documentary isn’t exclusively about that subject, but covers lo-fi no-wave indie filmmaking in New York from the late-1970s onwards, many of whose key creators were women.


An interesting enough documentary that marshals a number of clips, as well as rounding up interviews with the key participants in the so-called “no wave” film/musical movement in NYC in the late-70s and early-80s, as it morphs into an anarchic and nihilist cinema of transgression. It’s interesting to see how the early filmmakers were responding to the city they lived in, with all its chronic underinvestment, poverty, drugs and the resulting bohemian artistic scene. They were all largely based in the downtown area near the Bowery, where clubs like CBGB’s could be found, just after the first breaking of punk music and into the post-punk scene. Some of them went on to mainstream success, while others moved far more into the art world, with varying degrees of success. The film is also keen to stress the central role that women played, not just as stars but as creative participants and directors of films within the movement, and we hear quite a bit from them also, like Vivienne Dick, Sara Driver, Beth B, Susan Seidelman and others. In all, it’s an interesting introduction to a fecund era of artistic creation, which could be every bit as obnoxious and off-putting as it could be cool and inspiring.

Blank City film posterCREDITS
Director Celine Danhier; Cinematographers Ryo Murakami 村上涼 and Peter Szollosi; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 27 December 2018.