In the Heights (2021)

Turns out this adaptation of a stage musical (one written by Lin-Manuel Miranda from before he did Hamilton, and which I saw a production of in London) turned out not to be the big success it expected to be, and that’s a shame because there’s a lot that’s good and worth celebrating about it. I can’t comment on the lack of Afro-Latinx representation but just at a filmic level, it’s fun and watchable and everyone is giving it their all (as any musical should).


One of the best things about this big Summer blockbuster (or at least I hope it is) may be that the only community I can consider myself a part of in this film is here unquestionably the bad guys — a fairly well-meaning gentrifying ‘organic laundry’ operator, and (surely the worst of all) an estate agent. But that’s fine because we don’t always need to see ourselves in characters on-screen — though it’s difficult not to identify with some of the struggles these kids go through — but if others hear their voices and see themselves represented in this melange of Latinx identities, then I get the sense that this is librettist Lin-Manuel Miranda’s (and writer Quiara Alegría Hudes’s) point. And while it at times alludes to some negative stories (being racially profiled at Stanford is a key emotional beat for one of the lead characters; there’s a deadbeat dad, too), it instead embraces all the positivity and possibility of change in a brightly-coloured and carefully choreographed world of bodegas and heat that has some superficial similarities to, say, Do the Right Thing while imparting a specifically Bronx (rather than Brooklyn) vibe. Residents of the area will be best placed to say whether it speaks to them, and even though the ending feels a bit rushed and perfunctory (a magically inspiring fashion show of sorts leading to life changes), it’s not really about where it goes than how it gets there and even if Miranda’s shtick is getting a bit wearying, there’s enough going for this that I let myself go and went with it for two hours.

In the Heights (2021)CREDITS
Director Jon M. Chu; Writers Quiara Alegría Hudes (based on the stage musical by Hudes and Lin-Manuel Miranda); Cinematographer Alice Brooks; Starring Anthony Ramos, Melissa Barrera, Leslie Grace, Corey Hawkins, Jimmy Smits, Lin-Manuel Miranda; Length 143 minutes.
Seen at the Penthouse, Wellington, Friday 11 June 2021.

Criterion Sunday 428: Blast of Silence (1961)

A pretty taut and bleak film noir which distils a lot of the generic conventions down to the kind of format in which they’d be parodied for generations to come: the hard-boiled voiceover, the heavy sense of existential angst, the bleak futility of all actions, the duplicity of men (and women), all exemplified by a heavy-set tough guy. In this film, the tough guy is played by the director and this is all firmly in the finest low-budget moulds, with plenty of location shooting in New York City, including a climactic pursuit filmed during a hurricane, which certainly helps with the sense of overcast threat. The whole film has a great sense of place, and a deft way with moving its hero through the plot in such a way as to maintain momentum even as we know, right from the start, that he is surely and certainly doomed.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Allen Baron; Cinematographer Merrill Brody; Starring Allen Baron, Molly McCarthy; Length 77 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Saturday 15 May 2021.

Criterion Sunday 401: Night on Earth (1991)

Jim Jarmusch wasn’t unfamiliar with making portmanteau movies (this one or Coffee and Cigarettes), and elsewhere at the very least has divided his films into distinct chapters, as he did in Stranger Than Paradise (one of which was initially released as a short film before he had funding for the rest of the feature). So it’s not unusual for him that here he covers people driving taxis in five different cities, two in the US (LA and NYC) as well as Paris, Rome and Helsinki.

It’s interesting to see people online responding quite differently to each of these five segments. The Roman section is probably the most divisive, but then again it largely depends how you feel about Roberto Benigni as a screen presence. He riffs away on various themes, mostly of the illicitly sexual variety, while driving a priest across Rome, and so the humour is largely broad and upfront. It’s not what Jarmusch is perhaps best known for, and it’s certainly not my favourite kind of humour, so it largely passes me by. NYC is also pretty broad in its humour, but it’s fun to see Giancarlo Esposito and Rosie Perez play off each other, so soon after Do the Right Thing, and they attack it with plenty of energy. Paris, meanwhile, uses one of Jarmusch’s favourite actors, Isaach de Bankolé, and I do always love just watching his face and the way he channels emotions — of course the taxi setup means that watching faces becomes much easier for us as an audience as everyone is facing forward and largely unmoving. That said, the blindness metaphor into which Béatrice Dalle is cast is a little heavy handed.

This leaves the first and last segments, probably my own favourites, because of the way they use the limited space (there is very little that takes place outside the taxi journeys), as well as the iconic actors in each: Gena Rowlands and Winona Ryder in the former; Matti Pellonpää in the latter. He has a face I could watch for ages, and so it’s a great way to wrap the film up, melancholy and doleful though he is.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • The main extra is an almost hour-long audio recording of Jarmusch answering questions from fans which have been sent into and filtered by the Criterion office. He is generous with his answers and gives plenty of context to what he was doing with this film, as well as shedding light on his own artistic practice, so it’s well worth listening.
  • Another feature is a 5-minute piece from Belgian TV to mark the release of the film back in 1992, in which they bundle Jarmusch into the back of a Paris taxi and have him talk about the film. He actually hits a few of the same points as he did 15 years later in the Q&A featurette above, but it’s still a good interview.
  • The booklet has five writers linked to each of the cities in the film speak to their section of the film, with evident warmth from many, though they don’t always love their own city’s section the most within the film.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jim Jarmusch; Cinematographer Frederick Elmes; Starring Gena Rowlands, Winona Ryder, Giancarlo Esposito, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Rosie Perez, Isaach de Bankolé, Béatrice Dalle, Roberto Benigni, Matti Pellonpää; Length 128 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 21 February 2021 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, December 2000).

Criterion Sunday 400: Stranger Than Paradise (1984)

This isn’t New York filmmaker Jim Jarmusch’s debut feature film (that would be 1980’s Permanent Vacation), but already there’s a strong sense of what would be his signature style during the 1980s, the deadpan delivery, single shot long takes, the grungy (yet oddly beautiful) black-and-white cinematography of these interchangeable American locales. The opening shots see Eszter Balint’s youthful Eva wandering the streets of what looks like New Jersey from the street signs, though she eventually finds her way to stay with her cousin in Brooklyn (John Lurie). She’s from Hungary and her cousin was too, where he was Bela, but now goes by Willie and is trying hard to put the immigrant identity behind him. His friend Eddie (Richard Edson) stops by and the film… well, “gets going” doesn’t seem quite right, but all the characters are now in place. Ultimately it’s not about what they do (they hang out, they get on the road to Cleveland, they mooch about some more), but about this sense of America as a place where identity can be subsumed. Willie’s aunt tries desperately to cling to the old ways and refuses to speak English to him, but there’s little that identifies her home as different from anywhere else the trio go; even Florida has the same sense of gloomy dereliction at the end. It’s a film in which the characters move around a lot but ultimately don’t seem to do anything.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • Chief among the extras is a West German documentary, Kino ’84: The Making of Jim Jarmusch (1984, dir. Martina Müller), which catches up with him during the making of Stranger Than Paradise after it seems his 1980 debut Permanent Vacation had gained him something of a profile in that country, and so features interviews with that latter film’s star Chris Parker, as well as his DP Tom DiCillo — whose lack of interest in continuing in this job prompts Jarmusch to suggest some cinematographers he’d like to work with (including the one he did). There are also shorter bits with Lurie, Edson and Balint, as well as the brief appearance of Sara Driver. It’s good to see how Jarmusch was working back then.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jim Jarmusch; Cinematographer Tom DiCillo; Starring John Lurie, Eszter Balint, Richard Edson; Length 89 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 20 February 2021 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, February 1998).

Criterion Sunday 399: House of Games (1987)

For better or for worse, there are films that I’ve only watched because they’re in the Criterion Collection and I’m engaged in this project to watch them all in spine order. There’s nothing specifically I have against David Mamet or his films — I’ve seen quite a few of them already as it is — but I’m not really seeking out any more of his particularly aggressive masculine energy in cinema, and so there was little likelihood of me checking out his debut as a director for any other reason. It’s certainly accomplished, and I don’t regret watching it, but the quality that puts me off seeking out his films is also what makes me wary of this one. At the heart of the film is Lindsay Crouse, introduced in none-more-80s power fashions as a famous psychotherapist (she’s written a book), famous enough it seems to make her a mark for a bunch of shady guys (chief among them Joe Mantegna) playing their confidence tricks in the belief that they’re smarter than her. Things take various turns that I’m not interested in spoiling here, but needless to say there are all kinds of games being played here, not least perhaps on the audience. Maybe Mamet himself is a kind of conman, but there’s enough that’s pleasurable about the construction and payoff in this film to make me want to think the best of some of the behaviour, which I assume is largely because these characters live with a sort of in-built misogyny as part of their film noir-like hardboiled worldview, in which some people are just born marks to their shady skills.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer David Mamet; Cinematographer Juan Ruiz Anchía; Starring Lindsay Crouse, Joe Mantegna, Ricky Jay, Lilia Skala, Mike Nussbaum; Length 102 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 14 February 2021.

Sylvie’s Love (2020)

This didn’t make my favourites list last year, but it was recently released on Amazon Prime streaming, and it’s a gorgeously-mounted period piece about Black people in New York, which makes a change from the usual 1950s NYC milieu.


There’s a lot I really like about this romance film, most of which boils down to the sumptuous setting. It’s late-1950s to early-1960s New York City, and Tessa Thompson is our lead actor, as she falls for the rather earnest (and a little bit wooden) saxophone player Robert Holloway (Nnamdi Asomugha). It’s not ironic or winking at us in any way, nor is it a romcom. I don’t know why I associate this genre primarily with African-American themes, but maybe it’s because some of the greatest recent examples of romance films have been from filmmakers like Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love and Basketball is practically a template) or have been films like Love Jones. This is hardly as well-written or developed as either of those classics, but is played entirely straight, a period drama that doesn’t pivot around virulent violent racism, but instead is a story about two people in a place learning to navigate their feelings for one another. It’s very sweet, and entirely lovely.

Sylvie's Love film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Eugene Ashe; Cinematographer Declan Quinn; Starring Tessa Thompson, Nnamdi Asomugha, Aja Naomi King, Lance Reddick; Length 114 minutes.
Seen at hotel (Amazon streaming), Picton, Monday 28 December 2020.

The Forty-Year-Old Version (2020)

I took a break from the (online) London Film Festival to find time for this Netflix film and I’m glad I did. As I say in the review, I’ve long since lost the expectation of finding good and interesting and new things on Netflix, but sometimes there are surprises and it’s always good to be open to them.


Perhaps I’m judging unfairly, but I don’t expect to find interesting new voices (or new to me) on Netflix, the home of comforting if uninspiring romcoms. I think that’s unfair; they’ve had plenty of good content over the years but it’s always been rather hidden. This largely black-and-white film (and certainly its play-within-a-film Harlem Ave.) is sort of about the changing face of NYC, while really about the connections between people that keep it vital. Actor-writer-director Radha Blank plays a character with the same name, a playwright who had some early success now trying to rediscover her passion and finding peace with (or maybe giving a hearty ‘fvck you’ to) the compromises she’s had to make along the way to make ends meet. So ultimately it’s not so much about gentrification as about resisting it. It’s a film that honours the people that keep New York City vital and the relationships that matter.

The Forty-Year-Old Version film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Radha Blank; Cinematographer Eric Branco; Starring Radha Blank, Peter Kim, Oswin Benjamin; Length 129 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Sunday 11 October 2020.

David Byrne’s American Utopia (2020)

It’s coming up to the end of the year, which means that desperate period when I try to catch up with the best films I haven’t yet seen. My own lack of home internet at the moment and the vagaries of global distribution, especially this year, mean that I probably won’t be able to see some of people’s favourites, and it will presumably be yet another year end that passes without me having seen the latest by Kelly Reichardt. Anyway, there are a few films from 2020, or new to me this year, which I’ve seen and haven’t yet reviewed, so I’m using this week between Christmas and NY to post them up, starting with a concert film by David Byrne, whose Talking Head doc Stop Making Sense is a touchstone of the genre (and whose 1994 concert film Between the Teeth is also great, and never really gets mentioned, though it doesn’t seem to be easily available anywhere).


A couple of years ago I saw Byrne on this tour, more or less on a whim — and I’m glad I did — but I feel like I’m getting a lot more from this film document (not least because being up in the rafters at London’s least atmospheric gig venue is hardly the best way to experience Byrne’s vision or his music). Instead director Spike Lee has his cameras at a rather more intimate theatre venue in New York City, and we even see the stage team riding around Manhattan on bicycles over the end credits (which in some ways might even be my favourite bit, as it’s accompanied by an upbeat cover that Byrne speaks about in a memorable bit of his stage repartee). Still there’s clearly an aesthetic at work here and even a bit of a narrative, as Byrne leads us through his songs, starting small and talking about being disconnected from people through to a huge ensemble on stage pleading with people to get involved and be part of a community, performed by musicians wearing matching grey suits (and their instruments) on a minimal set where it’s the human interactions and movements that are the key. It’s all a little bit heartwarming, and the stylish filming belies the rather monochrome costuming.

David Byrne's American Utopia film posterCREDITS
Director Spike Lee; Writer David Byrne; Cinematographer Ellen Kuras; Length 105 minutes.
Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Friday 27 November 2020.

Criterion Sunday 380: The Naked City (1948)

There may be 8 million stories in the naked city (as famously narrated by its producer Mark Hellinger, who died just before its release), but this film is interested in one kind and does it in such a way as to pretty much define the rules for an entire genre (the police procedural detective drama), or so it sometimes feels. It also feels properly brutal in the way it presents its murders, even though we don’t actually see very much that’s particularly graphic, but that’s the noir edge to this gritty urban thriller about a young woman found murdered and the subsequent search for her murderer. Naturally it takes us down various alleys, and presents a few different suspects, but the Irish police lieutenant in charge of the case (a memorable Barry Fitzgerald) and a rookie kid (Don Taylor), who’s clearly new to the job, start to figure things out as they run down leads. It has a documentary feel to its photography, inspired by Weegee and filmed on New York’s streets rather than the customary backlots, which affords plenty of extra atmosphere and may be the defining aspect of the film, above even the writing and direction. It’s certainly a classic.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jules Dassin; Writers Albert Maltz and Malvin Wald; Cinematographer William H. Daniels; Starring Barry Fitzgerald, Don Taylor, Howard Duff, Dorothy Hart; Length 96 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 13 December 2020.

Lucky Grandma (aka 幸運的奶奶, 2019)

I was expecting a very slowburn arthouse indie film from this, as it was at last year’s London Film Festival, and I guess I never did read the reviews, but had a sense that people liked it. I wasn’t fully expecting its turn into genre fights, but the film holds it together rather well. It has recently been released to cinemas in NZ, and I don’t doubt it’ll be on home streaming elsewhere.


By all accounts, once the funding got approved this film was made pretty speedily, but it never looks anything less than stylish and polished. Tonally it seems to owe a lot to recent southeast Asian cinema, with a very steely and quiet gaze and an almost glacially deadpan comedy, but it all works really well even in the context of New York’s Chinatown where it’s set. Of course, it helps that Tsai Chin really anchors the film as the title character, introduced smoking a cigarette in the looming darkness of a fortune teller’s shop, as she learns she’s coming into some extraordinary luck. Of course things don’t quite go the way she (and we the audience) imagine, but there’s still plenty of great setpieces. Even when it took a turn into some decidedly genre territory — mafia thugs and shootouts and all that — the film didn’t manage to lose me, which I think is testament to the good will it builds up over the course of its running time, and that fantastic lead performance.

Lucky Grandma film posterCREDITS
Director Sasie Sealy; Writers Angela Cheng and Sealy; Cinematographer Eduardo Enrique Mayén; Starring Tsai Chin 周采芹, Hisao-Yuan Ha, Michael Tow, Yan Xi; Length 87 minutes.
Seen at Light House Cuba, Wellington, Monday 2 November 2020.