Criterion Sunday 563: Something Wild (1986)

I can only assume there’s an element of nostalgia to the way people view this film. It’s good fun, for sure, and perhaps setting it against much of what passed for mainstream entertainment in the 1980s is enough to rate it highly. I can respect that, but this feels like a messy film. It’s certainly a film about messy people living their lives, and that’s going to get messy, but just structurally there are plenty of longueurs where the film feels aimless, the way Charlie is trying to put his life together, or Audrey/Lulu is trying to figure out her identity. All I know is that Ray Liotta adds a necessary element of danger to a story that could easily get bogged down in new wave 80s quirkiness, like its angular soundtrack (which is nevertheless pretty solid). There’s a sense in which these characters feel like a throwback, and Melanie Griffith is somehow both iconic — a manic pixie dream girl avant la lettre — and deserves a better written character, but she knows exactly how to pitch herself against Jeff Daniels’s rather dull NYC corporate salary man. It’s a bold, colourful film brimming with ideas, not all of which work, but I’m glad Demme found an outlet for them.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jonathan Demme; Writer E. Max Frye; Cinematographer Tak Fujimoto; Starring Melanie Griffith, Jeff Daniels, Ray Liotta; Length 113 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Wednesday 24 August 2022.

Criterion Sunday 545: Easy Rider (1969)

I guess this film is a bit like Kerouac or any of those other self-styled poets of the American road, as in it’s something that has been influential and has attracted plenty of love, but is also equally reviled by those who just find it bloated and self-serving. To be fair, these are mostly straw man arguments to a certain extent; aside from a few snide comments I’ve seen, I’m just assuming the existence of this film’s detractors, because my mind itself is pulled in two directions. On the one hand, these characters are like empty ciphers for some metaphorical telling of the American Dream/Nightmare, drugged-up hipsters (though the more I see of the 1960s counterculture, the more segments of it feel more like libertarian neo-conservatism than real progressive belief) on a road journey that self-knowingly takes in all the contradictions of city vs urban life, hippies and drop-outs vs those on a demented vision quest, and everyone in between. You don’t really learn very much, is what I’m saying, because there’s a lot of posturing and smugness… and yet, on the other hand, there’s something a little bit gorgeous about this evocation of the road (probably in part thanks to cinematographer László Kovács), compelling in its nihilism perhaps, but I like the music and I enjoy the ride, even if I don’t always particularly like the company.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Dennis Hopper; Writers Peter Fonda, Hopper and Terry Southern; Cinematographer László Kovács; Starring Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Jack Nicholson; Length 95 minutes.

Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Monday 18 December 2000 (and more recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Sunday 26 June 2022).

Criterion Sunday 540: The Darjeeling Limited (2007)

I certainly was not expecting much in revisiting this film by Wes Anderson, not that I have bitter memories of disliking it, but just that it never really stuck out from his other films — though they are very much all of a piece — just that I assumed it would not have aged well. Indeed, as much as you expect something made by a white American guy (a bunch of them indeed) that’s largely set in India to be a little bit tone-deaf — and certainly Adrien Brody hasn’t exactly avoided controversy in his time for, shall we say, culturally inappropriateness — it turns out that this largely train-set movie is actually quite delightful. I’m not sure how it plays to actual Indians, though it doesn’t seem to me that it’s making fun of or trying to ape the culture, so much as it being a different palette for Wes Anderson to utilise in his usual fastidious set designs. So yes there’s a bit of exoticism to it, but under it all, it’s a story of three siblings who have been a bit bruised by their upbringing struggling to move forward. So if this all recalls familiar shades of The Royal Tenenbaums (complete with a small role for Anjelica Huston), that’s not entirely a bad thing.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • The main bonus is the short film Hotel Chevalier, made (and presented here) as essentially a 13-minute prologue to the feature, preceding its action in time. It’s set at the titular hotel in Paris when Jack’s ex (Natalie Portman) comes to visit briefly. It does a good job of setting up these characters within the constraints of the setting with a bit of withering wit as well.
  • There is one deleted scene and two alternate takes of scenes, just a small insight into the creative journey. One wonders that there was not a lot more left on the cutting room floor (but perhaps most of that is just shots that needed more exact framing).
  • There’s a cute little American Express ad that was clearly made around the same time, and somehow manages to express even more of Anderson’s peculiar aesthetic, except with him as the star rather than Owen Wilson.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Wes Anderson; Writers Anderson, Roman Coppola and Jason Schwartzman; Cinematographer Robert Yeoman; Starring Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, Jason Schwartzman; Length 91 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 29 May 2021 (and earlier at some point at home, London, late-2000s).

NZIFF 2021: جاده خاکی Jadde Khaki (Hit the Road, 2021)

Another early highlight for me at Whānau Mārama – New Zealand International Film Festival is this new Iranian film, which simultaneously feels like a lot of earlier Iranian films but also has its own voice and strengths. Nepotism is very much alive in the cinema of that country, but luckily it reaps some rewards with some fine films.


It seems that the Makhmalbaf filmmaking dynasty that runs through Iranian cinema has some competition now that Jafar Panahi’s son Panah has made this debut feature. This deceptively simple story has many of the hallmarks of contemporary Iranian cinema, in setting up a journey that harks back to plenty of antecedents — a 4WD drive vehicle with a family crossing alternately rocky and lush landscapes. We get to know them gradually, that they’re a family and that they’re mysteriously travelling without mobile phones, and little details like this are dropped that something a bit deeper and more emotionally turbulent is going on. However, throughout there’s a sense not just of the familiar familial bickering in a comic register, but also little flourishes of magical realism (not too much to be offputting, mind). Each of the people in the car copes in their own way with what seems to be a journey being undertaken on behalf of the eldest son, and even the end brings no clear answers to what’s going on: the important thing is getting to know these four people, and how the each are handling a time of heightened stress. It suggests a lot without ever saying anything concrete, and that only adds to its enigmatic spell. Plus it is heartwarming and funny and likeable, and all the performances are excellent (even the precocious brattish younger child).

Jadde Khaki (Hit the Road, 2021)CREDITS
Director/Writer Panah Panahi پناه پناهی;
Cinematographer Amin Jafari امین جعفری; Starring Pantea Panahiha پانته‌آ پناهی‌ها, Hasan Majuni حسن معجونی, Rayan Sarlak رایان سرلک, Amin Simiar امین سیمیار; Length 93 minutes.
Seen at Light House, Petone, Monday 8 November 2021.

Criterion Sunday 469: The Hit (1984)

Stephen Frears directed his first movie at the start of the 70s and then spent most of the next decade working in TV, though this is the era when Ken Loach and Alan Clarke were creating distinctive visions on the small screen, so by the time Frears returns with The Hit, you can’t really accuse him of not having some style. It’s set in Spain, so it doesn’t lack for beautiful light and arresting backdrops; at times Frears seems to be going maybe even a little bit too hard on the quiet, empty shots of these locales, though he matches it with striking framings (such as an unexpected overhead shot during one tense encounter). Still, there’s a lot that feels very 80s here, and it’s not just Tim Roth being a young hard man (not as fascist as in Alan Clarke’s Made in Britain, perhaps, but still a thug) but also some of the patronising attitudes (towards women, for example, or the Spaniards they encounter). Of course, that’s as much to do with the characters, who are after all small time criminals. Terence Stamp isn’t a million miles from Ray Winstone’s retired criminal in Sexy Beast, a man who may be retired but is aware he’s never going to be fully out of the racket, and when John Hurt pops up to carry out the titular action, he puts across a weary indefatigability. Ultimately this is a strange blend of genres, with black comedic elements and a strong road movie vibe (a saturated Spanish version of what Chris Petit or Wim Wenders were doing in monochrome, perhaps). I admire it more than I love it, but it has its moments.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Stephen Frears; Writer Peter Prince; Cinematographer Mike Molloy; Starring Terence Stamp, John Hurt, Tim Roth, Laura del Sol; Length 98 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Monday 11 October 2021.

Criterion Sunday 439: Trafic (1971)

Jacques Tati, in all his films but most notably his outings with his character of Mr Hulot, makes incredibly dense films that defy easy categorisation. They are comedies at a certain level, but they’re also performance pieces that could be video art in a contemporary art gallery. The way they take apart the space of the modern European city, radically decontextualise it, and then make fun of its inhabitants is awe-inspiring, if not always entertaining per se. However, the way he layers incident and movement within the frame is something he developed throughout his work but was especially evident in Play Time, and this subsequent film has a rigorousness to it that makes watching it almost superfluous; certainly I think you’d need to see it several times to pick up everything that’s going on. Right from the start, he sets up his style perfectly with an extreme long shot within an enormous and cavernous warehouse space where there are wires criss-crossing the floor. We can’t really see them, but we see these figures, engineers holding blueprints, moving around and carefully stepping over the wires with almost balletic precision, staged in several parts of the frame at the same time. It’s drolly amusing yet it’s somehow abstracted from humanity at the same time.

I can’t really explain as well as others the way Tati uses the frame of the film as much as anything within that frame: there’s his own physical presence of course, which recalls Keaton or Chaplin; technically, there’s a plot too (he’s transporting a prototype camping car from a factory near Paris to a car fair near Amsterdam) but it’s just a way of hanging on a series of set-pieces that advance a sense of farce more than story. Tati doesn’t hate humanity, and I’m not even sure he hates modernity, but his mission seems to be to find the ways in which this modern world (the one being constructed in the utopian 50s and 60s) resists human-shaped interactions. And in its saturated colours and hyper-stylised action it feels like what Godard was doing around the same time, but without the party politics, just the terror of the capitalist abyss.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • The main extra on this disc, aside from a French trailer, is an episode of a British TV series (Omnibus), “Jacques Tati in Monsieur Hulot’s Work” (1976), which has critic Gavin Millar sit down with Jacques Tati to talk about his Hulot films and his idea of filmmaking. Millar starts out at the hotel where the first Hulot film was set back in 1952 and then moves to Tati’s office. He’s a genial presence, certainly very different from the character he portrays on-screen, who puts forward his ideas in fluent English, and even if Millar seems more interested in focusing in on specific gags as seen in the various films, there’s plenty there about what Tati was trying to do told in his own words, which makes it worth watching.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jacques Tati; Writers Tati, Jacques Lagrange and Bert Haanstra; Cinematographers Eduard van der Enden and Marcel Weiss; Starring Jacques Tati, Maria Kimberly; Length 97 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Tuesday 15 June 2021.

Criterion Sunday 414: Two-Lane Blacktop (1971)

I mean, clearly this cult 70s road movie is divisive but I can’t really see how it would be otherwise. Like Zabriskie Point the year before, it starts with a narrative and then just sort of breaks it open, exposing the existentialism just beneath the surface. Here, we quickly get the setup of James Taylor’s “Driver” and Dennis Wilson’s “Engineer” driving across the States, picking up drag races for money, who challenge Warren Oates’ “GTO” to a race for car ownership. But almost as soon as that idea is introduced, it sort of goes by the wayside, and they end up travelling together, helping one another out after a fashion, and competing (in their minds at least, if not hers) over the “girl” (Laurie Bird). Part of what I like about the film is this bold way with de-centring the narrative expectations, so eventually it becomes a rather more pure film about the landscape, the road, and the endless deferment of resolution in the characters’ lives. Road movies are always about the journey rather than the destination, but this really is literally just the journey and nothing else.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Monte Hellman; Writers Rudolph Wurlitzer and Will Corry; Cinematographer Jack Deerson; Starring James Taylor, Dennis Wilson, Laurie Bird, Warren Oates; Length 103 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Friday 9 April 2021 (and originally on VHS at home, Wellington, June 2000).

Criterion Sunday 402: La Voie lactée (The Milky Way, 1969)

In his long career, Buñuel hardly shied away from the merciless mockery of religious hypocrisy, and that’s sort of the entire point of this film. It is essentially a kind of episodic comedy with a series of vignettes serving to set up a series of situations in which people argue on points of religious schisms, which when set out in this way can’t help but seem utterly absurd and futile. The plot, such as it is, hangs around a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela being undertaken by two men (Paul Frankeur and Laurent Terzieff), though they seem pretty happy to hop in a car when it suits them, and they don’t seem particularly committed to the more spiritual aspects of the journey, which don’t just travel through space but also just as often through time as well. Still, the director has his customary fun with Jesus (Bernard Verley), priests, monks and other holy men, and those who aspire to holiness, and I can’t deny its at times anarchic humour.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Luis Buñuel; Writers Buñuel and Jean-Claude Carrière; Cinematographer Christian Matras; Starring Paul Frankeur, Laurent Terzieff, Édith Scob, Bernard Verley, Alain Cuny; Length 101 minutes.

Seen at home (Google Play Movies streaming), Wellington, Thursday 25 February 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).