Criterion Sunday 273: Thieves’ Highway (1949)

I like a noir, and I like a good American B-picture, because there’s an underlying desire to just get on with the story that’s almost refreshing. Here we get Nick (Richard Conte), back from the war to find his old man in a wheelchair thanks to some nefarious dealings with a San Francisco produce dealer, Mike Figlia (Lee Cobb). And so Nick gets on the road with his dad’s friend to haul apples to Frisco and settle some scores, which leads him to prostitute-with-a-heart Rica (Valentina Cortese, who died only earlier this year, as it happens). The pugnacious setup all feels fairly familiar, but the details about the fruit market and the bitter competition for prices is a nice twist that keeps things fresh, as we get a sense of the corruption and backstabbing that goes on to get to the top of the business world (I never knew such profits could be made on a Golden Delicious). There’s a straightforward charm to it, with the requisite pools of noirish darkness in the black-and-white lensing, some striking camera setups, and hard-nosed performances.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • Director Jules Dassin speaks about the film over 50 years later (like Cortese, he lived into his 90s), fondly recalling details like the actor who zips up his jacket when he sees a man burned alive, or looking misty-eyed about Valentina Cortese.
  • There’s a four-minute snippet of the (at the time) under-production documentary about the life of screenwriter “Buzz” Bezzerides, of which further snippets are on the Criterion release of another Bezzerides script, Kiss Me Deadly (1955).
  • The original trailer is included, and of course a classic American pulpy trailer can be a wonderful thing. It obviously makes everything sound so much more lascivious than it really is, but it has its charms.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jules Dassin; Writer A.I. Bezzerides (based on his novel Thieves’ Market); Cinematographer Norbert Brodine; Starring Richard Conte, Valentina Cortese, Lee J. Cobb; Length 94 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 31 October 2019.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco (2019)

I’ve decided to nominate Saturdays on my blog as ‘revisit a theme you’ve already done a week about with a film you’ve watched recently’ so hopping back to my African-American cinema week with this recent release, which is the one whose release I was working my themed week around. It’s directed by a white guy, but (at least partly) written by its star Jimmie Fails, aspects of whose life it tells. It’s a very striking debut feature certainly, and very much worth checking out.


This was a film that surprised me. Obviously it’s impossible to make a film set now in San Francisco without it being at least obliquely (though here less so) about gentrification and the nature of modern capitalism, and I thought that Barry Jenkins’ Medicine for Melancholy had captured all that perfectly well ten years ago, but this is a completely different film in every aspect. I’m rather surprised, indeed, that it’s a debut film, though at times the denseness of the music and image does feel a little bit cluttered. Still, it has a real poetry to the way it evokes — and at the same denaturalises through its aesthetic choices — modern San Franciscan life. It’s about what it means to live in a place, and love it (“you don’t get to hate it if you don’t love it”), but also be pushed away and alienated by it. Jimmie, the lead character who also contributed to the screenplay, has the quality of a young Don Cheadle, and seems to encapsulate something at times quite profound about the city (and most modern cities), while his friend Montgomery (Jonathan Majors) seems to stand equally outside the place, if for different reasons. Still, I sometimes wonder if I’m not just being a bit distracted by the deeply mannered sense of aesthetics, though I can’t deny it caught up with me on several occasions.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco film posterCREDITS
Director Joe Talbot; Writers Talbot, Rob Richert and Jimmie Fails; Cinematographer Adam Newport-Berra; Starring Jimmie Fails, Jonathan Majors, Danny Glover, Tichina Arnold; Length 107 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Sunday 27 October 2019.

Dim Sum: A Little Bit of Heart (1985)

For my final post of this Asian diaspora theme week, I’m going to back to an early Asian-American film (though hardly the earliest, as there are examples even in the silent era), but one that perhaps has had some influence on subsequent filmmaking, given that sits pretty squarely and comfortably within an American indie context. Wayne Wang would go on to direct The Joy Luck Club (1993), but also indies like Smoke (1995), though his 2000s work was more straight-to-video genre fare, like Maid in Manhattan and Last Holiday (though I have a fondness for both of those titles).


This is a loving portrait of one Chinese-American family, as seen through the eyes of a 30-something professional woman (Laureen Chew) and her elderly mother (Kim Chew). Apparently the idea was originally a much denser work dealing with a larger number of intersecting inter-generational stories (which becomes more evident in the short film Dim Sum Take-Out the director compiled a few years later from the outtakes), but paring it down also works very nicely. There’s plenty of understated observation here, of customs and mores, of lives that perhaps are a little tinged with regret and others lived in the shadow of parents and expectations. It’s set in San Francisco, so there’s a bit of detail given of that community, largely via the character played by veteran actor Victor Wong (whose peculiar squint is familiar from Hollywood roles of this era, such as in Big Trouble in Little China), who runs a bar and thus connects a number of the different family members. It’s all very keenly put across, with a quiet open style that seems to be mimicking filmmakers like Ozu while also being very much within an American indie vernacular.

CREDITS
Director Wayne Wang 王穎; Writer Terrel Seltzer; Cinematographer Michael Chin; Starring Laureen Chew, Kim Chew, Victor Wong 自強; Length 88 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 19 September 2019.

Three Recent Asian-American Romcoms: To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before (2018), Crazy Rich Asians (2018) and Always Be My Maybe (2019)

Of all the recent success stories in Asian-American cinema, focusing on Asian diaspora characters (usually Chinese-American, but there are people of Singaporean, Korean, Malaysian, Hong Kong and Vietnamese extraction, amongst others, mixed in here), none has been more notable than the romantic comedy. Of course there are cinematic precedents, like Alice Wu’s touching and likeable Saving Face (2004). However, following Kumail Nanjiani’s well-received The Big Sick the year before, last year’s high-profile cinematic success of Crazy Rich Asians has been matched on the small-screen by the Netflix films To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and this year’s Always Be My Maybe. I expect we’ll be seeing plenty more, and that can only be a good thing.

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Medicine for Melancholy (2008)

With the director’s second film Moonlight gathering so much critical acclaim, there have been a few screenings (like this one) of his 2008 debut, which never made much of a splash over in the UK aside from a London Film Festival appearance. It’s a relationship drama set in San Francisco between two people. On the one hand, there’s a story of feelings (because “love” is probably too strong a term), as these two are roused the morning after a drunken one-night stand and spend the ensuing day in one another’s company. But it’s also the story, not coincidentally, of two black people. Two black people, to the point, who live in an increasingly white city, a rapidly gentrifying city — a city of coffee shops and kombucha and technology (MySpace — either a dated reference, or a thematically-loaded harbinger), a city of indie pop club nights and museums presenting black historical experiences which, being in a museum environment, have a certain alienated character. There’s a level at which this is like a terrifying sci-fi in which these two people are the last two in a bland expanse of corporatised white space. Or at least that feels like maybe the story Micah (Wyatt Cenac) is trying to tell, whereas Joanne (Tracey Heggins) isn’t exactly having it. In this dialogue on race and the city space, which enters and leaves the film periodically, their relationship pushes and pulls. Likewise, colour bleeds, almost imperceptibly at times, into and out of the image (for much of the time it’s a stark black-and-white). Still, ultimately this is a film about two people spending a day together, and at that it feels unforced and real. It feels a long way from Moonlight, but maybe in being about that contested space between two people, it’s not so far after all.

Medicine for Melancholy film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Barry Jenkins; Cinematographer James Laxton; Starring Wyatt Cenac, Tracey Heggins; Length 88 minutes.
Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Monday 13 February 2017.

Criterion Sunday 108: The Rock (1996)

The Criterion Collection hit an early nadir with Michael Bay’s bombastic world-destroying Armageddon (1998) — I imagine some people even consider this the worst film in the whole collection (though for me, so far, it’s Chasing Amy, sorry Kev). So it’s fair to say my expectations weren’t high for the film Bay made just before it, The Rock. That said, there are no more of Michael Bay’s auteurist Gesamtkunstwerken in the collection, so I need never watch another of his films again, and perhaps this buoyed me into actually — a little bit — enjoying this festival of silliness. That said it might just as easily be the presence of Nic Cage, an admittedly unreliable but off-the-wall star (still holding it in a little, as he was wont to do at his awards-feted mid-90s height), or the steadying effect of Ed Harris and Sean Connery, two fine screen actors. I didn’t believe for a moment any of the plot contortions that see Ed Harris’s rogue military man take over Alcatraz and threaten destruction on the people of San Francisco — events that lead to Cage and Connery’s involvement. Indeed, I feel little interest in recounting these here. Twenty years on from its release, you’ll have seen the film already, or you’ll have decided not to bother with it, and who am I to criticise your decisions, borne of a cultural awareness hard-won for all of us labouring through those squalid trenches of mainstream blockbuster moviemaking. Still, if you were forced to see it — let’s say, if you were watching the whole of the Criterion Collection from earliest to most recent — then you could do worse. And, after all, how can you ever appreciate the austere rigours of arthouse at its most steely if you don’t also watch the popcorn-munching chemical-warfaring action nonsense too.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Michael Bay; Writers David Weisberg, Douglas S. Cook and Mark Rosner; Cinematographer John Schwartzman; Starring Nicolas Cage, Sean Connery, Ed Harris, John Spencer, David Morse; Length 136 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 7 July 2016.

Criterion Sunday 99: Gimme Shelter (1970)

The first of several Maysles Brothers films in the Collection (and the brothers were always very good at crediting their, often female, collaborators in post-production as co-directors), this is a fascinating documentary, at once a band-on-tour film with some great concert footage, and also a dissection of a national psyche. It’s made in 1969 in a nation coming down from the post-Woodstock belief in love and peace, and that seems to be the spirit that suffuses its darker recesses. The film is framed by the Rolling Stones together in the studio watching footage of the negotiations that led to, and then the on-stage drama at, their chaotic 1969 Altamont free gig. The Maysles are deft at showing their faces, as we read on them the realisation of how completely everything got screwed up in the process. As such, this is somehow more than just a music documentary (though if you like the Stones, there’s plenty of that there), and more a ‘state of the nation’ type piece, and it certainly seems as if the 1970s being ushered in would be a darker place.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors Albert Maysles, David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin; Cinematographers Albert Maysles and David Maysles; Starring The Rolling Stones; Length 91 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Friday 27 May 2014 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, March 2002).

The Bigamist (1953)

Taking up some of the stylistic traits of the film noir, this early-50s film is from London-born actor/director Ida Lupino, and — I admit this is of quite incidental interest to most people I imagine — casts a number of actors who are originally English, not that you’d spot it. In any case, Lupino plays the femme fatale role, although the insight of the film is that it’s not quite so simple to categorise the women as simply free-spirited sexual adventuress Phyllis (Lupino) and frigid careerist businesswoman Eve (Joan Fontaine), though this is how the film sets them up initially. The title character is Harry, played by the solidly-built but slightly shambolic Edmond O’Brien, and if there’s obviously no surprise about his predicament, perhaps that’s because it’s not really about him. Finding himself sidelined in his own business by his more talented wife Eve, he embarks on a new life with Phyllis in Los Angeles while on the job as a travelling salesman. Class is enfolded into the mix, as Phyl (for short) leads a precarious existence of short-term work and unstable living conditions and relationship status. And if Eve is the one who’s hard done by, there’s a strange bond between her and Phyl by the film’s close. It may finish with a moral pronouncement from on high (a literal judge in a courtroom), but the messy tangle of relationships promises to carry on beyond the film’s snappy running time.

The Bigamist film posterCREDITS
Director Ida Lupino; Writers Collier Young, Larry Marcus and Lou Schor; Cinematographer George E. Diskant; Starring Edmond O’Brien, Ida Lupino, Joan Fontaine, Edmund Gwenn; Length 80 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Thursday 5 November 2015.

The Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015)

You can sort of understand why this film might be troubling to censors, who in the UK have slapped it with an 18 classification. It’s not that it’s particularly sexually explicit, or nasty or degrading, but that it deals with Minnie, a young woman of 15, having an affair with her mother’s boyfriend. But probably more concerning to censors is that it’s entirely told from her point of view, in which adult characters have no moralising role in Minnie’s development (if anything her mother encourages her to flaunt herself more), and in which Minnie is unapologetic and unashamed about what she wants. But that’s a perspective so little seen in the coming-of-age genre, that it makes me wonder if my dislike for the genre is more its usual focus on gamine young women being objects of adoration seemingly unattainable to oily spotted teenage dudes, or other boring tropes of male self-actualisation like going out into the wilderness, or bonding with older guys to learn some Truth about masculinity.

In any case, I imagine the thematic and narrative focus here partly has something to do with its setting in late-70s San Francisco, as well as being based on the autobiography of Phoebe Gloeckner, a cartoonist growing up under the artistic influence of such figures as Aline Kominsky (mentioned here, later married to Robert Crumb). I’ve read her first published anthology, A Child’s Life, and it’s fantastic not to mention quite boldly graphic (Gloeckner also spent some time as a medical illustrator). Some of the nastier edges have been toned down in the film, but there are still magical little efflorescences of animation that crop up every so often around Minnie.

However, aside from its singular focus and unapologetic take on adolescent sexuality, the film also chiefly benefits from the performance of Bel Powley, largely a newcomer to film (although previously on TV in the UK, and the undoubted comic star of A Royal Night Out earlier this year), who impresses as Minnie largely for her unaffected ingenuousness and wide-eyed wonder, without ever feeling the need to dress up for the attention of men. As it’s based around her recorded diaries, there’s a fair amount of teenage solipsism, but this never overwhelms the story and is generally treated as gentle comic fodder, as Minnie knocks about from one adventure to another. Being told from Minnie’s point of view, Alexander Skarsgård’s Monroe is a sort of affable loser rather than anyone more threateningly creepy, while her mother just seems strangely absent (something Kristen Wiig, playing it straight, is very good at doing), though the appearance of her feared stepdad Pascal (Christopher Meloni) is a brief but enjoyable cameo and his advice sets up Minnie’s closure with Monroe perfectly, though you’ll really have to go see the film to know what I’m talking about. So I recommend doing that. It’s certainly not what you’d usually expect from an 18-rated film.

The Diary of a Teenage Girl film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Marielle Heller (based on the graphic novel The Diary of a Teenage Girl: An Account in Words and Pictures by Phoebe Gloeckner); Cinematographer Brandon Trost; Starring Bel Powley, Alexander Skarsgård, Kristen Wiig; Length 102 minutes.
Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Saturday 8 August 2015.

Inside Out (2015)

It’s been getting great reviews since it was released last month in the States, but for me the signs preceding Inside Out weren’t entirely auspicious, as I’d been feeling pummelled by the sheer weight of all the hype, and the apparent blanket saturation of the marketing. Admittedly, it’s not been quite as aggressive as Minions, but it’s also somehow less obviously appealing (those yellow creatures are awfully cute). The short film that precedes it in cinemas (“Lava”) is also pretty anodyne and faintly annoying (a cod-Hawaiian song about heteronormative volcanoes), so that didn’t exactly help either. Plus there were clearly a few grumpy contingents at the screening I attended, judging from the brief bout of remonstration being levelled at the parents of a crying child (the man’s insistence that the crying child was too young for the film somewhat belied by the film’s U rating, and also hey non-parents get a goddamn grip if you’re going to a U-rated film, even if it’s in the evening).

But — and I sense you’re expecting this “but” — I needn’t have worried. The director Pete Docter comes to this project from his previous Pixar success Up (2009), and if you’ve seen that film, you’ll perhaps have a sense of the emotional tone deployed here. Sure there’s comedy (it’s a Hollywood animated film; there’s always comedy), but the register feels a lot more reflective and even melancholy at times. This is matched by the sound design, which isn’t afraid to jettison the musical score and embrace relative silence when it suits the story, which revolves around the emotional trauma of an 11-year-old girl, Riley, whose parents relocate the family from the Midwest to San Francisco. The particular device the filmmakers use to reflect this is to personify her emotions as individual characters (Amy Poehler voices Joy, Phyllis Smith voices Sadness, and there’s Disgust, Fear and Anger besides), sitting in a control tower in a colourful visual representation of her mind. The animation is crammed with little details that extend the central metaphor (it’s a very metaphorical film), and there are some delightful sequences that play out as Joy and Sadness must make their way back to the control tower from the outer reaches of Riley’s brain (the one that takes place in ‘abstract thought’ comes to mind, as well as the dream sequences).

It’s commendable that Docter and the screenwriters keep the story focused on Riley when it would have been easy to mine further laughs from the similarly-represented minds of those around her (a device sparingly but effectively utilised). It also all seems to work pretty coherently as a metaphorical representation of the mind and its emotional processes, with memories stacked up like bowling balls and colour-coded by the guiding emotion at play, then sent off for filing in a vast repository, which includes a dump for those discarded memories. Core memories stay in the control tower and are the foundations of various personality traits, imagined as outyling islands around the control tower (cerebral cortex, one imagines). The care thus shown to the creation of this interior world, and the film’s avoidance of excessive mawkishness, surely mark it out as one of the finer Pixar filmsm one that’s sure to become one of their audience’s core memories.

Inside Out film posterCREDITS
Director Pete Docter; Writers Docter, Meg LeFauve and Josh Cooley; Starring Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Mindy Kaling, Bill Hader, Lewis Black; Length 94 minutes (plus 7 minutes for the short film Lava, dir./wr. James Ford Murphy).
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Tuesday 28 July 2015.