Criterion Sunday 541: The Night of the Hunter (1955)

If I were in a less generous mood I would see this as a noble failure, a strange blend of folk horror and exaggerated camp that leans far too heavily into its fairy tale register, and to be honest it does often come across as faintly absurd while it’s playing out. But I’m not feeling grumpy today and I think the very staginess of the undertaking is exactly right for what it’s trying to do, which is not to scare in a traditional sense, but to evoke a mythic sense of dread that is as much a part of the canon of fairy tale literature as it is part of 20th century film history. Needless to say it wasn’t exactly embraced on release and probably prevented its director Charles Laughton from ever making another film, but what he does here with his collaborators (both in the writing and especially the monochrome cinematography by Stanley Cortez) is to evoke a curiously timeless — partially because in some senses it remains accurate — portrait of America, with its fascination with guns, religion and children and the way these three elements combine.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There are plenty of bonuses stretched over two Blu-ray discs, so it may take me a while to watch all of them, but I did look at the 15-minute piece on the BBC show Moving Pictures which has a few short interviews with various key cast members (Mitchum, Winters), some behind the scenes people like a producer and a set designer, as well as archival footage of Gish, speaking to the enduring power of the film sometime around its fortieth anniversary as well as the excellence of its director in bringing everything together.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Charles Laughton; Writer James Agee (based on the novel by Davis Grubb); Cinematographer Stanley Cortez; Starring Robert Mitchum, Billy Chapin, Lillian Gish, Shelley Winters, Sally Jane Bruce; Length 93 minutes.

Seen at the National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 6 June 2001 (also earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, July 1999 and most recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Monday 6 June 2022).

Criterion Sunday 521: Mystery Train (1989)

Having not seen this film for many decades, not since the first flush of my cinephilia in my early-20s, I was inclined to assume this was a fairly minor Jarmusch, but honestly I think it may be one of his best. Sure the plot itself is slight — various people converge over a single night in Memphis, centering around a run-down hotel presided over by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and Spike Lee’s younger brother. First up there’s the young Japanese tourists (Masatoshi Nagase and Youki Kudoh) who seem to be on a train journey across the country’s musical heritage spots and land in Memphis for an evening, then an Italian widow (Nicoletta Braschi) stranded in the town trying to get back to Italy, and finally a trio of barfly characters who get into trouble because of Johnny (Joe Strummer), who’s in a bad mood as a man who’s lost his job and his girlfriend (the other two are Steve Buscemi in an early role, and Vondie Curtis-Hall). The circumstances this trio in particular get into seem to stretch the otherwise quiet and observant tone of the rest into something close to melodrama, but overall the film is a brilliant evocation of a particular little heart of Americana, with a deep love for old music and an eye (no small thanks to Robby Müller’s beautiful cinematography) for the picturesquely derelict byways of culture. Even when the high drama starts to pile up, it somehow doesn’t ruin the mood that Jarmusch has built up, and somewhere buried in those showy characters is a keen sense of economic instability and of a country and a culture balanced on a fine edge of a precipice.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jim Jarmusch; Cinematographer Robby Müller; Starring Masatoshi Nagase 永瀬正敏, Youki Kudoh 工藤夕貴, Nicolette Braschi, Joe Strummer, Steve Buscemi, Vondie Curtis-Hall; Length 110 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Friday 1 April 2022 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, September 1997).

Criterion Sunday 515: The Fugitive Kind (1960)

Initially there’s plenty to really dig here, not least the moody, highly-contrasted black-and-white cinematography, little shards of light illuminating faces as Brando’s rebellious kid trying to go straight in his 30s comes up against the usual kinds of corrupt Southern lawmakers who just want him out of their town. That’s in truth where the film starts to drag a bit, as the melodrama builds to a pitch and Joanne Woodward’s drunken girl gets into scrapes while Anna Magnani suffers her brutal bed-ridden husband’s anger with stoic suffering. There are a lot of clichés of the Southern gothic genre being bandied around here, and they could lend a hothouse atmosphere if you’re in the mood for that, but by the film’s end they seemed a little wearying, as if working against the film’s better senses. The stage origins are clear and so too are the classical metaphors, as a bunch of characters all play around in the apparent Hades that is the Jim Crow South, including a magical African-American character to silently observe the goings on.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Sidney Lumet; Writers Meade Roberts and Tennessee Williams (based on Williams’s play Orpheus Descending); Cinematographer Boris Kaufman Бори́с Ка́уфман; Starring Marlon Brando, Anna Magnani, Joanne Woodward, Victor Jory, Maureen Stapleton; Length 121 minutes.

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

Criterion Sunday 514: Ride with the Devil (1999)

I’m not sure if Tobey Maguire, Skeet Ulrich and Jewel (the singer) counted as big stars back in 1999, but I suspect they may have had a greater lustre to them at the very least. In retrospect, though the casting is solid, their faded celebrity is perhaps now more appropriate to the Confederate bushwhackers they play: basically kids trying to mount a guerrilla offensive that starts out rooted in family but increasingly becomes a brazen attempt to profit by any means. This movement into banditry is where Jonathan Rhys Meyers’s slippery, traitorous character comes into his own. None of them are exactly people you want to root for, but Maguire and Jewel at least bring something a little bit empathetic, given their youth and evident inexperience at war. Of course, the real emotional centre of the film is Jeffrey Wright’s ex-slave, fighting on the side of the Confederates out of loyalty to his former master (a relatively brief appearance for Australian actor Simon Baker). There’s nothing particularly gung ho or patriotic about this film — it tells the story of a group of people caught up in events much bigger than them and which frequently seem too large even for this (fairly lengthy) film. In the end Lee is far more interested in the time between the battles and the effects of war than in mounting big combat scenes, and this is all the stronger a film for that.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • On a disc fairly light on bonus features, one of the main extras is a 15-minute video interview with Jeffrey Wright some years later, as he reflects on his role and the place of African-Americans in the forces of the Confederacy, which is needless to say a fraught and nuanced subject.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Ang Lee 李安; Writer James Schamus (based on the novel Woe to Live On by Daniel Woodrell); Cinematographer Frederick Elmes; Starring Tobey Maguire, Jewel, Jeffrey Wright, Skeet Ulrich, Simon Baker, Jonathan Rhys Meyers; Length 148 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 12 March 2022 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, August 2001).

Criterion Sunday 409: Days of Heaven (1978)

I’m hardly a Terrence Malick fanboy (at least, not based on his output over the last decade or so) but one or two of his films really get to me, and this is one. You can see a lot of the aspects of his style that he would develop further in his 21st century work — for example, a focus on nature and wind sweeping through grass, or a propensity for the camera to drift off and focus on some still life little image in microcosm rather than dwell on plot or melodrama, as well as a largely unspoken Christian underpinning to the broad sweep of the film and its themes. The Criterion Collection’s previous release was Breathless and, for all the enormous difference in setting and feel (Malick’s film is set in 1916 Texas), there are some genetic similarities to that, like the occasional handheld shots, location shooting with natural lighting, not to mention a plot in which the lead character’s murder of an authority figure is pushed far into the background, and quite often the plot doesn’t even feel that important. Days of Heaven is a film composed of feeling above all: the dappled colours of the ‘golden hour’ (the time of day after the sun has set, and still the most well-known thing about this film, even though there’s plenty that’s shot during the morning and night as well); the poetic voiceover by Linda Manz; and the meandering sense that this isn’t about what happens in the end but about the beauty we’ve witnessed along the way. Luckily this kind of visual cinema is what appeals to me.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • Aside from a commentary, the extras are four short piece split into two headings, “Actors” and “Camera”. For the actors section, there’s an audio interview with Richard Gere and a video one with Sam Shepard, both of whom recall Malick’s methods for eliciting a performance and his shy self-effacing way on set.
  • The “Camera” interviews are with the camera operator John Bailey as well as with Haskell Wexler, who took over from Almendros when the latter had to leave the project to go do a Truffaut film. Legend says that Wexler was miffed at not receiving a full credit, but he concedes in retrospect that he was just continuing the work set in place by Almendros. Either way, what a visual achievement.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Terrence Malick; Cinematographer Néstor Almendros; Starring Richard Gere, Brooke Adams, Sam Shepard, Linda Manz; Length 94 minutes.

Seen at Paramount, Wellington, Thursday 14 May 1998, and at BFI Southbank, London, Sunday 11 September 2011 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Saturday 20 March 2021).

News of the World (2020)

I think it’s time I did another themed week, as I’ve been relying a little too much on the Criterion Sunday reviews on this blog and have let it go a bit. So in time-honoured fashion, we return to Netflix, a number of whose films I’ve seen in recent weeks, and which range in quality from the ‘bad’ to the ‘pretty okay but not much better than just good’, which is to be fair essentially the range of most Netflix films (with a few exceptions). The first I’m covering is one I saw in a cinema, but came out on Netflix shortly after, where probably most everyone else saw it.


Tom Hanks often seems to pick roles that speak somehow to a facet of the American experience. Here he’s Captain Kidd, a newsreader, but a peculiarly 19th century, post-Civil War version of that, travelling around small Texas towns gathering up dimes for the villagers to hear him tell stories from the newspapers. The idea is that he’s selecting the stories of value to them, placing him somewhere between a preacher and an organiser at times, as when he foments rebellion in a particularly hellish county town, but to British viewers at least the film’s title places him in a lineage of tabloid journos, sometimes greatly elaborating these stories to make them play better, perhaps making them up wholesale. It certainly seems to widen the scope of the Spielberg film The Post about modern news journalism. Still, the heart of the film is Kidd’s relationship with a young girl he finds on the road (Helena Zengel), German by birth but raised by Kiowa people, and now orphaned from both. The story of them getting to know one another, learning bits of each others’ language, is perhaps too familiar and the film can seem quite lumpy at times. Still, it’s nice to the see the girl at the heart of System Crasher extend her range, while still exhibiting the feral quality that came over so strongly there, and Hanks is always dependable as a weathered but genial surrogate, plus it has a beautiful, sweeping quality that seems inbred into the Western genre and comes across well here.

News of the World film posterCREDITS
Director Paul Greengrass; Writers Greengrass and Luke Davies (based on the novel by Paulette Jiles); Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski; Starring Tom Hanks, Helena Zengel; Length 118 minutes.
Seen at the Roxy, Wellington, Wednesday 3 February 2021.

Criterion Sunday 396: Ace in the Hole (aka The Big Carnival, 1951)

I’m sitting here, late at night, trying to figure out what to write because I have a bit of a blind spot for classic era Hollywood films of the past (even the slight failures, as this one was, at least commercially, though I gather contemporary critics didn’t much like it either). Billy Wilder is very much a great Hollywood director, particularly known for his comedies, and while this does function somewhat as satire, it can also be nasty and manipulative when it needs to be, because it’s about cynical people gaming a system that is, sadly, very much still in place. In fact the idea of reporters twisting the truth to make newspapers (or the media in general) more saleable to the public is pretty much the dominant paradigm now, and though this film would have us believe there were honourable men (they’re always men) in positions of power, I’m not quite sure that’s ever been the case, which probably makes me even more cynical than the film. Kirk Douglas plays Charles Tatum, who is very clearly a Bad Guy, but he’s charismatic and, though not likeable particularly, gets results because he’s pushy and persistent. Generally I think the film hits a lot of targets, and does so very capably, but it can be hard going perhaps precisely because of how well it captures a media circus, even a hard-boiled film noir 1950s one.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Billy Wilder; Writers Walter Newman, Lesser Samuels and Wilder; Cinematographer Charles Lang; Starring Kirk Douglas, Jan Sterling, Robert Arthur, Porter Hall; Length 111 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 7 February 2021).

Criterion Sunday 371: Body and Soul (1925) and Borderline (1930)

Paul Robeson’s career is of course fascinating, and well worth reading up on, and while his appearance in the stage production of Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones predates Body and Soul (he had previously gained some success on stage, primarily in musical theatre, in the early-20s), the film of that play wasn’t to be made until the sound era. Instead our first glimpse of Robeson on screen was to be this film by pre-eminent and pioneering Black American filmmaker Oscar Micheaux, who five years earlier had made the fascinating (and superior) retort to D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation in Within Our Gates. Between Micheaux’s filmmaking — which sadly has been ravaged by the censors and survives only in this shorter cut — and Robeson’s magnetic screen presence, this is a fine film made for a Black audience, which very much implicates the role of the church through Robeson’s turn as a devious preacher Reverend Jenkins, who drinks heavily, steals money and commits rape (portrayed subtly but no less clearly) without raising concerns from his adulatory congregation. The film ends with a twist and the reveal of a dual role for Robeson, which stretches credulity somewhat, but this kind of ending is hardly unusual for the period or indeed for American cinema. The Criterion release includes a brilliant jazzy score by Wycliffe Gordon which only adds to the film’s depth, making it a highlight of the silent era.

Five years later and Borderline really feels like a one-of-a-kind film, nominally a Swiss production by a British crew, and a strange experiment in form that plays with all kinds of themes. These range from the racism and hypocrisy of a small town, a man called Thorne (Gavin Arthur) whose marriage is falling apart due to his affair with Adah, a Black woman (Eslanda Robeson) who’s married to Paul Robeson’s character Pete, not to mention what seems like a gay subtext with some of the women we see (one of whom is played by the excellently pseudonymous Helga Doom). Any of these themes individually would probably make the film interesting, but it’s the boldly experimental style that makes it so watchable, cutting across the various characters in an almost free-associative way. The score for the restoration is provided by Courtney Pine, and is jazzy and propulsive when it needs to be and I think elevates the film even further. A strange, singular late-silent period work.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection

Body and Soul (1925) [classification PG]
Director/Writer Oscar Micheaux (based on his novel); Cinematographer [unknown]; Starring Paul Robeson, Julia Theresa Russell, Mercedes Gilbert; Length 79 minutes.
Seen at an Airbnb flat (DVD), Lower Hutt, Wednesday 11 November 2020.

Borderline (1930) [classification 12]
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Kenneth Macpherson; Starring Paul Robeson, Eslanda Robeson, Gavin Arthur, Hilda Doolittle [as “Helga Doom”]; Length 65 minutes.
Seen at an Airbnb flat (DVD), Lower Hutt, Saturday 14 November 2020.

LFF 2020: Time (2020)

The film I’m reviewing today has been picking up plaudits all year, and I believe is already on Amazon Prime so well worth checking out, but I was pleased to give it my support and watch it during the London Film Festival.


This is a film. It’s the second black-and-white film I’d seen in the same day dealing with Black lives in modern America (after Netflix’s The Forty-Year-Old Version), but this has a richness in the telling that belies its origins. A lot of it is archival footage, covering the way that a woman, Sibil Fox Richardson (or “Fox Rich” for short), has been waiting and campaigning for her husband to be released, after a 60-year sentence for an ill-advised robbery committed when he was younger. A lot of the film just tracks her through various events and life stages, as her kids grow up and she speaks about her attempts to reform the system, chasing up judges and parole boards. It all coalesces in the final minutes in a sequence that really floored me, in its beauty and its empathy, and I feel revived in a very real way.

Time film posterCREDITS
Director Garrett Bradley; Cinematographers Zac Manuel, Justin Zweifach and Nisa East; Length 81 minutes.
Seen at home (BFI Player streaming), London, Sunday 11 October 2020.

Miss Juneteenth (2020)

I haven’t been doing many posts here recently, not because I don’t still have lots of reviews that I could post (although I have certainly been seeing fewer films recently), but because my life seems to be consumed at the moment with packing to leave the country. Our house is now almost empty and it’s under a week until the flights. Still, it’s a privilege to have the option of moving, and not everybody has lives that they can upend in this way. One film I saw recently, and one of my favourites of this year, was the recent American film Miss Juneteenth, whose title refers to a de facto day of celebration in the US for those of African-American heritage, being the date that slaves in Texas were told of Emancipation (two years after it was actually passed), 19 June 1865. In the film, this date becomes about an aspirational dream of advancement for those not given any opportunities, and it plays out slowly and likeably, buoyed by a great cast and script.


There are certain things that happen in this film which are familiar: the mother (Nicole Beharie), who has had trouble achieving the dreams she had as a young woman, largely because of falling pregnant as a teenager, who transfers those dreams to her daughter (Alexis Chikaeze). However, part of what makes it so delightful is partly the spirit of her daughter in balancing keeping her mother happy with pursuing her own interests, but also the way the filmmaking itself evokes a place (Texas) in such detail, by focusing on the lives of a large community who aren’t usually seen on-screen. The titular pageant is to commemorate the (belated) end of slavery in the state, but it becomes about an aspirational idea of ascending to the middle-class via education and status. Turquoise, the mother and former Miss Juneteenth, missed that chance and now works in a bar, as well as in a mortuary (with a second side job, it is implied, as a stripper) — all to make the money she desperately needs to cover the bills, the rent, and ensure her daughter has the best opportunities. The observational style of the film, the way it slowly builds its picture of its characters, feels like a 70s film, in the very best way, with a sort of intensity against a backdrop of poverty and ruin that never overwhelms the human stories. It’s a beautiful film, and weirdly enough a slightly hopeful one, even if everything is (broadly-speaking) bad and the way out is unclear.

Miss Juneteenth film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Channing Godfrey Peoples; Cinematographer Daniel Patterson; Starring Nicole Beharie, Alexis Chikaeze, Kendrick Sampson; Length 103 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Victoria, London, Thursday 1 October 2020.