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.

Seekers (2020)

Among the films at this year’s Sheffield Doc/Fest online programme, there seemed to be a particular focus on indigenous voices and stories, whether Brazilian tribal people or the Native Americans at the heart of this documentary. It’s by a French director, so it’s an outsider’s perspective, but it’s still a beautiful and interesting film about different ways of living in an essentially white supremacist society.


The start and end of this documentary presents archival footage of Native Americans and the context of their modern existence at the hands of colonial interlopers, being forced into pedagogical systems that proclaim a “civilising” influence, or clashing against forces of the state protecting white supremacy. In some ways, I’d have been interested to see a film about that, but director Aurore Vullierme is an outsider (not unlike Chloé Zhao with her wonderful features set amongst Native Americans) and her story focuses on one man, who has just lost a local election. It’s a little unclear why exactly he’s the focus, and the sense you get as the film unfolds is somewhat elegiac, of a man who is passing down the baton of fighting for rights and to uphold the hopes of their nation to his children, as he’s pushed out by what is assumed to be corrupt forces. But really this is just a sort of hang-out documentary, giving a sense of his life and that of the community he is a part of, and on that level it’s engaging and likeable, even if it feels a little meandering at times.

Seekers film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Aurore Vullierme; Cinematographer Lucile Mercier; Length 78 minutes.
Seen at home (Sheffield Doc/Fest Selects streaming), London, Saturday 27 June 2020.

What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? (2018)

Another film that seems relevant to recent political and social crises is this documentary from 2018, re-edited in a shorter ‘director’s cut’ the following year (where it also screened at the Sheffield Doc/Fest). I’ve seen critiques of the film from Black critics, a sense of it as being overly aestheticised and a little removed perhaps from the lives and struggles it’s showing, but the director was keen to emphasise the collaborative nature of the work.


The director was presenting a ‘director’s cut’ of this film (at 106 minutes, slightly shorter than the version premiered at Venice last year and shown at the 2018 London Film Festival), and though I can’t compare the two versions, this is a beautiful monochrome-shot film about a few different Black experiences of life in and around New Orleans. At times there’s some of the quietly observed quotidian reality that you get in, say, RaMell Ross’s Hale County This Morning, This Evening, or a hint at the kinds of generational stories in the TV show Treme, not to mention a panoply of images that recall a myriad of great films about the American South, even at times a sense of a staged performance (as during Judy’s literal performance in her bar near the end of the film). However, this feels like a film that’s not quite observational documentary but a sort of collaborative improvisation, in which Minervini (as he was careful to stress in an on-stage Q&A afterwards) wanted to present voices and stories that were not and could never be his own, and to respect them. So all those familiar stories, about Black peoples’ lives and deaths, about trying to move beyond trauma, or sometimes the inability to do so, these are presented in a graceful, economical manner — you’re never far from the trauma, but that doesn’t feel like the totality of experience by any means. Judy in her bar, the Mardi Gras Indians sewing their elaborate costumes while singing, the two boys playing outside and alongside railroad tracks, Judy’s mother doing her washing out the front of her home, even the New Black Panthers organising and handing out meals and water to local homeless people or protesting the deaths of Black men at the hands of police, all of these moments are both filled with joy and hope even while being inflected by countless stories, memories and history, ones spoken about and others unspoken. There are three central groups of characters in this film, but there are hundreds of stories in every sequence I think, and that’s what Minervini is great at capturing.

What You Gonna Do When the World's on Fire? film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Roberto Minervini; Cinematographer Diego Romero; Length 106 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Friday 12 April 2019.

Sud (South, 1999)

A lot of people are talking about history at the moment; it seems to be a popular topic of discussion in online communities. Apparently statues are unquestionably a very important source of historical context and understanding to, I guess, some people, I don’t know, but apart from those, and apart from books, films can be a source of understanding of historical situations, as well as places and people, intangible things that are perhaps best conveyed via images and sound, things that film does well. I’m going to do a week of various historical films and documentaries, and while today’s is not strictly speaking about history (the specific incident is very recent history), in a way it’s about something that’s been ongoing for decades if not centuries, about the way that attitudes towards history — corrosive feelings of grievance, a lack of understanding in some cases — can inform present-day actions.


I suppose it’s fair to say that Chantal Akerman doesn’t do issues-driven documentaries quite the same way that others do. Sud is about the murder of a Black man in the American south (James Byrd), but it’s first of all a film about a place (Jasper TX) — its streets, shops, sounds and people — as Akerman’s camera tracks along from a car (long lateral car-bound tracking shots to take in a sense of a place are familiar from her other documentaries like D’est), or as she listens to residents. And then there’s a move into details of this specific case, which happened shortly before she arrived, and we get more details from a local reporter and from the town’s Sheriff, just as we see the funeral too. But all along her documentary is keen to return to the roads, the ones that mark this town out and give it a specificity, but also ones that are the site of ongoing racial violence, confined not just to the past but continuing into the present, haunted by white supremacism and racism.

CREDITS
Director/Writer Chantal Akerman; Cinematographer Rémon Fromont; Length 71 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 3 January 2019.

Sword of Trust (2019)

After news of director Lynn Shelton’s death broke last Saturday, like probably many cinephiles I watched a couple of her films the next day, revisiting Laggies and then her final film, made last year and which only trickled out onto UK streaming services at some point, presumably earlier this year. It’s a shaggy story but the easy charm of its leads and their interactions mean there’s no reason why it wouldn’t have made a perfectly good cinematic release, which events have conspired to prevent. Technically, it’s not her last feature film directorial credit (that would be comedy special Marc Maron: End Times Fun), but it’s the last one that marks her own work and distinctive voice, and features a fairly large acting role for her in the first five minutes of the film as the estranged partner of the protagonist.


This film further proves director Lynn Shelton’s adeptness with actors, eliciting some really fine character work via improvisational methods (so I gather), all within a loosely comedic framework. The themes of the film could’ve gone properly dark but it largely avoids that: the idea is that Jillian Bell’s character Cynthia inherits a sword from her recently deceased grandfather that he believed “proves” the South won the Civil War, whereupon she and pawn shop owner Mel (played by Marc Maron) discover that there’s money to be made from this absurd notion. “What is this, Antiques Roadshow for racists?” Mel asks when shown a YouTube clip by his shop assistant Nathaniel (Jon Bass) of an online vendor offering top dollar for items that “prove” their topsy-turvy thesis, and indeed there’s a running commentary about fake news and conspiracy theories throughout the film thanks to Nathaniel. The film never quite gets dragged down into the dark holes it skirts around, and ends up being a pretty low-stakes movie about small-scale grifters toying with ideas they all realise they shouldn’t really be getting involved with (it’s such a shaggy dog story that the involvement of guns towards the end of the film feels like a bit of a mis-step to me). Still, there’s such a lot of good character-led acting happening here, in such an easy unforced way, that it really makes you feel Shelton’s loss all the more; she had such a way with actors that for all the plot’s contortions, this film just feels like hanging out for an hour or two.

Sword of Trust film posterCREDITS
Director Lynn Shelton; Writers Shelton and Mike O’Brien; Cinematographer Jason Oldak; Starring Marc Maron, Jillian Bell, Michaela Watkins, Jon Bass, Dan Bakkedahl; Length 88 minutes.
Seen at home (Sky Movies streaming), London, Sunday 17 May 2020.