This is technically not a silent film, but it’s also not not a silent film. In fact for much of its running time, it’s an exemplary advertisement for the freedom and artistic possibilities that the medium had reached in the year after the similar Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans was released, because when the brief segments with synchronised sound come they literally stop the film in its tracks. What is a city symphony for New York City, with loose impressionistic photography, heady use of lap dissolves and location shooting, suddenly becomes for about a minute each time a static and ugly dialogue scene with an unmoving camera and no real sense of place. Luckily, those scenes pass quickly, largely self-contained, leaving Lonesome to be a sweepingly romantic film about two people who find each other by chance, visit Coney Island, then are separated just as (un)fortuitously (by the cops no less, going above and beyond their duty of care), and that’s pretty much the plot of the thing. However, it’s a fairly swooning film that for all its slender plot still manages to carry you along.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Pál Fejős [as “Paul Fejos”]; Writers Edward T. Lowe Jr., Tom Reed and Mann Page; Cinematographer Gilbert Warrenton; Starring Barbara Kent, Glenn Tryon; Length 69 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Friday 10 March 2023.
This is a filmed version of one of Spalding Gray’s famous stage monologues, which tend to involve him sitting behind a desk with his notes in an otherwise unadorned black box space. Of course director Steven Soderbergh has done his best to make this format more visual, with his full bag of tricks, but the origins and format of the show are still fairly clear. This, then, is a film that’s primarily about words, which makes sense because its subject matter is the loss of vision. It incorporates little spliced-in interviews with random people on the subject of eye health, and as a fair warning to those who aren’t expecting it, those stories can get pretty gruesome (the release also includes footage from Gray’s actual eye surgery, and it’s fair to say I won’t be watching that). This film, however, is certainly likeable, for it rests largely on Gray’s ability to tell a story, which by this point he is a master of doing, and as Gray is likeable so is the film.
NB: The Criterion Collection lists the date as 1997, although the film premiered at 1996’s Toronto International Film Festival so that’s the year I give here.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Steven Soderbergh; Writers Spalding Gray and Renée Shafransky; Cinematographer Elliot Davis; Starring Spalding Gray; Length 79 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), Melbourne, Saturday 18 February 2023.
Spalding Gray was an American literary raconteur primarily known for his monologues, with which he toured like any stand-up comedian, and which too were committed to film (the Criterion Collection has followed up this film with Gray’s Anatomy in its list of releases). This in certain respects is like those — it’s a film narrated entirely by Gray in clips from his monologues, interviews and other on-stage events — but instead it tries to tell the story of his life from beyond the grave (he committed suicide in 2004). It’s a way of a telling a life story without resorting to familiar stand-bys like the talking head interview or archival footage (written texts on screen, photos and the like), and makes this final testament to the man more like one of his own works, and that makes sense given the involvement of his widow and son (who does the music). It all zips by rather nicely, and gives you a sense of him as a public figure and hints towards himself as a private individual too, about some of the life issues he was going through (which always would be grist to his monologuing, but became more fractured as a source after his debilitating injury sustained on holiday in Ireland). It’s a work that’s evidently made with love, and that shows.
- There’s a nice little piece with interviews with producer (and Gray’s widow) Kathie Russo, as well as the film’s editor Susan Littenberg (for once not a pseudonym for the director and an actual person) and director Steven Soderbergh explaining the genesis of the idea and how the film came together. Nice to hear from them all about the project, and about the choices made in telling it. Turns out, for a man who chronicled his life and experiences for his art, there was plenty to choose from.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Steven Soderbergh; Starring Spalding Gray; Length 89 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), Melbourne, Thursday 16 February 2023.
I can’t really be considered part of the cult following of Charlie Kaufman. The tone of his work just doesn’t resonate with me so much, and there’s a lot here too, in what must surely be considered his foundational work, that leaves me a little cold (though it clearly works for a lot of people). That said, like plenty of classic comedies (albeit with an ironic 90s tone), this film throws so much at the screen that plenty of it does hit, and some of it really is quite affectingly off the wall. Specifically, the way that the film utilises Cameron Diaz is very much against type, and Catherine Keener too has never been more striking (usually those two actresses would be playing these roles the other way round, you feel), but together they create an emotional bond via the mediation of the titular figure that almost erases John Cusack’s puppeteer from the film entirely. By the final third, things have been put in motion that pull the film off in all kinds of weird directions, and the constant accrual of detail makes for a rather rich and perplexing series of thematic explosions that have a cinematic pyrotechnic value at the very least, though some even achieve emotional resonance. It remains a film I still admire more than fully love, but that’s on me; it’s a singular American achievement both coming out of the 1990s and drawing a line under it for a new decade.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Spike Jonze; Writer Charlie Kaufman; Cinematographer Lance Acord; Starring John Cusack, Catherine Keener, Cameron Diaz, John Malkovich, Orson Bean; Length 113 minutes.
Seen at the Penthouse, Wellington, Saturday 27 May 2000 (and on VHS at home, Wellington, May 2001, and most recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Sunday 29 January 2023).
For all that this is from a different era of filmmaking — when earnest, socially engaged white men made films about the immigrant and Black experience (the director of this film was also writer and cinematographer for the excellent 1964 Nothing But a Man) — this also feels like a prescient film, and a contemporary one too. It’s about a young Mexican man who goes to America to get work to help feed his family, and there becomes entangled with forces intent on preventing him from working, cops and traffickers (including a memorable small role for Ned Beatty) and such. It’s a film that without making any grand speeches, eloquently lays bare the way that migrant workers (who may have illegally entered but are so clearly necessary for many industries) are treated and the lack of rights afforded to them. At some point, these kinds of stories became less trendy to depict, perhaps, and nowadays the creative talent behind the cameras would likely have the personal experiences of those on screen, but this is a fantastic bit of engaged 1970s filmmaking that deserves a wider audience. It must surely be one of the more overlooked standalone Criterion titles.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Robert M. Young; Cinematographer Tom Hurwitz and Young; Starring Domingo Ambriz, Trinidad Silva, Linda Gillen, Ned Beatty; Length 96 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 21 January 2023.
Having not been much of a commercial (or indeed, critical) success at the time of its release, like a lot of the New American cinema of the 1970s, this film has attained a certain cult status. It’s easy perhaps to see why, with its unconventional story of the odd, cherubic-faced, yet morbidly death-obsessed young Harold (Bud Cort) falling in love with the elderly Maude (Ruth Gordon) after meeting at funerals which they’ve been in the habit of crashing. As we see in the early part of the film, Harold has a flair for staging elaborate suicide scenes for the benefit (well, not ‘benefit’ exactly) of his status and image-obsessed mother (Vivian Pickles). Indeed their grand home is not unlike a mausoleum, with its rich mahogany surfaces and elaborate ornamentation. I can’t be entirely sure I like the resulting film, though it surely has its moments, and the romance (such as it is) is treated fairly obliquely. The two characters have contrasting, but complementary, personalities, as Maude seeks to teach Harold something about why life is worth living, and there’s a gratuitous shot of a fading tattoo on her forearm near the end just to drive that point home. But for the most part this is a pleasantly agreeable little black comedy about an odd couple, and made with assured directorial flair by Hal Ashby.
(Written on 30 December 2014.)
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Hal Ashby; Writer Colin Higgins; Cinematographer John Alonzo; Starring Ruth Gordon, Bud Cort, Vivian Pickles; Length 91 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Sunday 28 December 2014.
The full list of my favourite films of 2022 is here but I’m posting fuller reviews of my favourites. There aren’t too many animated films in there, because I don’t go to so many of those anymore, which it turns out is fine because Disney is barely making an effort to get them into cinemas, so most need to be watched via their streaming service. Hence this one, which I gave a shot to because it seemed to come from a more interesting perspective than fairytale princesses, and it is indeed very lovely.
It’s somewhat sad to me that Pixar films are so rarely nowadays shown in cinemas, because the attention to detail in the design and the animation that shows in films like this, or the previous year’s Soul, deserve the big screen but instead we have to subscribe to Disney+, which somehow lessens them. It also leads to factoids like it being the biggest money loser for a cinematic release (even though I’m fairly certain it was barely placed in any cinemas worldwide).
However, Turning Red still strikes me as one of the better recent crop of animated films, which both tells a discernable story from a specific perspective (a young girl from a Chinese background growing up in Toronto, voiced by Rosalie Chiang), but makes it both metaphorically rich and also cartoonishly cute at the same time. A lot of elements feel familiar from any coming of age/high school American movie, with its cliques of friends and confected schoolyard drama, but there’s a real strength to its focus on the setting, the details of the family temple such that even the supernatural plot twist (and I think the posters and marketing make it fairly clear that a large anthropomorphic red panda is involved) feels grounded in an authentic expression of familial ties and Chinese-Canadian culture.
Director Domee Shi 石之予; Writers Julia Cho, Shi and Sarah Streicher; Cinematographers Mahyar Abousaeedi and Jonathan Pytko; Starring Rosalie Chiang, Sandra Oh 오미주, Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, Ava Morse, James Hong 吳漢章; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at home (Disney+ streaming), Wellington, 2 July 2022.
Following up the reviews of my favourite films of 2022 (full list here). This isn’t the only film on my list to have been comprehensively talked out already. You don’t need another review of it, you got everything you needed about a year ago. But it wasn’t released in NZ until into 2022, and despite all my many reservations, I really enjoyed it. Not because of any fondness for its subject, but because of the way it was done, the atmosphere it evoked. So here we go, another review.
This film is a whole vibe, and either you get with it or you don’t, I somewhat suspect. I did, but I can understand people who go the other way. In terms of its felicity to ‘real life’, well I think that’s a fraught question at least; I’ve seen some people marvel at the accuracy of Kristen Stewart’s performance. I’m not enough of a devoted royal watcher to really know how much she captured Diana, but I don’t really see her specifically in Stewart’s portrayal. But this is as much a story about a woman in a particular situation, imagining how it might go down; it’s a fable and a fantasy, it’s shot in a hazy, gauzy, pastel-hued way yet somehow also manages to channel gothic horror. But Stewart’s Diana is trapped from the start, a doomed woman, even if around her the royal family seem nothing so much as zombies, not least Charles (Jack Farthing) and Her Majesty, who have the deadest of eyes. So she only has her head to delve further into; she gets visions of Anne Boleyn and increasingly dissociative fragments of an alternate reality, which we know is not her own because she’s giddy and happy, moving down endless corridors like Kubrick’s The Shining, cautiously at first perhaps, but with an increasing abandon as the film progresses. Against my best instincts — because I really do not like or want to hear about the British royal family — it manages to be a beautiful film, and an excellent performance as ever by Stewart who goes in fully and bodily to the whole thing. Whether it captures Diana per se, I can’t say, but it captures something fleeting, somehow both archly camp and deeply felt, about an impossible life.
Director Pablo Larraín; Writer Steven Knight; Cinematographer Claire Mathon; Starring Kristen Stewart, Timothy Spall, Jack Farthing, Sean Harris, Sally Hawkins; Length 117 minutes.
Seen at the Penthouse, Wellington, Sunday 6 February 2022.
Continuing my round-up of my favourite films of 2022 (full list here) and there was no shortage of opinions in either direction about Jordan Peele’s third feature, after Get Out and Us. In a sense, that’s what it was made for, so it succeeded brilliantly well, in conjuring up all kinds of conversations, not all of them particularly positive, but in the end it worked for me.
I’ve seen some fairly underwhelmed reviews of this film, but I do wonder if that’s not just from elevated expectations. The pace is somewhat lugubrious, although I do think it consistently builds tension throughout, and there’s a subplot involving Steven Yeun as a child star in a sitcom which doesn’t quite sit very comfortably with the rest of the film to my mind. However, its central premise — of a family of Black horse trainers whose history is deeply tied into filmmaking, trying to figure out a mystery happening around their homestead high out above Hollywood. There are evidently (maybe) aliens involved, possibly hiding behind a cloud, and the way this unfolds is nicely grounded in comedy, as one might expect. Its central conceit is grounded in the idea of looking, about the terrors and dangers of the image, and thus is tied pretty strongly into filmmaking, but while it never truly horrifies, it looks gorgeous and holds together nicely.
Director/Writer Jordan Peele; Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema; Starring Daniel Kaluuya, Keke Palmer, Steven Yeun 연상엽, Michael Wincott, Brandon Perea; Length 130 minutes.
Seen at Alamo Drafthouse Cinema New Mission, San Francisco, Wednesday 10 August 2022.
Following up the reviews of my favourite films of 2022 (full list here). Maybe I missed the gathering of the Terence Davies fans last year, but I don’t recall many people listing this on any year-end best-of lists for some reason, and that perplexes me. He’s never exactly been fashionable, but this was a really strong film, an evocation of the past and the movement from youthful impetuousness into a conservative older age, set against the backdrop of WW1 and the ensuing interwar period.
Nobody is out here making films like Terence Davies. As it opens, this comes across like a combination of archival museum video that you watch in hushed silence in a media centre before entering a memorial to a horrifying past, along with the kind of TV drama which feels boldly experimental sheerly out of budgetary necessity (such enterprises usually restricting themselves to a handful of sets in old buildings sparsely populated by actors in costumes). And yet, for all that this seems like exactly the kind of thing cinema should not be doing, I really do mean it not in a bad way — for example, Raul Ruiz’s magisterial Mysteries of Lisbon very much had that latter kind of quality, and it doesn’t even feel like cost cutting but about cutting away the pointless aggrandisements of the costume/period genres to get to something essential.
In this film, Jack Lowden is fantastic as Siegfried Sassoon, who has a tender impish charm alongside a bitter seriousness (though it’s really only the latter quality that Peter Capaldi as his older version gets to show, his youthful esprit having been thoroughly dissipated). Not being familiar with Sassoon’s story, I was somewhat surprised he lived past the First World War (I think in my head I had conflated him rather too much with Wilfred Owen), but this film captures something of the turmoil of the early-20th century, while cataloguing popular/gay culture of the period (Ivor Novello, Edith Sitwell, and quite a parade of handsome slightly bland looking chiselled youths that flit through Siegried’s life).
It’s a fascinating way to tell this story, which gives as much time for him to read a poem to himself as it does to rather more melodramatic goings on, but it’s an effective story that neither panders to its period nor to us as modern viewers, and is all the better for that.
Director/Writer Terence Davies; Cinematographer Nicola Daley; Starring Jack Lowden, Simon Russell Beale, Peter Capaldi, Jeremy Irvine, Kate Phillips; Length 137 minutes.
Seen at Light House, Petone, Sunday 24 July 2022.