Criterion Sunday 470: Wise Blood (1979)

This is an odd film, sufficiently so that I’m convinced I either have it completely wrong and it’s actually a masterpiece beyond my meagre understanding, or else maybe it’s just plain odd, but in its oddness it sits apart from most of contemporary cinema. It deals with what I can only call very American themes — of a sort of autochthonous religious mania, where the open spaces of the American heartlands blend seamlessly with Christianity, sex and death, and become somewhat messed up in the head of Brad Dourif’s war veteran Hazel Motes — which war is never quite specified, though the headstone of his father, played by the director, has a birth year that suggests maybe it’s a future war, yet in tone and costuming it feels very much like World War II or maybe something earlier even. It is, in short, a very American film about something buried deep in the white American psyche, and so perhaps it is a masterpiece, but it’s one that takes a hard route to follow. One that’s perhaps worth following, but it does its best to frustrate anyone trying to do that and the hard face of Hazel, his angry bitter mien is right at the heart of that attempt, a bleak and brutal film of the American mid-20th century experience.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director John Huston; Writers Benedict Fitzgerald and Michael Fitzgerald (based on the novel by Flannery O’Connor); Cinematographer Gerry Fisher; Starring Brad Dourif, Dan Shor, Amy Wright, Harry Dean Stanton; Length 105 minutes.

Seen at a bed and breakfast (DVD), Takaka, Saturday 16 October 2021.

Criterion Sunday 458: El Norte (1983)

I didn’t really expect much going into this, perhaps something a bit well-meaning and earnest, like contemporary Costa-Gavras films or those of John Sayles — which to be fair, is really quite deeply unfair to the latter’s work, but I’m trying to convey that sense of slightly po-faced political dramas about ordinary people in challenging times. In a sense, cinema since then hasn’t really grappled with those topics so much, but in relation specifically to the Anglophone cinema of Latin-American politics that I’m most familiar with, Gregory Nava’s feature has a more poetic register. This isn’t magical realism, though, it’s a poetic realism more akin to the Italian Neorealists, I think, but imbued with a lived sense of how America treats its Latin-American citizens. The central characters are indigenous people, from a small Guatemalan village, who journey to the North because of conditions back home, and who have to endure a lot to get to the very bottom of the ladder in the US. It’s not straightforwardly for or against anything though — their lives in the US do have some benefits compared to the past, but oppression comes in many guises and for all that they do see some material changes to their position, in other ways they are made to feel very much an underclass, not least in terms of the bureaucracy of immigration (and not much has changed there in almost 40 years one suspects). It’s a film that is as concretely about the conditions of work and life as anything else of the decade, but one imbued with a sense of almost mystical dread, that can be at times overwhelming but equally quite beautiful and resonant.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Gregory Nava; Writers Nava and Anna Thomas; Cinematographer James Glennon; Starring David Villalpando, Zaide Silvia Gutiérrez; Length 140 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Friday 3 September 2021.

Criterion Sunday 455: White Dog (1982)

It’s interesting to see the way that the pulpy, B-movie aesthetics of Samuel Fuller, developed from his earliest films as director in the late-40s and 50s and present in his 60s classics like Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss, translated to the filmmaking scene of the 1980s. This could stand alongside any kind of straight-to-video exploitation horror/thriller movie, of the kind being reclaimed by any number of home video labels nowadays, with its murky colour palette and zooms. It just so happens that having Sam Fuller’s name attached gives it a slightly higher profile (although not enough to give it much chance at success when it was released). But Fuller retains a roughness to it that feels right for the material, dealing with a young woman who takes in a stray dog, that turns out to have been trained to attack Black people. Obviously there’s a racial thematic that Fuller is pursuing and it certainly seems appropriate that for all the havoc and death the dog wreaks, it remains protected by those around it, who are earnestly trying to save the dog from itself and unlearn it of its attack programming. The film comes across as earnest in the way it treats this material, though it’s understandable from the formal qualities (scuzzy exploitation cinema) why it remains challenging.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Samuel Fuller; Writers Fuller and Curtis Hanson (based on the novel by Romain Gary); Cinematographer Bruce Surtees; Starring Kristy McNichol, Paul Winfield, Burl Ives; Length 90 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 8 August 2021.

Criterion Sunday 450: Bottle Rocket (1996)

This is, of course, Wes Anderson’s debut feature and we all now know how his career went after this. In retrospect it’s easy to glean hints of what would become central to his style, which due to the budget is not so much in the production design, but certainly there are quirks of costume and staging that are quintessentially of this filmmaker. What’s striking is the non sequitur style of comic writing that he and Owen Wilson already have perfected by this stage, but also the musical cues that add energy to these madcap comic heist sequences (my favourite naturally being the Proclaimers). I think a lot is in place here from a filmic perspective, and there’s a certain something extra that comes from being a first-time director, a certain almost amateur energy at times which I especially appreciate given how incredibly controlled and perfected Anderson’s vision would become over time, but this remains an enjoyable caper.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Wes Anderson; Writers Anderson and Owen Wilson; Cinematographer Robert Yeoman; Starring Luke Wilson, Owen Wilson, Robert Musgrave, James Caan; Length 91 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 25 July 2021 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, December 1999).

Criterion Sunday 449: Missing (1982)

In a way this film by Costa-Gavras is exemplary of a certain strand of political filmmaking that flourished in the 1980s, finding a way into an epochal event through a human rights case involving (white) Americans, to make it more relatable. Interestingly, of course, the Chilean coup in 1973 that led to the death of the young American journalist Charles Horman (played here by John Shea) is so far in the background that Allende and Pinochet are barely even named, and the Chileans we see are just shady military characters with little to distinguish them. Costa-Gavras is very much more interested in focusing on the Americans involved, which makes sense given the help they gave to what was an explicitly anti-leftist and militaristic coup, aligning so well with their destabilising influence across Central and South America in this Cold War era. So we are led to see all these events, the disappearance and death of American journalists, as part of an essentially American story of silencing their own citizens as part of enacting geopolitical change that would favour their own national interests. That said, what I find frustrating about the film is just having to watch Jack Lemmon (playing Charles’s dad Ed) trying to throw his weight around and not understanding his own son’s situation, though it’s all presented as part of a learning curve for him — as someone of a certain age who implicitly trusted his own government finally understanding that he could never trust them again. His character is difficult and has trouble understanding the context, and that can just make him a little bit difficult to watch at times when it’s just variations of him going into rooms and being dismissive of his son’s wife (Sissy Spacek) and friends whenever they speak. Still, it’s a well-intentioned film that did attempt to grapple with some of this geopolitical reality at a time when Reagan had recently been elected.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Costa-Gavras Κώστας Γαβράς; Writers Costa-Gavras and Donald E. Stewart (based on the non-fiction book The Execution of Charles Horman: An American Sacrifice by Thomas Hauser); Cinematographer Ricardo Aronovich; Starring Jack Lemmon, Sissy Spacek, John Shea, Melanie Mayron; Length 122 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Saturday 17 July 2021 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, September 2000).

In the Heights (2021)

Turns out this adaptation of a stage musical (one written by Lin-Manuel Miranda from before he did Hamilton, and which I saw a production of in London) turned out not to be the big success it expected to be, and that’s a shame because there’s a lot that’s good and worth celebrating about it. I can’t comment on the lack of Afro-Latinx representation but just at a filmic level, it’s fun and watchable and everyone is giving it their all (as any musical should).


One of the best things about this big Summer blockbuster (or at least I hope it is) may be that the only community I can consider myself a part of in this film is here unquestionably the bad guys — a fairly well-meaning gentrifying ‘organic laundry’ operator, and (surely the worst of all) an estate agent. But that’s fine because we don’t always need to see ourselves in characters on-screen — though it’s difficult not to identify with some of the struggles these kids go through — but if others hear their voices and see themselves represented in this melange of Latinx identities, then I get the sense that this is librettist Lin-Manuel Miranda’s (and writer Quiara Alegría Hudes’s) point. And while it at times alludes to some negative stories (being racially profiled at Stanford is a key emotional beat for one of the lead characters; there’s a deadbeat dad, too), it instead embraces all the positivity and possibility of change in a brightly-coloured and carefully choreographed world of bodegas and heat that has some superficial similarities to, say, Do the Right Thing while imparting a specifically Bronx (rather than Brooklyn) vibe. Residents of the area will be best placed to say whether it speaks to them, and even though the ending feels a bit rushed and perfunctory (a magically inspiring fashion show of sorts leading to life changes), it’s not really about where it goes than how it gets there and even if Miranda’s shtick is getting a bit wearying, there’s enough going for this that I let myself go and went with it for two hours.

In the Heights (2021)CREDITS
Director Jon M. Chu; Writers Quiara Alegría Hudes (based on the stage musical by Hudes and Lin-Manuel Miranda); Cinematographer Alice Brooks; Starring Anthony Ramos, Melissa Barrera, Leslie Grace, Corey Hawkins, Jimmy Smits, Lin-Manuel Miranda; Length 143 minutes.
Seen at the Penthouse, Wellington, Friday 11 June 2021.

Fast & Furious 9 (aka F9, 2021)

There’s not much more to say, and surely fewer places to go, for a series that mostly eschews even a title these days. The posters call it F9 or F9: The Fast Saga, though I’m pretty sure the film credits just go with the classic Fast & Furious 9, and really does it matter? It’s more of the same nonsense, but it’s part of all of us now, it’s who we are as a culture and a species, it’s world cinema, it’s certainly one of the most inclusive of franchises, but most of all it’s family.


I think we’ve got to the point in this franchise where now the characters are making metatextual jokes about the film we’re watching (drawing attention to it as a movie, critiquing some of the more ridiculous plot points to each other), which is always the sign of… well usually that something has passed its best-by date (and I can’t imagine many would try to argue that it isn’t at least starting to get a bit stale now, even if you’re a big fan). Everyone is back, everyone you thought was dead, all those actors you’d thought had just been around for the one film years ago, and it’s rammed with surprises for the fans, because everyone having their arm around everyone else and calling them “family” is what this series is about now, and if not for that slender thread of humanity it would all just be tediously irritating (and probably is to some, probably always has been). It’s a soap opera with bigger set-pieces, the biggest set-pieces, just thunderous ridiculousness around every corner. They go to space in a car. It goes on a bit long, yes, but I don’t have a problem with thunderous ridiculousness.

Fast & Furious 9 (aka F9, 2021)CREDITS
Director Justin Lin 林詣彬; Writers Daniel Casey, Lin and Alfredo Botello; Cinematographer Stephen F. Windon; Starring Vin Diesel, John Cena, Michelle Rodriguez, Tyrese Gibson, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, Sung Kang 강성호; Length 143 minutes.
Seen at Empire Cinema, Wellington, Thursday 17 June 2021.

Judas and the Black Messiah (2021)

A film that came out earlier this year, and got some Oscar nods (including a win for Kaluuya), is this impressive biopic. It’s hardly perfect but it’s put together well with some fine performances, and shines some light on an underappreciated aspect of revolutionary American history.


This feels in many ways like a pretty traditional biopic showing all the strengths and weaknesses of that genre, with its arc through to someone’s death, and though it’s not clunky or badly directed, it really stands or falls on the quality of its actors. Luckily Daniel Kaluuya as Illinois Black Panther Party Chairman Fred Hampton and Lakeith Stanfield as FBI informant Bill O’Neal, along with (notably) Dominique Fishback as Deborah Johnson, the partner of Hampton, all do brilliant work. Kaluuya’s is the more up-front role, the more direct angry young man, but it’s Stanfield who particularly impresses as this fraught character (the ‘Judas’), torn in many directions who communicates that well without big speeches, but just in these quiet scenes between himself and his handler (Jesse Plemons), that means the epilogue about the real life Bill O’Neal somehow comes as no real surprise while also being quite shocking. But the greatest shock of the epilogue — and something not fully conveyed by the film and its casting (however fine the actors) — is just how young all these people were. Hampton was 21 when the film ends. It’s a film not just about his work with the BPP but also about the policing culture (at the time, though I think we all know that time hasn’t changed much in that respect), and about the way this authoritarian power was directed at those trying to make positive change and resist the racist, capitalist narratives of the mainstream. Ultimately this is still a studio product, but it allows for those voices to be heard, that protest to be enunciated, and as protest this is striking.

Judas and the Black Messiah (2021)CREDITS
Director Shaka King; Writers Will Berson, King, Kenny Lucas and Keith Lucas; Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt; Starring Daniel Kaluuya, Lakeith Stanfield, Jesse Plemons, Dominique Fishback, Ashton Sanders, Martin Sheen; Length 126 minutes.
Seen at Light House Cuba, Wellington, Tuesday 16 March 2021.

Black Widow (2021)

I keep saying that I’m not going to any more Marvel movies, because what really am I getting from them? I certainly gave up posting reviews of them up here because they mostly just cover the same sort of arc (fun but empty, and was that bit where they destroyed most of [insert city here] really necessary?). I’m pretty sure I said no more after Avengers: Endgame, and I feel certain I’ve said it at other times too, but here I am, back in again (because, obviously, it’s directed by a woman). I’d sort of forgotten the main thing about the Black Widow character from that final film of so-called ‘Stage Three’ of the MCU (avert yr eyes, but if you care you know already: she dies), but this is a prequel and it largely eschews the other big stars of the franchise, so we get a fairly standalone film, which is I think the best thing about it. So yes, let’s get back into it.


At a certain level this is more of the usual Marvel sound and fury. Beforehand, I went to the Wikipedia page intending to spoiler myself just for fun but realised that I genuinely didn’t care about any of the characters at that point, so if the film achieves anything it’s that by the end, I did at least feel like there was something there, something to hold onto at a character level. As someone who was introduced to Scarlett Johansson back in the 90s in films like Manny & Lo and Ghost World, there was a little flicker of what she brought to those films, though she’s had a full career, a roller-coaster ride of decisions, so in 2021 the stand-out performer is of course Florence Pugh. She may perhaps be expected to take on Scarlett’s ‘Widow’ mantle in future and if so, it’s a canny choice, because one of the few reasons I consented to return to the cinema to see yet another MCU film was the presence of Pugh (and the director, Cate Shortland, whose style in her earlier, much lower-budget psychological dramas like Somersault and Lore, at times here manages to penetrate through the studio playbook). Of course, there are also the big explosions, the silly fights (there’s a lot that’s silly, both intentional and not) and the crashing of enormous things into the ground, but you’ve got David Harbour for the comic relief (who is very good at that), and some genuinely quite sweet scenes between Pugh and Johansson as sort-of sisters rediscovering their bond. Also, secretly, maybe the whole film is actually an allegory for #FreeBritney; certainly there is a message there that touches on conservatorship, I think, and about alienating women from choices over their bodies.

Black Widow (2021)CREDITS
Director Cate Shortland; Writers Eric Pearson, Jac Shaffer and Ned Benson; Cinematographer Gabriel Beristáin; Starring Scarlett Johansson, Florence Pugh, Rachel Weisz, David Harbour, Ray Winstone, O-T Fagbenle; Length 134 minutes.
Seen at the Penthouse, Wellington, Saturday 10 July 2021.

First Cow (2019)

I have been holding out for this particular film since I first heard about it after it screened at the 2019 New York Film Festival. That was even before there was a pandemic, and needless to say I’m extremely glad it’s finally been screened in NZ, because it’s clearly not the most commercial of pictures. Perhaps some of the director’s previous excellent works got it that slot, or maybe it’s because there was less of a glut of Hollywood nonsense clogging up the screens, but either way I’m glad! It’s great! I saw it twice.


Director Kelly Reichardt’s style by now is pretty evolved, and there’s a gentleness to the pacing that belies some of the emotional stakes. Because at core this is a film about capitalism and exploitation even in the supposed freedom of the frontier, out west in early-19th century Oregon. It couldn’t be more different tonally (and in Academy-ratio colour rather than black-and-white) but I kept thinking of the similar backdrop to Dead Man and how differently the two films handle this land and the characters who are out here forging a life (the kind of loud-mouthed military man played by Ewen Bremner is far more cut from that generic cloth than the two leads, the kinds of people you just don’t usually see in Westerns, being quiet and humble and self-effacing). However, having the comparison in mind already meant it didn’t feel like much of a surprise when Gary Farmer showed up in a small role towards the end. At a narrative level, though, what surprised me is that this is essentially the story of the first hipster food stall in Oregon (of course I jest, it’s so much more than that) but also that suggests an underlying comedy that might easily be missed by focusing on the harsh frontier lives or the pathos of this single cow out there on a rich man’s land.

First Cow (2019)CREDITS
Director Kelly Reichardt; Writers Jonathan Raymond and Reichardt (based on Raymond’s novel The Half Life); Cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt; Starring John Magaro, Orion Lee, Toby Jones, Ewen Bremner, Scott Shepherd, Gary Farmer; Length 121 minutes.
Seen at Light House Cuba, Wellington, Friday 30 April 2021 and Wednesday 5 May 2021.