Criterion Sunday 401: Night on Earth (1991)

Jim Jarmusch wasn’t unfamiliar with making portmanteau movies (this one or Coffee and Cigarettes), and elsewhere at the very least has divided his films into distinct chapters, as he did in Stranger Than Paradise (one of which was initially released as a short film before he had funding for the rest of the feature). So it’s not unusual for him that here he covers people driving taxis in five different cities, two in the US (LA and NYC) as well as Paris, Rome and Helsinki.

It’s interesting to see people online responding quite differently to each of these five segments. The Roman section is probably the most divisive, but then again it largely depends how you feel about Roberto Benigni as a screen presence. He riffs away on various themes, mostly of the illicitly sexual variety, while driving a priest across Rome, and so the humour is largely broad and upfront. It’s not what Jarmusch is perhaps best known for, and it’s certainly not my favourite kind of humour, so it largely passes me by. NYC is also pretty broad in its humour, but it’s fun to see Giancarlo Esposito and Rosie Perez play off each other, so soon after Do the Right Thing, and they attack it with plenty of energy. Paris, meanwhile, uses one of Jarmusch’s favourite actors, Isaach de Bankolé, and I do always love just watching his face and the way he channels emotions — of course the taxi setup means that watching faces becomes much easier for us as an audience as everyone is facing forward and largely unmoving. That said, the blindness metaphor into which Béatrice Dalle is cast is a little heavy handed.

This leaves the first and last segments, probably my own favourites, because of the way they use the limited space (there is very little that takes place outside the taxi journeys), as well as the iconic actors in each: Gena Rowlands and Winona Ryder in the former; Matti Pellonpää in the latter. He has a face I could watch for ages, and so it’s a great way to wrap the film up, melancholy and doleful though he is.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • The main extra is an almost hour-long audio recording of Jarmusch answering questions from fans which have been sent into and filtered by the Criterion office. He is generous with his answers and gives plenty of context to what he was doing with this film, as well as shedding light on his own artistic practice, so it’s well worth listening.
  • Another feature is a 5-minute piece from Belgian TV to mark the release of the film back in 1992, in which they bundle Jarmusch into the back of a Paris taxi and have him talk about the film. He actually hits a few of the same points as he did 15 years later in the Q&A featurette above, but it’s still a good interview.
  • The booklet has five writers linked to each of the cities in the film speak to their section of the film, with evident warmth from many, though they don’t always love their own city’s section the most within the film.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jim Jarmusch; Cinematographer Frederick Elmes; Starring Gena Rowlands, Winona Ryder, Giancarlo Esposito, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Rosie Perez, Isaach de Bankolé, Béatrice Dalle, Roberto Benigni, Matti Pellonpää; Length 128 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 21 February 2021 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, December 2000).

Little Women (1994)

Well, I’ve done my due diligence now and have watched Gillian Armstrong’s 1990s adaptation of this perennial classic. It’s as white as the snow that adorns the Christmastime landscapes, but has many of the same delights as the most recent adaptation by Greta Gerwig.


Watching this for the first time after seeing the latest adaptation, and it feels in retrospect like that was a remix of this one (not least because the two adaptations share the same producers). Gerwig’s version cuts up the narrative, and reimagines what some of the leads might be like with different actors, but they have a certain fidelity in some respects. For my money, Christian Bale here has exactly the same dandyish energy as Timothée Chalamet in the new one and controversial as it may be, I like Saoirse Ronan more than Winona Ryder, although I don’t think it can be overestimated just how much Ryder embodied the 1990s in cinema. I feel sad that Trini Alvarado never had much of a (film) career after this, because she is every bit as good as everyone else in this ensemble cast. There’s a lush, almost nostalgic glow, but the film doesn’t dwell in this comfort, acknowledging the hardship and the sadness of life that surrounds the family. And then of course there’s Beth, who surely never had a better rendition than that by Claire Danes. Somehow director Gillian Armstrong’s choice to cut from her final bed scene to the nanny harshly ripping apart roses feels perfect, and in many ways this film may come to be viewed as one of the finest of the decade.

Little Women film posterCREDITS
Director Gillian Armstrong; Writer Robin Swicord (based on the novel by Louisa May Alcott); Cinematographer Geoffrey Simpson; Starring Winona Ryder, Christian Bale, Susan Sarandon, Trini Alvarado, Claire Danes, Kirsten Dunst, Gabriel Byrne; Length 118 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Friday 27 December 2019.

Homefront (2013)

Jason Statham has been plugging away at playing the cinematic hardman in a series of taut if unchallenging action films (like this year’s Parker) for the best part of the last decade, and by this point largely exists in a separate cinematic universe where he is a major star. He may never trouble any of the backslapping industry awards for achievements in acting, but in his genre he’s a far more notable figure than, say, James Franco, which is why it’s rather a surprise to see Franco here. Then again, Franco has a notable sideline in taking roles for what I can only call the WTF value, so perhaps I’m overstating my case. At any account, Statham is the real draw and if the pleasures of this retrogressive B-flick are firmly in the right-wing vigilante-justice side of the ledger — Statham’s former undercover cop Phil flees the big city with his daughter after a big showdown with a gang leader to lead a quiet life by the Louisiana bayous, but trouble predictably follows him — it’s still enjoyable for what it is.

I think a lot of the appeal of this kind of film really comes down to how you feel about the stars. Personally, I enjoy Statham and I even feel he’s starting to develop as an actor — there are some quiet early scenes with his daughter where he is pretty effective at concisely hinting at an emotional backstory for his character Phil Broker, and he can certainly come across as likeable on-screen (even if the romance subplot is expectedly underdeveloped, his short scenes with his daughter’s teacher don’t stretch credulity too far). However, most of the film relies on his ability to throw bad guys around, and that’s clearly where his forte lies. Elsewhere the acting is reliable, though Franco’s meth-producer “Gator” is difficult to believe as a dangerous bad guy and by the film’s later stages his initial show of menace has been reliably undercut by a series of real action film heavies (the tattooed biker gang from whom Statham is on the run). The female lead is essentially Phil’s 10-year-old daughter, Maddy (Izabela Vidovic), who gets some playground confrontations with a school bully early on (whose own very brief subplot is rather affecting), but is believably imperilled later (so, no Kick Ass-style action heroics for her). Elsewhere other female characters start strongly (Kate Bosworth’s meth-addicted Cassie) but are also quickly sidelined; Winona Ryder’s supporting role is introduced into the film suddenly and without much fanfare, though one can’t be sure if her overacting is down to a poor script (she takes the brunt of the bad guys’ verbal abuse) or the fact that she plays a meth-addled tweaker.

For me, the real weakness is in Gary Fleder’s direction, and specifically in the editing of the fight scenes, which need to be at the heart of an action thriller. Unfortunately, they pass in an incoherent blur of quick cuts and frenetic movement, making quite what’s happening difficult to discern (beyond one’s gut feeling that Statham’s ex-cop probably has the upper-hand). Still, the script by Sylvester Stallone is pretty decent, though that appearance by a threatening biker gang smacks of retro throwback. Elsewhere it hints at the kind of tight-knit small-town internecine feuding that’s been better and more threateningly conveyed in slow-burning rural dramas like Winter’s Bone (2010) — Statham’s outsider status and certain signifiers of his comfier middle-class status (big old house, brand-new pick-up truck) are frequently referenced by his poor, rural Louisiana antagonists. That said, Theo van de Sande’s solid cinematography keeps it all big and shiny, with swooping helicopter shots to kick things off and golden light filtering across the bayous — threatening darkness and shadows are generally kept to a minimum.

I enjoyed Homefront, though. With a British lead in Statham (whose accent is faltering to say the least, and makes one wish he’d just stuck with the English accent for the whole thing), the gung-ho patriotism is kept to a minimum, whatever may be implied by the title and the American flag colours on the posters. Even the sentimentality is generally reined in, and what we’re left with is a fairly taut throwback of an action movie that delivers on everything it needs to. You should know in advance whether you want to watch it, but I’m sure it’ll keep plenty of home video viewers perfectly happy.

Homefront film posterCREDITS
Director Gary Fleder; Writer Sylvester Stallone (based on the novel by Chuck Logan); Cinematographer Theo van de Sande; Starring Jason Statham, James Franco, Izabela Vidovic, Winona Ryder; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Monday 9 December 2013.