राज़ी Raazi (2018)

Meghna Gulzar is a filmmaker with a family history in the arts, who has directed a number of films, including one I reviewed recently upon the untimely death of Irrfan Khan, Talvar (2015). She has a distinctive style and an interest in historical stories that puts her a little outside the usual glam and glitz of the Bollywood musical romantic comedy setpieces. This film from a couple of years ago also stars the lovely Alia Bhatt, one of my favourite contemporary actors, who was in the recent Gully Boy (2019), the delightful Dear Zindagi (2016) and the very silly Shaandaar (2015).


The actions of nations at war with one another, with all the outward military braggadocio, nationalist fervour and, behind the scenes, deadly games of subterfuge and espionage, have always been great fodder for big-screen drama. And it’s usually too easy for filmmakers to lapse into one-note patriotism and against-the-odds heroics, which is why this film feels so interesting to me. Its star Alia Bhatt plays an Indian spy in the lead up to the brief Indo-Pakistani war of 1971, who inveigles her way into a leading Pakistani military family in the aims of sending vital intelligence back to her own country, but yet her character isn’t defined by what she does during that time, and she goes through great emotional trauma in getting her job done. This means that there are a lot of punchy scenes with Bhatt breaking down under the strain, but thankfully she’s an excellent actress and equal to that. Yet her character has a job to do and is competent at it even when personal ties make it difficult, and the film lies in that awkward place between personal responsibility and the dangerous (if not at times lethal) requirements of her profession.

It is successful not just because of the enormous charm and acting ability of its lead (not to mention the supporting cast: her Indian spy handler has more than a little of Colin Firth to him), but with a great deal of commercial sheen to it. 1970s period details are left comfortably in the background to the central spy vs relationship drama, and the film avoids shifting tones relentlessly (as other big Indian films sometimes have a tendency to do). Being a spy here is gripping stuff, and clearly not as glamorous as some other films make out.

CREDITS
Director Meghna Gulzar मेघना गुलज़ार; Writers Bhavani Iyer भवानी अय्यर and Gulzar (based on the novel Calling Selmat by Harinder Sikka हरिंदर सिक्का); Cinematographer Jay I. Patel জয় আই. প্যাটেল; Starring Alia Bhatt आलिया भट्ट, Vicky Kaushal विक्की कौशल; Length 140 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Tuesday 22 May 2018.

The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution (2015)

The historical antecedents to the current turbulent relationship between Black people and entrenched white power in the contemporary United States stretch back a long way, obviously starting with slavery, but developing through the Civil War, Jim Crow policies in the South, the Great Northward Migration of the early-20th century (on which topic The Warmth of Other Sons by Isabel Wilkerson is excellent), and then the Civil Rights era. It is during this latter period that the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense (they subsequently shortened their name) were a key player. Agnès Varda filmed a short documentary about them in 1968, but a more thorough retrospective work is this one by Stanley Nelson. Incidentally, you can see a bit of their current work in Roberto Minervini’s documentary What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? (2019). The Black Panthers continue to be committed to supporting their own communities in straitened times. The hope for revolution may have receded, but systemic change is very clearly still very much required, and ever more urgently so.


A solid, involving and engrossing story that is rooted in the displacement and fallout from the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s which leads to the formation of the Black Panther Party, which took a rather more militant stance towards (white) aggression but also underpinned it with radical transformative community-based care. It’s in some sense a story of resistance to power, an almost utopian viewpoint albeit one grounded in bitter reality, undone by the forces of the state — and this is where the film’s real bad guys, the FBI (supported by the police), come in. Of course, the story is never really straightforward, and there’s some infighting and fall-outs along the way from within, but on the whole this film is clear about what the Black Panthers were offering, and how tantalisingly close they came to true revolution before being targeted and all-but-destroyed by J. Edgar Hoover’s Feds.

The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution film posterCREDITS
Director Stanley Nelson Jr.; Cinematographers Rick Butler and Antonio Rossi; Length 115 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 24 October 2019.

S21, la machine de mort Khmère rouge (S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine, 2003)

I haven’t seen much Cambodian cinema, but most of what makes it to the West has a tendency to deal with one very limited period in the country’s history, which is the Khmer Rouge regime of the mid-20th century and its leader Pol Pot. Undoubtedly it was a dramatic and turbulent time, a defining era for the modern age and a legacy with which the country and its people are still contending. It’s certainly made up a number of prominent films from director Rithy Panh, of which this is perhaps the most straightforward.


Some subjects demand a documentary style that’s not based in audacious formalism but in quiet documentation of atrocity. Here, survivors and torturers come together at the site of one of the Khmer Rouge’s most notorious prisons (and now site of a Genocide Museum) and discuss their experiences, as well as reading documents and handing around photos from the camp. In bearing witness and recounting experiences — and those who worked at the camp excuse themselves due to their teenage youth and victimisation by those higher up — there’s a clear sense of how easy it is for a people to slip into genocidal complicity. There are a lot of details of horrors, but it’s all couched in a calm reminiscence that almost heightens it all the more.

S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Rithy Panh ប៉ាន់ រិទ្ធី; Cinematographers Prum Mesa and Panh; Length 101 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Monday 19 December 2016.

White Riot (2019)

A film that’s just come out online at the end of last week is this documentary looking at the start of the Rock Against Racism movement and organisation. It expanded on an earlier short film by the same director and was premiered at the London Film Festival last year, where my mum saw it (she was in town), but it’s been good to catch up with it since, supported by a Q&A with the director and a couple of participants, hosted by Mark Kermode and which is on YouTube.


A documentary looking back at the work of the organisation Rock Against Racism, founded in the mid-70s amidst anger at the increasing pro-fascist rhetoric bandied around by big names like David Bowie, Rod Stewart and most of all Eric Clapton, whose fondness for Enoch Powell and his blood-soaked send-them-all-back-to-*waves hands vaguely* rhetoric, inspired not just anger but also the creation of this movement. Our main guide and entry into this story is “Red” Saunders, the founder of RAR, a man with a big desk and nary a modern device to be seen on it. There’s a certain nostalgia at work here, but I can’t deny it gets to me: the tactility of old zines pulled out, collective remembering of the turbulent times from Red and the people he pulled around him, whether his compatriots at RAR putting together the musical events and their punk publication, or else the musicians with whom he collaborated to get the message out. The archival clips are great, not just of the gigs but more interestingly of the ferment of the time, the rise of the National Front (NF) and their Nazi-embracing thuggery, the complicity of the police. It’s a film that tells a story and doesn’t spare those to blame, but as is only too evident to all of us watching it, has hardly dated in 40-45 years. They may not be called the NF anymore, but the same forces are still with us in British politics, and still need to be called out.

White Riot film posterCREDITS
Director Rubika Shah; Writers Ed Gibbs and Shah; Cinematographer Susanne Salavati; Length 80 minutes.
Seen at home (Curzon Home Cinema streaming), London, Thursday 30 April 2020.

Rocketman (2019)

This is perhaps an outlier in my themed week of British costume dramas, but it’s a period piece and you couldn’t possibly say it doesn’t have costumes, so I’m including it. Obviously it’s a biopic of the life of Elton John, and it’s mounted with impressive brio (even if maybe it’s not entirely for me, I’m willing to believe it is better than the similar production the previous year about Queen, Bohemian Rhapsody, which director Fletcher took over late in proceedings).


I don’t think I’ve ever specifically chosen to listen to an Elton John album or song, but of course they’ve often been on in the background or on soundtracks and such, so a lot of them remain familiar to me. That said, the point I’m making is I’m not really in the demographic for whom this film strikes any particular chord, as I’ve never been a big fan, but I concede that Dexter Fletcher has a solid touch with a musical and this one is good fun to watch. The performances are all good, and it has some nice set-pieces, such as the one where Elton goes from almost dying to being pushed on stage, seemingly in a single sequence. The framing device — him unraveling at an addicts’ group therapy session — is rather too convenient as a way to pull the narrative through his whole life, and he does a lot of confronting his earlier self and family/friends in feverish flashbacks, but it’s a musical, so it rather trades in elevating the quotidian to a magical and surreal level, and at that it succeeds nicely.

Rocketman film posterCREDITS
Director Dexter Fletcher; Writer Lee Hall; Cinematographer George Richmond; Starring Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell, Richard Madden, Bryce Dallas Howard, Stephen Graham; Length 121 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Aldgate, London, Friday 7 June 2019.

Blank City (2010)

As part of the my ‘documentaries about women image makers’ themed week, this documentary isn’t exclusively about that subject, but covers lo-fi no-wave indie filmmaking in New York from the late-1970s onwards, many of whose key creators were women.


An interesting enough documentary that marshals a number of clips, as well as rounding up interviews with the key participants in the so-called “no wave” film/musical movement in NYC in the late-70s and early-80s, as it morphs into an anarchic and nihilist cinema of transgression. It’s interesting to see how the early filmmakers were responding to the city they lived in, with all its chronic underinvestment, poverty, drugs and the resulting bohemian artistic scene. They were all largely based in the downtown area near the Bowery, where clubs like CBGB’s could be found, just after the first breaking of punk music and into the post-punk scene. Some of them went on to mainstream success, while others moved far more into the art world, with varying degrees of success. The film is also keen to stress the central role that women played, not just as stars but as creative participants and directors of films within the movement, and we hear quite a bit from them also, like Vivienne Dick, Sara Driver, Beth B, Susan Seidelman and others. In all, it’s an interesting introduction to a fecund era of artistic creation, which could be every bit as obnoxious and off-putting as it could be cool and inspiring.

Blank City film posterCREDITS
Director Celine Danhier; Cinematographers Ryo Murakami 村上涼 and Peter Szollosi; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 27 December 2018.

Dolemite Is My Name (2019)

One of the first films I watched in the new year was one I’d missed out on at the end of last year, though I’d heard positive things. I don’t daresay it will get Eddie Murphy an Oscar acting nomination, and it is deserving of its fine word of mouth, one of the new tranche of prestige Netflix projects that had some limited cinematic distribution too. I shall probably get back to my themed weeks again starting next week.


Eddie Murphy, it is clear from this movie, can definitely act, and when he puts his mind to it he’s surely among the better performers in Hollywood even now. This in particular is a lovely film because it puts on screen so many excellent and capable Black character actors, in the service of telling a story that’s pure American Dream in a way: the idea that with enough application of willpower and can-do attitude, you can achieve your dreams, especially when those dreams are putting out raunchy comedy records and getting into the movies (which one could imagine would be appealing to Murphy, given his own history). He plays Rudy Ray Moore, a struggling musician and variety performer who gained some localised fame with a streetwise character called Dolemite, whom he then put on the big screen in a blaxploitation film of that name in 1975. This, then, is a fairly mainstream rendering of the man/the myth which hits all the requisite biopic notes (the rise and fall and rise sort of narrative) but with grace and humour, and guided by that stellar performance of Murphy’s, meaning it’s never dull. It also shows that for all Moore’s raunchy attitude on stage, he was reflective and thoughtful about the material itself and wasn’t just interested in exploiting people for his own personal success, which as a moral doesn’t hurt either.

Dolemite Is My Name film posterCREDITS
Director Craig Brewer; Writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski; Cinematographer Eric Steelberg; Starring Eddie Murphy, Tituss Burgess, Craig Robinson, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Wesley Snipes, Keegan-Michael Key; Length 118 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Thursday 1 January 2020.

The Irishman (2019)

Today sees the UK release of Harriet, but only two weeks ago we got a brand new biopic from Martin Scorsese. For that I did a themed week around very long films, but this week’s theme means I can revisit that film and post a review. I liked it. I gather some didn’t or felt it somehow less consequential in Scorsese’s oeuvre, but a lot of people have been gunning for him for some throwaway but no less deeply felt comments about superhero movies. Still, there’s a place for everything in modern cinema, and even if three-and-a-half hour gangster epics are mostly being made for streaming services now, it was still a solid box office draw given the very large packed cinema I saw this one in on a Saturday afternoon.


Look, I mean yes Scorsese has some good films (even some great ones) in all genres, but the stuff he’s always been best at capturing is the world of gangsters — a shady world of men closed away behind dark glasses in subterranean lairs — but those worlds have changed as he’s got older. Now the gangsters are old too, they’re old men who have lost things in life, maybe lost everything, lost their friends, alienated their families and are just these old men, dying off and being forgotten. No matter how powerful you were, how much influence you had, eventually people forget your name, your legacy and everything that made you important when you were in your prime, and that’s eventually what it feels like he’s getting at by the end of this film. The de-aging technology has been much discussed, but even when these men are presumably playing 20 or 30-year-olds, back in the 1950s, they still look like old men, move in a hulking slow way — I don’t think that’s wrong for the characters, but in practice they always seem old no matter what the time period is. The timelines are all mixed up, though, as events from one era rush into those from another, because this is a story being told from the perspective of that old, forgotten gangster, as snippets of events seem to hit him and pull him along, and for all of its length, the film is never slow or boring, provided you like this slow-burning vibe that Scorsese is going for. Pacino does his usual big thing, though increasingly looking like Steve Van Zandt as he gets older in the film (and Little Steven is in the film too, in a small part, playing some old school crooner on stage I believe), but the rest of the cast are all about intensity, not least Joe Pesci, who feels like the real standout in this ensemble. It’s a good film, is what I’m saying.

The Irishman film posterCREDITS
Director Martin Scorsese; Writer Steven Zaillian (based on the non-fiction book I Heard You Paint Houses by Charles Brandt); Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto; Starring Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Ray Romano, Anna Paquin, Stephen Graham; Length 209 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Mayfair, London, Saturday 9 November 2019.

Two 2018 Biopics Directed by Women: On the Basis of Sex and Mary Queen of Scots

I don’t like to feature films I find a little disappointing, but both of these biopics failed to live up to the expectations created by the respective subjects and the many fine actors involved. Still, it’s worth shining some light on them as both are directed by women (albeit both written by men), and perhaps others will enjoy them more than I did. Both have a lot to commend them, after all, despite my tepid reviews.

Continue reading “Two 2018 Biopics Directed by Women: On the Basis of Sex and Mary Queen of Scots”

If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)

Of recent cinematic talent, there are few who have garnered as much attention as Barry Jenkins — not least thanks to his Oscar-winning Moonlight (2016), though that came quite a few years after his debut Medicine for Melancholy (2008). Still, it allowed him to make this film, which is as gorgeous and sensuous a film as any made in the last decade.


I mean, clearly, I was never not going to love this film: Barry Jenkins’ filmmaking is almost the definition of what I like in terms of film style, a swooning, gauzy, gorgeous, beautifully-orchestrated adaptation of a great writer’s work. (I hadn’t even realised that I’d seen the only other Baldwin film adaptation, which is of the same novel, 20 years ago, and while I doubt that Robert Guédiguian’s À la place du coeur is bad, because I have liked his films a fair deal, it also hasn’t stuck in my mind at all…) Anyway, this film has all the beauty and sense of atmosphere he brought to Moonlight, as it follows the love story of these two young people bringing a child into the world. KiKi Layne is fantastic as Tish, in particular, and I don’t know why she’s not getting all the awards attention, but it’s possibly because she pulls her character in so tightly, as this woman who seems to be trying to disappear under the eyes of the adults around her, almost squeaking out her lines, while very clearly having huge reserves of strength and passion within her that at times become far more evident. Jenkins’ style is to draw out these moments with a great, tender eye, such as when the two families meet together, which is like a slow-motion car crash of a scene, at once going exactly how you expect it will, but also with these moments between actors (Teyonah Parris as Tish’s sister is another highlight), as they catch one another’s eye, or react almost imperceptibly but palpably on film. It’s a gorgeous piece of filmmaking, and a beautiful love story too, which happens to make clear the immense amount of difficulty they have to face just going about their day-to-day lives, as young Black people in America. It may be set in the 70s, but one doesn’t feel much has changed in certain respects.

If Beale Street Could Talk film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Barry Jenkins (based on the novel by James Baldwin); Cinematographer James Laxton; Starring KiKi Layne, Stephan James, Regina King, Teyonah Parris, Brian Tyree Henry; Length 117 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Sunday 10 February 2019.