Paris Is Burning (1990)

It’s an overwhelming experience this film, a very early touchstone for a transgender community still rarely represented on-screen (especially in 1990), and seeing it followed by a panel discussion of people of colour involved in the ball community added extra layers and made it clear there’s plenty to criticise — mostly in terms of how the scene is presented, how the personalities are little more than icons, and whether this is a form of gentrification of a subculture. Primarily, it made clear to me that this is not a fleeting fad that has since disappeared, but is part of almost a century of continuous development, just that mostly it’s been out of sight of those such as myself (and presumably the director of this film).

As for the film, whatever criticism one may make about some of the ways it frames its talent, the sheer energy and presence of these performers is real and amazing. They ARE fabulous, they take control of their space, of the viewer, they step beyond the frame of the filmmaker and outside the bounds of any conventional criticism, along the way creating a vocabulary which has flourished ever since. Almost all of the key players of the film are dead now, and only 25-30 years has passed. Many of them reflect cogently and sometimes with ruefulness in the film about the conditions of society which hold them back, but then their performance and their lives make such an impression as to make it clear how important it is to be part of a community of people in safe and nurturing spaces. I can only hope such spaces continue to be available to those who need them.


RETROSPECTIVE SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW: BFI Blackstar
Director Jennie Livingston | Cinematographer Paul Gibson | Length 78 minutes || Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Tuesday 29 November 2016

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Miles Ahead (2015)

This biopic (of sorts) about Miles Davis is clearly a labour of love for director, writer, producer and star Don Cheadle, but it’s only intermittently successful as a film. Cheadle is excellent, though quite how much he captures of the famously prickly Davis is certainly debatable, but the real issue is the way it makes Ewan McGregor’s Scottish music journo the way into the story. McGregor is largely pointless, and indeed spends a lot of the time on the sidelines distracting attention by repeating inane profanities. Perhaps he’s there, though, to allow Davis someone on whom to unleash his violent temper, for he had a rather more disturbing tendency for spousal abuse, little of which we see here except for one music-led sequence with his first wife Frances (a powerful Emayatzy Corinealdi, probably the film’s best performance). That said, it’s far from a hagiography, and while it comes with the imprimatur of the musician’s estate, it also doesn’t downplay his irritable, violent and self-destructive sides. Indeed, much of the film is taken up with a boisterous (and freewheelingly invented) chase sequence as Davis tries to track down some purloined master tapes from his late-1970s ‘comeback’ (he dropped out of the business for five years), though flashbacks to the first flush of his late-1940s and 1950s success recur throughout. I wanted to like this a lot more than I ended up doing, but it’s a noble attempt to capture something of this jazz legend.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Don Cheadle | Writers Steven Baigelman and Don Cheadle | Cinematographer Roberto Schaefer | Starring Don Cheadle, Ewan McGregor, Emayatzy Corinealdi | Length 100 minutes || Seen at Curzon Victoria, London, Friday 22 April 2016

Orion: The Man Who Would Be King (2015)

From the prominent BBC Storyville credits, I’m assuming this documentary was made for TV, and in a way it’s sort of appropriate to that format as it’s about a guy that time and fate has pushed into the background. Jimmy Ellis, who performed under a mask and the stage name Orion for a period in the late-70s and 1980s, was a tall man from Mississippi with a very distinctive singing voice, in that he sounded exactly like Elvis. However, he was no impersonator — he tended to distance himself wherever possible from Elvis — but just desperate to pursue a singing career. This is how, despite being brought up on a farm, he ended up taking a gig following the death of Elvis as the mysterious masked Orion, a mystique that his manager at Sun Records insisted upon as a way for him to succeed. The documentary makes its way through his life with some talking heads (including surviving family members) and testimony as to both how much he wanted the life, and how much he was exploited by those who saw the chance for a quick buck (very little of which Jimmy saw) out of this beautifully-voiced but fairly ingenuous guy. It’s a fascinating story for those of us (like me) unfamiliar with the legend, and a sad one, though that much seems clear from the outset — you never get the sense that Ellis was ever destined for real stardom. Still, it’s a sweet little film. Ellis seems like he was a gentleman, and those left behind remember him fondly, plus there are some surprises along the way (specifically about his possible genealogy), so it holds the viewer’s interest.


© Entertainment One

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Jeanie Finlay | Cinematographers Mark Bushnell and Steven Sheil | Length 86 minutes || Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Tuesday 29 September 2015

McFarland, USA (2015)

The feel-good sports film is a genre Kevin Costner has always had a good handle on, from his baseball films in the late-80s and Tin Cup (1996), a much underrated golf comedy. He’s done some others about baseball again, boxing and American football more recently, but I didn’t catch those. However, this Disney film about an against-the-odds cross-country running team in late-80s California is his latest venture, and most pleasing it is too. Whale Rider director Niki Caro has been drafted in, and crafts a solid story of some young underprivileged Latin American kids in a poor Southern Californian town who are helped towards unlikely sporting glory by their high school coach Jim White (played by Costner, and affectionately called ‘blanco’ by the kids). White spots their potential as they run to and from the fields where they spend hours before and after school in the back-breaking labour of picking crops, and the film incidentally gives a good sense of some of that hidden labour that underlies our modern food systems, not to mention the rather less-hidden dimension of class and race-based tension that is palpable when the team start to meet their wealthier competition. The (white) White family are ostensibly at the story’s heart, but the film gives plenty of time to the seven kids on the running team and their extended families, particularly the star runner Thomas (Carlos Pratts), so as to avoid some of the crasser dimensions of movies condescending to the yokels/poor/racialised Other. That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of genre clichés, but they’re handled as subtly as they can be, without distracting from the team achievement at the film’s core. And of course, Costner once again proves dependable in the lead.


© Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Niki Caro | Writers Christopher Cleveland, Bettina Gilois and Grant Thompson | Cinematographer Adam Arkapaw | Starring Kevin Costner, Carlos Pratts, Maria Bello, Morgan Saylor | Length 129 minutes || Seen at Cineworld Wandsworth, London, Sunday 27 September 2015

Straight Outta Compton (2015)

What’s most surprising to me about this biopic of seminal late-1980s rap band N.W.A. is that it qualifies for my New Year’s Resolution by having a female co-writer. It’s not surprising in the sense of FINALLY PROVING that women can write rounded and realistic male characters (I jest), but because the women in the film are so peripheral to the story as to be little more than gyrating appendages in music videos (aside perhaps from Eazy-E’s widow Tomica, who’s also a producer on the film). It is, indeed, a very male-centred film about a group of friends and their rise from impoverished backgrounds in LA’s Compton neighbourhood to musical dominance as the progenitors of the ‘gangsta rap’ style. The film’s central players are introduced by on-screen captions, with the three most prominent members of the group being Ice Cube (played by his son, O’Shea Jackson Jr., as an embittered and angry young man), the focused Dr. Dre (Jason Mitchell), and the guy that helps to bring them all together, Eazy-E (Corey Hawkins), who true to his name has a more laidback lifestyle — which is to say, there are plenty of women and drugs involved.

The arc of the film is classic Hollywood biopic — rags to riches, complicated by egos and money — but in focusing its story on black characters, the film already moves some way towards redressing the whitewashing of (musical) history engaged in by other mainstream productions. Indeed, the casting of Paul Giamatti as manager Jerry Heller recalls his almost identical work in a very similar (and far whiter) film about Brian Wilson only a few months ago, and if Love & Mercy seemed to impart a good sense of how its music was made, Straight Outta Compton is most focused on positioning its protagonists within the wider social context of racial discrimination — looping in the Rodney King beating and subsequent riots. However, perhaps even more than that, the film is concerned with the band’s contractual and label disputes, which is where Giamatti’s character comes in, not to mention Suge Knight and his roster of stars (Tupac Shakur pops up briefly, for example).

There are undoubtedly valid criticisms of the rampant chauvinism — which after all in a sense reflects the culture of this era and of these protagonists — and there’s also the not unrelated issue of the way the film occludes some of the characters’ more disturbing history with women, but that’s not really something for me to address. Suffice to say that it’s been written about by black women, whether those involved (Dee Barnes on Gawker.com), or in articles both critical of the film’s representation of women and more lenient (the latter two links from Bitch Magazine). However, for what it is, it’s fantastically accomplished, and as one might expect, it’s the live music scenes which are most compelling. Ice Cube’s anger is not only clearly contextualised, it’s sadly still necessary, which is what gives a song like “Fuck tha Police” so much power even after more than 25 years, meaning that N.W.A.’s music still has plenty to offer to audiences, whatever race they may be.


© Universal Pictures

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director F. Gary Gray | Writers Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff | Cinematographer Matthew Libatique | Starring O’Shea Jackson Jr., Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Paul Giamatti | Length 147 minutes || Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Monday 31 August 2015

Love & Basketball (2000)

I’ve been on holiday the last week, and have just returned home, so I’m a bit late in writing up this review. Apologies if it seems particularly weak as a result.


Director Gina Price-Bythewood’s most recent film Beyond the Lights was fantastic and an eye-opener for me, in being a serious-minded romance film that didn’t condescend or resort to sentimentality. Looking back at her feature film debut from 15 years earlier, all the elements were in place even then, though this story takes place against a backdrop of college basketball rather than music. Both leads (Omar Epps as Quincy, and Sanaa Lathan as Monica) are adept at their respective roles, and the film tracks their friendship (and courtship) over a period of years, from childhood moving into neighbouring Los Angeles homes, to professional careers in basketball. Along the way, Prince-Bythewood adroitly tackles the way that gender influences their respective careers, and though the women’s game is no less absorbing when we see it played, it’s clearly not the money ticket that Quincy has with the NBA. The roles of their parents (particularly Quincy’s father, himself a famous basketball player, played by Dennis Haysbert; and Monica’s mother, played by Alfre Woodard) are quite central to the film, which is a coming of age of sorts, and sets out the generational difficulties rather well, as the kids must emerge from their parents’ shadows.


FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Gina Prince-Bythewood | Cinematographer Reynaldo Villalobos | Starring Sanaa Lathan, Omar Epps, Dennis Haysbert, Alfre Woodard | Length 124 minutes || Seen at home (streaming), London, Monday 31 August 2015

Love & Mercy (2014)

To be honest, I’m no huge fan of Brian Wilson or his music. Sure I have a copy of Pet Sounds and I acknowledge its undoubted artistry, but there’s a level of lionisation with Wilson’s work that sits uneasily with me. “Genius” is a word apt to be applied to creative white guys and the film uses it in a rather pointless final card, but at the very least he’s a virtuoso. Still, if you’re going to do a biopic of the man, this one certainly seems to take the right way, overlapping narratives (60s Brian played by Paul Dano, and 80s Brian played by John Cusack) to echo the way that Wilson himself juxtaposes harmonies and keys in his music. Cusack’s (lack of) resemblance to Wilson has already been covered pretty well elsewhere, but in large part he’s just a foil to Elizabeth Banks’s Melinda, who helps him to come out of the heavily-medicated dark hole that his doctor (an almost Grand Guignol villain turn from Paul Giamatti) keeps him in. That story feels like a bit of a cop-out (history is written by the winners after all), and Banks is almost too saintly, though she’s always been a sympathetic performer. However, when the film focuses on Dano’s remarkably poised performance, crafting music in the studio by channelling his wayward creative mind, it really hits its stride.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Bill Pohlad | Writers Michael Alan Lerner and Oren Moverman | Cinematographer Robert Yeoman | Starring John Cusack, Paul Dano, Elizabeth Banks, Paul Giamatti | Length 121 minutes || Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Monday 13 July 2015

Wet Hot American Summer (2001)

A friend loves this film, and somehow it had passed me by when it was made, but there’s a Netflix series coming up soon, so I thought I’d better catch up with it. Perhaps I overlooked it because, as I recently discovered, it was loathed by critics at the time. I’ve no idea why. Sure it’s silly, and maybe it’s true, as one critic avers, that it’s impossible to really satirise 80s teen films. Having grown up with dreck like Revenge of the Nerds (1984) — one of the better titles — I was hardly keen to revisit the territory. However, it’s certainly possible to have fun with the genre, and in ways that are less sleazy and exploitative than some of those straight-to-VHS entries seemed at the time. Well, this film has fun with the genre. Janeane Garofalo plays the director of a summer camp, and a range of comedians (some established, some like Elizabeth Banks and Amy Poehler who would go on to further success later on) play her staff. The film’s focus is mostly on everyman Coop (played by the film’s co-writer Michael Showalter), but it’s in the surrounding ensemble that the comedy is found. To me, the comic highlights seem to be Paul Rudd as the obstreperous and childish yet unlikely ladies’ man Andy, and Christopher Meloni’s Vietnam veteran chef Gene. Hopefully, it’ll translate well to series-length television, but the breadth of talent and the likeability of the cast should be in its favour.


FILM REVIEW
Director David Wain | Writers David Wain and Michael Showalter | Cinematographer Ben Weinstein | Starring Michael Showalter, Janeane Garofalo, Paul Rudd, David Hyde Pierce, Christopher Meloni | Length 97 minutes || Seen at home (streaming), London, Saturday 11 July 2015

Shooting for Socrates (2014)

There’s not a great deal I can say about this film except that it’s a sweet-hearted (PG-rated!) take on a small moment in Northern Ireland’s sporting history, namely their advancement to the football World Cup finals in Mexico 1986, and their match against the world famous Brazilian team. (This team is led by the hirsute doctor of the film’s title, and namesake of a famous Greek philosopher, as is mentioned once or twice.) I was not quite 10 years old when this took place, but being Scottish I had my own set of sporting disappointments to deal with, and not against Brazil. There’s a kid about that age here, too, and the film uses the experience of him and his family as a window into the way the country reacted to their team’s achievement, against the backdrop of the Troubles and ever-present sectarian divisions. Alongside the domestic story is that of the team, coached by Billy Bingham (John Hannah) and followed by a TV news crew dominated by the preening Jackie (Conleth Hill), who rather steals the scenes he’s in. Aside from showing Billy indulging in a bit of low-level corruption, not to mention the familiar tanks and soldiers on the streets of Belfast, the film sticks to a good-natured tone, keeping things ticking along by cutting between the different storylines, and it never outstays its welcome.


© New Black Films

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director James Erskine | Writers James Erskine and Marie Jones | Cinematographer Joel Devlin | Starring John Hannah, Conleth Hill | Length 91 minutes || Seen at Empire Leicester Square, London, Tuesday 9 June 2015

Two Recent Period Films: A Most Violent Year and Inherent Vice (2014)

© Warner Bros. Pictures

Two films that I’ve seen in the last week have a sort of complementary quality, as they are both films set in the United States at either end of the 1970s and at either edge of the country, charting a marked social decline and dealing broadly with the creeping corruption of deeply-held ideals. Inherent Vice is set in 1970, and is a broadly-comic meandering Los Angeles-based story focused on stoner detective Larry ‘Doc’ Martello (Joaquin Phoenix), while A Most Violent Year has its principled entrepreneur Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) try to grow his business in the New York City of 1981.

I like both very much, though I suspect that aspects of the narrative construction will turn off some viewers. Both can be frustrating, albeit in slightly different ways. J.C. Chandor’s New York-set film is one of underlit interiors and slow-build dramatic tension, as Abel tries to get financing for a property deal that will give his company a platform to grow, while trying to figure out who is sabotaging his attempts. It’s a film with a canny sense of space, largely charting a series of offices and homes where Morales and his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) broker deals and balance books. There’s only a small amount of kinetic action: the drama is in the deals, and for a film quite so obsessed with Morales’s company accounts, it generates plenty of tension. Bradford Young’s understated cinematography gains maximum effect from the ever-popular yellowish sepia-toned filters that impart a nostalgic quality (while expertly blocking shots of the city’s skyline to occlude where the Twin Towers would be).

Ostensibly quite different in look and tone, Inherent Vice also builds slowly, but in a more novelistic way (befitting its source text) — a patchwork of characters and motivations that can overload the viewer. Those for whom plot details are important may be turned off by the excess of them, but in that respect it’s not unlike similarly overplotted gumshoe stories as The Big Sleep (1946). The setting and look, not to mention that paranoid West Coast vibe, bring to mind another Chandler point of reference in The Long Goodbye (1973). Cinematographer Robert Elswit has done a terrific job in replicating a lot of that earlier film’s feel, using celluloid stock to gorgeous effect. It’s the visual equivalent of a vinyl record — I’ll stop short of hymning any richer ‘authenticity’ (because I have little truck with those kinds of arguments), but it definitely imparts a quite different feel from the digitally-shot Violent Year.

Right now, I might as well go ahead and admit something controversial amongst critics, which is that I’ve never been much of a fan of auteur Paul Thomas Anderson and his massively overpraised films. Sure they’re well-crafted, but I’ve felt a hollowness of over-eager self-congratulatory intent from The Master and There Will Be Blood in particular; I’ve not hated either, but I’ve stopped short of embracing them. Indeed, at the end of last year, I was all ready to write a bit of anti-PTA clickbait in the run-up to this most recent opus. And yet, well, here we are, and I really liked Inherent Vice. It’s been getting a bit of a kicking from some quarters that feels entirely undeserved. It’s a mood piece, of hippy idealism being quietly subverted by forces of governmental conformism and the unscrupulousness of capitalist property developers. Mental health wellness institutions, massage parlours, office blocks and Aryan thugs are all brought into the picture to complicate the pot-addled simplicity of Doc’s lifestyle, and Phoenix is frequently called upon to express wide-eyed confusion at unfolding developments (not unlike the audience).

Spending time watching Inherent Vice is to immerse oneself in a world, an evocation of this most perplexing of American cities that can stand alongside Chinatown (another film touching on civic corruption). There’s no shortage of cameos for famous actors, but all are in service of the film’s period atmosphere and subtly comic timing. It’s even got me thinking, for the first time ever, that maybe I should reconsider Anderson’s oeuvre.


© A24

A Most Violent Year (2014) || Seen at Odeon Haymarket, London, Thursday 29 January 2015 || Director/Writer J. C. Chandor | Cinematographer Bradford Young | Starring Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, Albert Brooks, David Oyelowo | Length 125 minutes


Inherent Vice (2014) || Seen at Cineworld West India Quay, London, Thursday 5 February 2015 || Director/Writer Paul Thomas Anderson (based on the novel by Thomas Pynchon) | Cinematographer Robert Elswit | Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Katherine Waterston, Joanna Newsom | Length 149 minutes