I’m still of the opinion that Kasi Lemmons is among the most underrated of directors currently working (if, as ever with African-American women directors, not nearly enough). Her film Black Nativity was largely ignored (though delightfully odd), and here, working within a fairly mainstream period biopic vein, she manages to wring something that feels fresh. Of course it helps to have such a great cast — and Cheadle, Ejiofor and, most of all, Taraji P. Henson are on top form. It takes the story of a Washington DC radio personality, Petey Greene (whom I’d never heard of, but that’s on me), and uses it as a starting point to make a story of America in the 60s and 70s. It’s not perhaps the deepest of works, and undoubtedly it takes liberties with the real Petey Greene’s story, but it works as a film and it’s made with grace and passion.
FILM REVIEW Director Kasi Lemmons | Writers Michael Genet and Rick Famuyiwa | Cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine | Starring Don Cheadle, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Taraji P. Henson, Martin Sheen | Length 118 minutes || Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Tuesday 10 January 2017
I never usually have much time for ‘magic realism’ but it does seem to make sense in the face of bloody civil war and a pervasive feeling of hopeless waste. This film follows two refugees travelling ceaselessly — an elderly man, Tuahir, formerly a railway worker (Aladino Jasse, channelling shades of Ventura in Pedro Costa’s films) and a young boy, Muidinga (Nick Lauro Teresa), searching for his family. It is set against the background of events in Mozambique, alluded to but not shown graphically (except for an early, shocking scene in a burnt-out bus, as the two stretch out amongst corpses). The sense of magic — encompassing storytelling, memory, nostalgia, sexual awakening (that’s a very weird scene), and life looping back on itself — can perhaps be taken as doomed hope, but it makes an otherwise grim subject matter (a la The Road) bearable.
FILM REVIEW Director/Writer Teresa Prata (based on the novel by Mia Couto) | Cinematographer Dominique Gentil | Starring Nick Lauro Teresa, Aladino Jasse | Length 103 minutes || Seen at a pub while killing time waiting for a train (DVD), Dundee, Sunday 30 October 2016
Director Joe Wright is pretty decent at literary adaptations, which is a way of saying I liked his Pride and Prejudice and Anna Karenina more than Hanna. In between all those films was Atonement, which I think was a pretty big deal at the time; I remember reading the novel and really liking it, but it’s been too long for me to make any kinds of meaningful comparison between the two. That said, on its own merits this is a fine film and showcases that both Keira Knightley and James McAvoy are excellent actors with quite a bit of emotional depth (though we already knew that about the young Saoirse Ronan, who plays the character seeking the atonement of the title). It’s all very doomy, set against a backdrop of the build-up to and aftermath of World War II, but it’s a handsome and diverting production all the same. Also, Knightley wears a particularly excellent green dress for those who appreciate that sort of thing.
FILM REVIEW Director Joe Wright | Writers Christopher Hampton (based on the novel by Ian McEwan) | Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey | Starring Keira Knightley, James McAvoy, Saoirse Ronan | Length 123 minutes || Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 21 June 2015
I don’t write full reviews of every film I see, because I’d spend more time writing than watching, probably, and I’ve been seeing quite a few things at home. However, I thought I should offer some brief thoughts about my other January viewing, as I’m adding ratings for these films to my full A-Z list.
Big Eyes (2014, USA, dir. Tim Burton) [Tue 13 Jan at Cineworld West India Quay]. This is perhaps a slight film from Burton, but it marks a more grounded move in his storytelling of recent years, dealing with the real-life events surrounding artist Margaret Keane (Amy Adams), whose husband (Christoph Waltz) passes off her somewhat kitschy paintings of doe-eyed children as his own in order to enjoy success. Whatever truth there may be in his arguments — the film emphasises what a difficult time the 1950s was for a woman to be an artist — he’s a domineering husband, and Adams finds herself amongst all the shallow trappings of success.
The Craft (1996, USA, dir. Andrew Fleming) [Tue 13 Jan at home]. A trio of high-school witches led by suitably gothy Fairuza Balk welcomes a new member in the form of Robin Tunney, who’s transferred to their school. Things take a turn as their power increases and Tunney rebels against their increasingly violent actions, but the film remains a sort of campy pleasure, which gives plenty of agency to these four women.
D’est (From the East) (1993, Belgium/France/Portugal, dir. Chantal Akerman) [Thu 22 Jan at ICA]. You couldn’t get more different with Akerman’s East European travelogue, as she moves from Germany to Russia with her watchful camera. There’s an eeriness that’s evoked by its frequent extended tracking shots, whether across industrially-blighted scenery or along long ranks of people standing in the cold by roads, presumably waiting for a bus. There’s no dialogue as such, though a fair bit of unsubtitled talking emphasises that this is an outsider’s view of an only newly capitalist society, and the faces directed towards the camera speak volumes about their lives.
Get Over It (2001, USA, dir. Tommy O’Haver) [Sat 10 Jan at home]. It may hardly be inspired but it’s fun to watch this teen film, which fits into the contemporary trend for sort-of-adaptations of classic literature (in this case, Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a modern production of which features in the film). A young Ben Foster plays the rather bland leading man, and Kirsten Dunst pops up as a love interest, but the performances from a bunch of actors at the start of their careers are all enjoyable and the film moves along briskly.
Holes (2003, USA, dir. Andrew Davis) [Mon 5 Jan at home]. A very silly film with a good sense of its dusty desert location where the youthful protagonist (Shia LaBeouf) digs holes as part of some kind of Disneyfied child chain gang. As family entertainment goes, it’s fine, but the emotional epiphanies are all fairly cliched.
I Could Never Be Your Woman (2007, USA, dir. Amy Heckerling) [Mon 26 Jan at home]. Even lower in esteem amongst Heckerling’s recent work than Loser (see below), but this romcom featuring an older woman (Michelle Pfeiffer) and her younger lover (Paul Rudd) is still fitfully pleasing, despite the shmaltz of its premise. There’s an early role for the adaptable and talented Saoirse Ronan, and many odd and surprising cameos from various UK television celebrities, betraying that it was partly shot near London.
Into the Woods (2014, USA, dir. Rob Marshall) [Sun 11 Jan at Peckhamplex]. I confess I watched this while somewhat drunk, so a lot of the details escape me. I’m not a huge Sondheim fan, but this is all mounted very handsomely, with particularly good performances from a delightful Emily Blunt as more-or-less the lead role, as a woman who must gather up a bunch of magical items from various fairytales in order to be able to conceive a baby, and Chris Pine as a deeply narcissistic prince with a great dance-off scene. Meryl Streep shows up too and steals scenes in ways that Johnny Depp can only dream about nowadays.
Loser (2000, USA, dir. Amy Heckerling) [Sat 10 Jan at home]. After the comedic high point of Heckerling’s Clueless five years before, this film came in for a bit of a kicking, and to a certain extent you can see why. Its story of gawky provincial kid Jason Biggs going to college in the Big Apple hits a lot of familiar notes, and bless her Mena Suvari is not convincing, but there’s still plenty to enjoy all the same.
Sheen of Gold (2013, New Zealand, dir. Simon Ogston) [Fri 2 Jan at home]. A documentary about New Zealand 80s garage punk band the Skeptics, one of the bands on legendary indie label Flying Nun and one I’ve loved since growing up in New Zealand. Like a lot of NZ music of the era, their angular sound borrows a lot from UK post-punk bands like the Fall while adding a certain Antipodean slant. The documentary itself is primarily talking heads, with archival material spliced in where available, including footage from the last gig by the band prior to the untimely death of their lead singer in 1990.
Slap Her, She’s French! (aka She Gets What She Wants) (2002, USA, dir. Melanie Mayron) [Tue 13 Jan at home]. The title sounds dire, the setup is familiar (French exchange student Piper Perabo comes to Texas and throws everything into disarray for the local teen queen Jane McGregor) and indeed some of the filmmaking is squarely in the clunky made-for-TV exposition mode, but there’s plenty to enjoy here. The performances are broad in a comically enjoyable way, and what seems initially like a bit of easy European xenophobia turns out to be a misdirect (though in any case, the film makes far more fun of Texans than French people).
Tabu (1931, USA, dir. F.W. Murnau) [Sat 10 Jan at home]. Often subtitled “A Story of the South Seas”, this sees expressionist German director Murnau filming on the island of Bora Bora in the Pacific, imparting a sense of untouched paradise fraught by forbidden love between a commoner and a princess. There’s hints of ethnographic condescension, but for the most part this is touching, and undeniably beautiful.
I also saw some early Eric Rohmer films (The Baker of Monceau and Suzanne’s Career), but you’ll have to wait until they crop up in the Criterion Collection for my review.
FILM REVIEW || Director David Yates | Writer Michael Goldenberg (based on the novel by J.K. Rowling) | Cinematographer Sławomir Idziak | Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Imelda Staunton, Gary Oldman | Length 138 minutes | Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Monday 30 December 2013 || My Rating very good
I am unfamiliar enough with the Harry Potter saga that I miss plenty of references. For example, the pseudonym “Padfoot” is used a few times in this film to refer to Gary Oldman’s character Sirius Black, and harks back to the names on the magical map seen in the third film, but none of this is explained and I had to ask my wife to fill me in (for others in my position, the names refer to the four friends who created the map — “Padfoot” being Black, “Moony” being David Thewlis’s Lupin, “Wormtail” Timothy Spall’s Peter, and “Prongs” Harry’s now-dead father, the first two of whom return here as the core of a sort of wizarding resistance movement). Likewise, I wonder if this film is remembered for being the one in which Harry gets his first kiss (an incident very quickly brushed past), or maybe for its strong undertones of teenage ennui and moodiness? However, if it’s remembered for anything, it’s surely for the way it links in the developing story of Lord Voldemort’s return with the wider universe within which Potter resides. As such, it’s also the film where author J.K. Rowling’s political allegorising starts becoming particularly evident.
Every generation, I guess, has its cinema of self-involved navel-gazing, and for whatever it’s worth (not always very much to some critics it appears), this must be mine. I grew up in New Zealand which in the 2000s had its own micro-budget lo-fi independent digitally-shot relationship dramas, and New York it turns out has its (more widely-known) analogue with the so-called “mumblecore” scene (based largely around the creative personnel involved with this film), and presumably taking its name from the improvisational style of the dialogue. And yet, for me, it sometimes feels like there are completely different types of emotions unearthed within this idiom than in your more polished festival (and multiplex) fare, and for that I like it.
Andrew Bujalski (probably the pre-eminent director in the scene) plays Paul, the senior partner in a creative writing duo with Kent Osborne’s Matt. They work in a fairly bland little office for what appears to be a TV show. However, it’s their intern Hannah (Greta Gerwig) who is the film’s focus, as you might have guessed from the title, and her character is the one most nakedly exposed (quite literally in the first and last shots of the film). Over the course of the film, she gets into relationships with three of the men in the film, as she deals with a certain kind of early-20s ennui.
Having gone on to further successes, most prominently in Frances Ha earlier this year, it’s unsurprisingly Greta Gerwig who dominates the film, and your enjoyment of it is likely to be predicated on how charming and identifiable you find her. As it happens, I do. She has a deft and likeable comedic presence, while not sacrificing a kind of unfocused sadness at her character’s core, which she is only slowly (and with great difficulty) able to open up about in a conversation late in the film with Matt. She can be contrary and contradictory, but there’s an openness to the way she delivers it that I find likeable.
It’s the dialogue scenes, which I understand were largely improvised (hence the writing credits for most of the cast), that give the movie its momentum and with which some reviewers have taken issue. Yet I like the halting silences and lacunae that realistically inflect the conversations. For example, there’s a beautifully-judged scene in which Hannah invites Paul up to her flat and they meet her flatmate, who swiftly exits, whereupon the scene sort of judders to a fantastically awkward halt. Most of the time the cast banters affectionately, which provides the ebb and flow of the narrative, as unfocused as its characters.
It may not be a grand statement or a glamorous one, but in its way it says a lot about people in their early-20s learning to find their feet. At least as long as such films continue to star actors as watchable as Greta Gerwig, I’ll continue to be happy to watch them fumble through life on shaky digital video.
SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW Director/Cinematographer Joe Swanberg | Writers Joe Swanberg, Greta Gerwig, Kent Osbourne and Andrew Bujalski | Starring Greta Gerwig, Kent Osborne, Andrew Bujalski | Length 83 minutes || Seen at Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA), Sunday 25 August 2013
FILM REVIEW || Director Gore Verbinski | Writers Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio | Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski | Starring Johnny Depp, Keira Knightley, Orlando Bloom, Geoffrey Rush, Bill Nighy | Length 168 minutes | Seen at home (DVD), Friday 26 April 2013 || My Rating good
My critical introduction to this film series was via Mark Kermode’s ever more vituperative rants on Simon Mayo’s and his BBC Radio 5 Live film review podcast, and needless to say, hearing his opinion did not engender much of a desire to see the films. There it probably would have ended for me, were it not for my wife’s desire to re-watch them. On this third instalment, I’ve heard plenty of subsequent opinion on both sides of the divide, some saying that the third film is even worse than the second, while other friends consider it not just the best of the franchise but a great film in its own right. If I can’t entirely embrace that challenging position, I am certainly of the opinion that it is a far superior film to Dead Man’s Chest (2006). The real surprise is that the two films were made back-to-back by the same cast and crew, given how differently they turned out.