Medicine for Melancholy (2008)

With the director’s second film Moonlight gathering so much critical acclaim, there have been a few screenings (like this one) of his 2008 debut, which never made much of a splash over in the UK aside from a London Film Festival appearance. It’s a relationship drama set in San Francisco between two people. On the one hand, there’s a story of feelings (because “love” is probably too strong a term), as these two are roused the morning after a drunken one-night stand and spend the ensuing day in one another’s company. But it’s also the story, not coincidentally, of two black people. Two black people, to the point, who live in an increasingly white city, a rapidly gentrifying city — a city of coffee shops and kombucha and technology (MySpace — either a dated reference, or a thematically-loaded harbinger), a city of indie pop club nights and museums presenting black historical experiences which, being in a museum environment, have a certain alienated character. There’s a level at which this is like a terrifying sci-fi in which these two people are the last two in a bland expanse of corporatised white space. Or at least that feels like maybe the story Micah (Wyatt Cenac) is trying to tell, whereas Joanne (Tracey Heggins) isn’t exactly having it. In this dialogue on race and the city space, which enters and leaves the film periodically, their relationship pushes and pulls. Likewise, colour bleeds, almost imperceptibly at times, into and out of the image (for much of the time it’s a stark black-and-white). Still, ultimately this is a film about two people spending a day together, and at that it feels unforced and real. It feels a long way from Moonlight, but maybe in being about that contested space between two people, it’s not so far after all.

Medicine for Melancholy film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Barry Jenkins; Cinematographer James Laxton; Starring Wyatt Cenac, Tracey Heggins; Length 88 minutes.
Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Monday 13 February 2017.

This Is the Life (2008)

Ava DuVernay’s first feature-length film was this documentary (just up on Netflix) which focuses on a scene she was not only close to, but part of — the rap community based around the weekly hip-hop open mic nights at LA’s Good Life Cafe from 1989-1995 (we even get to see a short clip of her MCing, and she features in a lot of the talking heads interviews as part of her duo Figures of Speech). Formally, it’s very straightforward, blunt even: those interviews interspersed with video footage recorded at the time (and a few more recent clips to illustrate points being made, or subsequent careers). Sometimes someone will be remembering something (a notable MC’s flow, perhaps, or their distinctive stage presence) and then we’ll get the exact footage they are referring to — clearly, there exists plenty of documentation of the Good Life’s open mic nights, always good for this kind of project. If it seems raw and earnest, that’s hardly a failing, but comes from the love of filmmaker for subject. It’s good, too, to witness a scene explicitly founded in resisting what by that point were considered the boring tropes of gangster rap (so prevalent at the time, and this was around when Boyz N the Hood was filmically defining South Central Los Angeles). Much of the rap education I got from my ex in the early-00s was alternative hip-hop acts like Antipop Consortium and Blackalicious, and seeing this documentary makes it clear that other communities in the US were crafting lyrical, thoughtful reflections on the genre (leading to careers for rappers like Aceyalone and acts like Jurassic 5, the latter probably the most famous of the outfits which came from the Good Life scene). A film both inspiring and sweet.

This Is the Life film posterCREDITS
Director Ava DuVernay; Cinematographer Isaac Klotz; Length 97 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Wednesday 11 January 2017.

Criterion Sunday 65: Rushmore (2008)

I suppose one could call this Wes Anderson’s breakthrough movie after his debut Bottle Rocket (1996). It’s certainly eye-catching, with its saturated colours and carefully-honed set design and graphical effects, like the bold blocky typeface that sets out the titles and immaculate calligraphy, the theatrical curtains that part to open each chapter, and its clearly elaborately-storyboarded shot sequences. In fact, it’s one of the films that mines the most comedy I know just from the framing of the characters, as when Jason Schwartzman’s perennially overambitious underachiever Max Fischer steps into a two-shot with Bill Murray’s property developer Herman Blume, who looks suitably flabbergasted to find himself in such tightly-framed confines. This in many ways seems like his special skill — as if the fictional character had the power to force the film’s director to re-frame him in ways more befitting his overinflated sense of himself. In being such a boundary-busting egomaniac, Max is for much of the film an only barely-likeable dick, and much of the film’s pleasure lies in those supporting performances from Murray, from Brian Cox as Rushmore Academy’s matter-of-fact headmaster, and from Olivia Williams’ accommodating schoolteacher Rosemary Cross. If in looking back at Rushmore, it all seems a little bit arch at times, a little bit too-perfectly constructed and orchestrated — in ways that hamper the kind of emotional transference that Anderson’s later films would more successfully achieve — it’s still an excellent calling card, in many ways quite out-of-step with what was being made in the late-1990s and all the more refreshing for that.

Criterion Extras: There’s a rather fuller schedule of extras with this edition, all of which are interesting. First off, the commentary by the director, co-writer and star is chatty, with Anderson and Wilson taking up much of the chatter in the early portions, and Schwartzman pitching in more later. There’s a rather slight ‘making-of’ by the director’s brother Eric, some scratchy video audition footage, and some short works by the ‘Max Fischer Players’ that present amateur theatrics productions of scenes from three other nominated movies of the 1998 season. Most substantial is the episode of The Charlie Rose Show which features a lengthy interview with Bill Murray, who seems relaxed and talks at length about the film and some aspects of his career and persona, as well as a shorter head-to-head with the director.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Wes Anderson; Writers Anderson and Owen Wilson; Cinematographer Robert Yeoman; Starring Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, Olivia Williams, Seymour Cassel, Brian Cox; Length 93 minutes.

Seen at Rialto, Wellington, Saturday 22 May 1999 (and subsequently at home on VHS, DVD and Blu-ray, on many occasions, most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Saturday 12 December 2015).

El olvido (aka Oblivion, 2008)

I’ve not seen a great deal of documentaries by Dutch filmmaker Heddy Honigmann, but all those I have are quite wonderful — no doubt she’s highly regarded in the documentary world, but that’s a fairly closed-off clique. Indeed, I only saw this film of hers because it was attached as a DVD to a documentary-focused magazine in a bargain bin at the BFI film shop. However, it’s a fascinating piece about Honigmann’s birth town of Lima in Peru, which uses its street performers and service industry staff to tell a story of political disengagement from society as it’s lived. Shop owners and waiting staff in restaurants and bars are asked if they’ve met the President or any politicians, and each of them has their own story, many of them fairly dismissive of these people — a minister of the economy who doesn’t know how much a newspaper costs, or a President who doesn’t know which way round the ceremonial sash is worn. Meanwhile there are poor families who rush out in front of cars at traffic lights to try and make a few coins, whose stories are the most affecting because the most bleak, particularly a young boy who stares out empty-eyed while being unable to recall any bad memories or any good ones either. Honigmann talks to her interview subjects in their places of work and at their homes, and there’s a subtle observance of how life is lived for society’s have-nots. Interspersed amongst these scenes are TV clips of Presidents assuming office, though the ongoing political context in Peru is only alluded to in passing by the interviewees (one gathers it involves dictators, corruption and, particularly in the 1980s, widescale economic collapse). An affecting and affectionate portrait of a capital city that is worth watching even for those — like me — with no knowledge of Peru itself.

El olvido film posterCREDITS
Director Heddy Honigmann; Writers Honigmann, Sonia Goldenberg and Judith Vreriks; Cinematographer Adri Schrover; Length 93 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Monday 11 January 2016.

High School Musical 3: Senior Year (2008)

The conclusion to one of film’s most joyful trilogies finds Kenny Ortega with a far higher budget and even a cinematic release. He doesn’t squander the pennies, either, in mounting a few glorious numbers, including “I Want It All”, which liberally tips its fedora to similar sequences in classic Hollywood films. Sure, as a whole it doesn’t sustain the momentum quite as well as the second film — Gabriella and Troy remain an underwhelming screen couple, and the other pairings are sidelined by a largely charisma-free bunch of new recruits (who I believe were originally intended to take the series forward into a new generation) — but it’s in the musical sequences that it finds its raison d’être. There’s little more invigorating in cinema than a good dance number, and High School Musical 3 has several, even if some of the fashions and heteronormative couplings already seem a tad old-fashioned.

High School Musical 3 film posterCREDITS
Director Kenny Ortega; Writer Peter Barsocchini; Cinematographer Daniel Aranyó; Starring Zac Efron, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Tisdale, Lucas Grabeel, Corbin Bleu; Length 111 minutes.
Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Thursday 31 March 2011 (and many more times on DVD, most recently Saturday 19 December 2015).

Hamlet 2 (2008)

After my “Film Round-Up” posts of the last few months, I’m trying out another way to present shorter reviews of things I can’t bring myself to write up at greater length.


After a strong opening, this high school comedy about a washed-up drama teacher (Steve Coogan, playing American with middling effect) sort of peters out a bit. It’s a pity, because even if reminiscent of some of Rushmore‘s Max Fischer Players stagings, the film has the germs of a fine idea — that Shakespeare’s Hamlet can be improved upon and be inspiring to a new generation of students — but the film’s overall failure just reminds us how difficult comedy can be to get right. In the end, there are some good images that might suit an animated gif format (the “Rock Me Sexy Jesus” setpiece for example), but beyond that, probably best given a miss.

Hamlet 2 film posterCREDITS
Director Andrew Fleming; Writers Fleming and Pam Brady; Cinematographer Alexander Gruszynski; Starring Steve Coogan, Catherine Keener, Skylar Astin; Length 92 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Tuesday 2 June 2015.

Role Models (2008)

I may have had a little bit of trepidation going into this comedy, mainly because it looks like something that could so easily be so badly (and unfunnily) generic. The premise — two rather childish men, to avoid jail time, are sentenced to community service, which involves mentoring two fatherless misfit boys; hilarity ensues — could fit easily into the oeuvre of, say, Adam Sandler or Vince Vaughn without any problems, and I’m not the biggest fan of the resulting ‘hilarity’ in those situations. However, it turns out that Role Models is for the most part pretty well-judged, and most importantly it has laughs. I’d say it fits in most clearly with the gently ‘bromantic’ comedy of, say, Judd Apatow along with the improvisational work of Will Ferrell et al. (which of course is rooted in Saturday Night Live) — and Paul Rudd is an actor who has successfully worked at all levels of American film comedy over the last 20 years.

The two guys in this situation are Danny (Rudd) and Wheeler (Seann William Scott), driving from school to school peddling a terrible energy drink called Minotaur, while the latter is dressed in a furry Minotaur costume. It’s reasonable to say that their lives are at a dead end; Danny, in particular, is sarcastically bile-filled and consequently is, quite reasonably, dumped by his long-time girlfriend Beth (Elizabeth Banks). A sequence of nicely underplayed lashing-out leads to a criminal conviction, its commutation to community service, and thereby to a mentoring programme run by Gayle (Jane Lynch) where they meet their respective charges. Danny must mentor Augie (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), who is heavily involved in live-action role-playing (LARP) games, while Wheeler gets the potty-mouthed and largely uncontrollable Ronnie (Bobb’e J. Thompson, channelling Tracy Morgan, which is appropriate given that he’s played Morgan’s son in 30 Rock).

Sure, it’s at this point that we get a pretty thinly-veiled morality story about two men trying to work through their own issues via the healing power of connecting to another human being, which is why I’d put this in the ‘bromance’ category. But none of this is really layered on like you might fear (well, it generally avoids schmaltzy musical cues, in any case, which is my own pet hate), and the focus is firmly on the relationships between the two men, and between the men and their mentees. This leads Danny to get more involved in Augie’s LARPing activities — which is where most of the comedy cameos appear, including a wonderful Ken Jeong as the self-appointed ‘King’ of the LARP group, as well as Joe Lo Truglio and Matt Walsh. This of course could be the cue for much mockery, and though some individuals are the butt of jokes, it’s not in the end because of their choice to dress up as faux mediaeval knights and play make-believe war games, but rather because of the insecurities of Danny’s character.

It’s not perfect by any means. Wheeler’s crudity leads to plenty of rather weak ‘boobie’-based observational bonding with his filthy-minded young charge — but at least this isn’t dwelt upon. What instead we get is a rather fond and unsentimental portrait of wayward men learning to be better, and even if the set-up is hardly original and the pay-off hardly a surprise, it still provides plenty of enjoyment along the way.

Role Models film posterCREDITS
Director David Wain; Writers Wain, Timothy Dowling, Paul Rudd and Ken Marino; Cinematographer Russ T. Alsobrook; Starring Paul Rudd, Seann William Scott, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Bobb’e J. Thompson, Elizabeth Banks; Length 101 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Saturday 4 January 2014.

Step Up 2: The Streets (2008)

I’m on holiday until the end of next week, so you won’t be seeing any reviews of new releases. However, I’ve been watching a few films at home, so there’ll still be content going up!


In many ways, the Step Up cycle of films isn’t so different from Fast & Furious, being a multi-part series dedicated to a niche urban subculture. Where those films deal with street racing, here we get street dance, and like the recent British film All Stars (2013), there’s a very clear generic framework involving a final showdown with the rival crew. Unlike Furious, though, this series doesn’t have a strong core of central characters/actors, which is I think its weakness in comparison; Channing Tatum shows up in one early scene to pass the baton on from the first film, as it were, but otherwise it’s heavily reliant on generic expectations (not to mention the dancing).

Still, I feel it would be simplistic to try and criticise it because the outcome is pre-determined and the acting is perfunctory. In fact, the acting is perfectly pitched for this kind of enterprise, which is after all predicated on the quality of the dance sequences. Luckily, these are for the most part excellent and compelling, partly from their sheer ridiculousness (the final dance, shown on the poster, has them stepping out into torrential rain, presumably for its visual impact, as it’s certainly not for any kind of sensible health reasons given the film is set in Maryland). The initial set-up for the rival crew, the “410” (it’s Baltimore’s area code), involves a flash mob dance sequence on a subway train being uploaded to the internet — a trope that would become more integral in the fourth film, Step Up Revolution (2012) — but which here is posited as being the means whereby dance crews gain kudos within their community. It’s a cute touch, and is at least made more believable by the mobile phone quality video we see them watching online.

Dancing aside (to the extent that it can be put aside), the central drama rolls out well-worn class clichés: street vs school (nature vs nurture?), underprivileged vs overprivileged. The film never quite convinces that the lead dancers — Andie (Briana Evigan) and Chase (Robert Hoffman) — are really from ‘other sides of the tracks’, given they all scrub up to fairly bland white middle-class kids, though Andie does start out in the rival “410” crew and has Sonja Sohn from Baltimore’s premier gritty TV show The Wire as a foster parent. There’s also some more subtle detail whereby she feels out of place at an organised (indoor) dance event at the film’s opening, where she is given confidence by Tatum’s character Tyler and also meets Chase for the first time, while he and his crew are initially ridiculed (and later beaten up) by the crew from the streets. In any case, both lead characters end up at a local dance school run by Chase’s supercilious brother, and the rest is formulaic, though not without its pleasures thanks to those dance setpieces.

There may not be anything in the narrative itself which is new, but the film is economical with its themes and never outstays its welcome. Instead, and to its credit, it chooses to focus on the dynamism of the dance sequences, which thankfully are largely allowed to unfold in long shots so as to highlight the undoubted grace and dexterity of the dancers. It’s the dancing, after all, that’s really the point of the film, and it doesn’t disappoint.


CREDITS
Director Jon M. Chu; Writers Toni Ann Johnson and Karen Barna (based on characters by Duane Adler); Cinematographer Max Malkin; Starring Briana Evigan, Robert Hoffman, Adam Sevani; Length 95 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Friday 24 May 2013.