American Honey (2016)

It’s a long, meandering journey across parts of America that too few other films have documented, and there’s a lot here that really is beautiful and diverting. To see those boundless roads, those sprawling suburban homes, the strip malls and motels that lie in the interstices, the young people living precariously, dumpster diving, doing rubbish jobs, all to make ends meet. It’s not entirely new exactly — exploring the lives of the young, suburban precariat seems to be something of a niche sub-genre these days — but there’s a genuine energy to Andrea Arnold’s use of non-actors and her beloved Academy ratio to box up an unpalatable society. At some level it’s possible to develop an empathy towards most of the characters — even Shia LaBeouf’s exploitative, slightly creepy boss Jake (and he is definitely on the abusive side at times, for all his charm at others), who himself reports to an even more venal and demanding one (in the form of Krystal, as played by Riley Keough) — not least newcomer Sasha Lane in the central role of Star, who does very well indeed.

And yet, for all that I admired about it (loved even at times, more than in many of Arnold’s films), I can’t say I fell for the film in its entirety. Much of the weakness I think lies in the script. Indeed, I didn’t really believe that the job the characters are doing (selling magazines door to door) still exists, and for me there was a strong sense that issues were being raised along the way that were never really tackled. For example, others have written persuasively (here’s one piece at Fishnet Cinema and here’s another at Gal-Dem, both by women of colour) about Arnold’s deployment of race: Lane is half-black, yet there are no other significant black characters in the film (a crack-addicted mother, and the almost-dreamlike — because so fleeting — encounter with another, black, crew). Much of the music is excellent, but a lot of it comes from a specifically black perspective, and using African-American vernacular which is parroted by Krystal’s crew without any apparent self-awareness (undoubtedly due to their youth; one gets the sense that the music itself may have come from the cast rather than Arnold). Krystal wears a Confederate flag bikini at one point, but her ‘redneck’ status never comes into play at a dramatic level. Moreover, there are no racialised conflicts in the film, though as a strategy Arnold seems in general to be avoiding overt conflict in favour of setting up situations that seem to be going that direction, before defusing them or taking another route. Structurally, the film does this continually: building up an impression for the audience of where it’s going before feinting in another direction. It’s a strength and a weakness, to my mind.

For all the reservations I have, though, as a loose, rambling take on the American journey in quest of an ever-illusory American Dream, it has a compelling quality.

American Honey film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Andrea Arnold; Cinematographer Robbie Ryan; Starring Sasha Lane, Shia LaBeouf, Riley Keough; Length 163 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Soho, London, Wednesday 19 October 2016.

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Joy (2015)

Another year (or two), another David O. Russell film starring Jennifer Lawrence, in what is becoming something of an end-of-year holiday tradition by this point. However, unlike 2013’s American Hustle and Silver Linings Playbook before that, here Bradley Cooper is relegated to what’s little more than a supporting role, leaving Robert De Niro (another recent Russell stalwart) to step in as the main support to Lawrence, which doesn’t entirely pay off. Still, it does mean that romance very much takes a back seat to the ‘based on real events’ story of Joy, a frustrated American housewife who invents… a mop. You get the sense that this aspect of the story, the very ordinariness of her invention, was the draw for Russell, who uses it to craft an arc from Joy at home watching TV soap operas with her agoraphobic mother (Virginia Madsen), to a literal soap opera in which her sudsy invention conquers living rooms across the country via the Home Shopping Network (which is where Cooper comes in). Along the way there’s plenty to enjoy, including a big performance from Isabella Rossellini as Joy’s financier Trudy, but it all fades in the memory rather quickly once the film’s finished.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer David O. Russell | Cinematographer Linus Sandgren | Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Édgar Ramirez, Diane Ladd, Isabella Rossellini, Virginia Madsen | Length 124 minutes || Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Monday 28 December 2015

Mississippi Grind (2015)

Searching for images from the film to put at the top of my review, there’s a lot of the two stars Ryan Reynolds and Ben Mendelsohn at the craps table, or playing poker, and it’s true these images have a hint of glamour to them. But that’s not what I think of when I think about Mississippi Grind. It’s a film that lives more in the moments at the bar after the game, as these two sup on a bourbon, get drunk and fantasise about what could be. Because, yes, this is indeed another movie about the faded lustre on the American Dream, which channels a story that touches on the peculiar way that class manifests itself in America via money, the pursuit of it, and more often the lack of it, the difficulty in getting it, and how not having it can ruin your life.

The gambling plays its part in this allegory, but is not depicted as inevitably doomed (though of course that does colour the tension going into a lot of the scenes), but rather as having its ups and downs, as indeed it does in life. And these two guys have their personal ups and downs as they travel the byways of the American heartland, down the Mississippi River and a series of small, faded American gambling towns. For Mendelsohn’s Gerry, you get a sense of a lot more downs, but part of the film is in teasing out exactly what’s behind Reynolds’s mysterious Curtis, who shows up at Gerry’s poker table at the start and is quickly seized on by him as a sort of lucky mascot, into which fantasy Curtis is happy to play for a while. As a marker of his aspirations is his insistence on drinking Woodford Reserve bourbon, both a product placement and something that plays a role in defining their relative paths. Narratively, though, this isn’t tight in the sense we’ve come to expect from US cinema, but has a meandering looseness that harks back to an earlier era (I’ve seen the 1970s mentioned a lot by critics, and that seems fair).

The charm of the film — in a quote that’s recited by the characters a few times — is that it’s about the journey, and in that sense it has a lot of false endings: in a way you can choose whether these guys are successes at life, or losers, and you get the sense that it will continue to go either way for them if they keep at the gambling. But for a couple of hours, it’s an enjoyable amble through some of the less lustrous landmarks of the American Dream at its most capricious.


© A24 Films

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Directors/Writers Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck | Cinematographer Andrij Parekh | Starring Ben Mendelsohn, Ryan Reynolds | Length 108 minutes || Seen at Cineworld West India Quay, London, Monday 26 October 2015

The Queen of Versailles (2012)

We’re surely all familiar with pop culture focusing on the lives of the ultra-wealthy, whether reality TV shows or movies that lavish attention on their homes, their cars, their social lives and parties, their style, clothes, cosmetics and cosmetic surgery. There are film genres (the teen film for example) that have almost entirely rededicated themselves to this niche category of existence, because it’s the American Dream writ large: come from humble beginnings, play the capitalist game, rake in unimaginable wealth on the backs of life’s losers (who slide further into poverty and addiction, something not generally acknowledged), and cash in with homes, cars, et al., mi(se)rabile dictu. So it’s a strange thing indeed to be made to feel… what’s this emotion, sympathy (?!)… for one of these blessed people, Jackie Siegel, a 40-something former beauty queen who married David, a property multi-millionaire, now facing hard times after the 2008 sub-prime mortgage stock market crash. The couple had been building the country’s largest mansion in Florida, modelled after that at Versailles, but it was left an empty shell as work came to halt. It’s clear that their money is built on exploitation and hucksterism (time-share properties), and that they’re still on paper phenomenally wealthy, it’s just that suddenly this family of husband, wife and seven children no longer have the cashflow to indulge their every whim. It’s strangely affecting to see Jackie visit a childhood relation in her cramped suburban property, to see the family have to feed their pets personally (pity the unfortunate lizard), or tidying up after themselves — in short, having to deal with all the detritus and maintenance required by their massively oversized lifestyles. Their marriage is put under strain, as is their relationship with their children, their socialite friends, their family and their company. Lauren Greenfield’s film takes all those glitzy surfaces and scratches away at them, not itself wallowing in the family’s misfortune (though we as viewers may do so) but anatomising its footprint and effects. In doing so, it weaves an entertaining and watchable tale that incidentally becomes a treatise on American capitalism in crisis.


© Magnolia Pictures/Evergreen Pictures

FILM REVIEW
Director Lauren Greenfield | Cinematographer Tom Hurwitz | Length 100 minutes || Seen at home (streaming), London, Sunday 23 August 2015

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

The cinema of Martin Scorsese quite often deals with self-regarding, testosterone-fuelled men. It’s a place to learn about the contemporary construction of masculinity more than anything else, and this is his latest chapter in that ongoing exploration, placing itself in the milieu of high finance — specifically a “boiler room” stockbroking firm from the late-1980s through the 1990s. This is the domain of self-made man — wise guy, almost — Jordan Belfort, played at full throttle by the still youthful-faced Leonardo DiCaprio, though he at least has the decency to look a little worn by the end. It’s been written up largely as a film of swearing, drugtaking and hedonism, but really it’s another periodic health check for the struggling ideal of the American Dream. It doesn’t preach or moralise, but the message is pretty relentlessly, propulsively, loudly clear for its three hours.

I made the error of looking at the recent 12 Years a Slave somewhat as a film trying to teach us about the evils of slavery — a lesson hardly needed, and certainly not at the heart of the film’s purpose. Likewise, you can’t really wonder if the The Wolf of Wall Street is trying to get across the idea that financial corruption is bad, or if the people involved are morally questionable. There is literally not a single character in the film that has any claim to our sympathies — the closest we get is the FBI agent Patrick (Kyle Chandler), but even he is given to pettiness, and hardly seems enthused by his life. I’d say there’s no one who is likeable, but most of them are likeable enough on their own level, which for most of them is a fairly amoral level. There’s pathos too (or perhaps I mean to say, most are pretty pathetic), but for the majority of the running time you can keep these guys at an arms’ length: they are not like us. They are embodiments of the primal, rampaging id, who have freed themselves from quotidian concerns through their relentless acquisition of wealth. It’s not until near the end, after nearly three hours of their childish petulance, that you get a sense for where it’s all headed — encapsulated by a underplayed final scene (introduced by the real Belfort) which brings Jordan back into something recognisably like our world.

Up to that point, though, things are blackly comic — madcap and slapstick at points — as Belfort struggles to build his wealth after the Wall Street firm where he begins his career goes bust in the 1987 crash. He restarts by trading penny stocks to working-class guys from a dowdy office in New Jersey, moving on to creating and enlarging his own firm with the help of his low-life friends, chief among them the garrulous Donnie (Jonah Hill in horn-rimmed specs and shell suits) and Nicky (P.J. Byrne), called “Rugrat” because of his glaring toupee. He marries a model blonde wife, Naomi (Margot Robbie) and lives a hard-partying lifestyle. The movie can indeed be charted largely by Jordan & co’s ingestion of narcotic substances, starting with a hit of a crack pipe with Donnie near the New Jersey office, before progressing primarily to cocaine (taken in various locations and, er, from various orifices) and Quaaludes. Most of the film is structured around Jordan getting loaded (making money, taking drugs), before the final act charts his rocky comedown — crashing not just from drugs and booze, but financially, maritally and even nautically.

It’s a classic story, and Scorsese really attacks it stylistically with all the tricks learnt from his many decades’ worth of filmmaking. It feels like the kind of free-wheeling spirit of Casino (1995), certainly in the glitziness of the enterprise, which matches that of the characters (or at least, their entitled sense of self-worth). DiCaprio gives a narration from Jordan’s point of view, even addressing himself directly to camera in a few scenes, as he explains his criminal enterprise with scarcely-concealed glee. There are freeze-frames and jump-cuts too, but this isn’t the vacuous-style-for-its-own-sake brand of filmmaking that you get from Scorsese’s latter-day imitators (to take one recent example amongst many, in Pain & Gain), but it adds to the deadening affect of this flamboyant world. Scorsese also reminds us that he is deft at comedy, whether it be the earnest discussions of humiliating excess (the dwarf-throwing that opens the film), or a marvellous sequence when DiCaprio needs to return home but finds himself floored by extra-strength Quaaludes — a scenario which might be done with all the hallucinogenic trippiness of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, but which Scorsese films from a fixed vantage point with no gimmicks or trickery, just documenting the physicality of DiCaprio’s performance, and which is all the funnier for it.

As a whole, the film feels a bit like this, like being the sober one at an increasingly riotous party, with people who are fun to be around initially, but whose drunken antics soon become quite draining. There’s no overt judgementalism about the narcotic excess (there are in fact many open proclamations of how enjoyable it is), but then there doesn’t need to be: this film hardly glorifies drug use, given it chooses avatars who are so existentially loathsome. If there’s a more potent criticism it would be that this remains very much a film about boys; there are women, but they are largely seen through the eyes of the (as I hope I’ve made clear, hardly upstanding) male protagonists, and therefore mostly sexualised and ultimately humiliated, although the warping power of money seems to blind everyone in the film to it. But despite this, it still feels fairly effortless as a film, while managing to give a real — and disturbing — sense of malaise, which, as we see in the final scene, is only just out of our reach and beyond our control.


© Paramount Pictures

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Martin Scorsese | Writer Terence Winter (based on the memoir by Jordan Belfort) | Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto | Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, Kyle Chandler, P.J. Byrne | Length 179 minutes || Seen at Genesis, London, Monday 27 January 2014

My Rating 4 stars excellent

American Hustle (2013)


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Director David O. Russell | Writers Eric Warren Singer and David O. Russell | Cinematographer Linus Sandgren | Starring Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Jeremy Renner | Length 138 minutes | Seen at Cineworld Shaftesbury Avenue, London, Sunday 5 January 2014 || My Rating 4 stars excellent


© Columbia Pictures

We’ve not really had much of the year, so it’s a bit of unwarranted hyperbole (or backhanded sarcasm) to start proclaiming this the best film so far this year, but I did enjoy it a fair bit. I might even go so far as to say that if I’d seen it last year, I’d have included it somewhere in my ‘best of’ list. It’s a story about storytellers, and it lets them get on with telling their respective stories with fairly little practical interest in the plot details (they’re there of course — it’s even loosely based on real events — but they’re hardly emphasised). It’s more of a series of character studies interconnected by music-focused setpieces — in fact, so foregrounded is the contemporary pop music that the film strongly brings to mind the cinema of Martin Scorsese (and his later imitators, like Paul Thomas Anderson), helped along by the cameo appearance of one of his key collaborators of the 1970s. As a pastiche of period style and set design it’s very accomplished, and as an entertainment it’s certainly enjoyable; I’m not convinced it’s very much deeper than that, but there are worse people in whose company to spend a couple of hours at the movies.

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Magic Mike (2012)

Steven Soderbergh has been a very prolific director over the couple of decades he’s been working, and this film from last year is one of his most satisfying recent efforts. It deals with an understandably favoured milieu among filmmakers — the entertainment industry — but puts enough of a twist on it to make it interesting, eliciting excellent performances from its male leads.

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The Bling Ring (2013)


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Director/Writer Sofia Coppola (based on the article “The Suspects Wore Louboutins” by Nancy Jo Sales) | Cinematographers Harris Savides and Christopher Blauvelt | Starring Katie Chang, Israel Broussard, Emma Watson, Leslie Mann | Length 90 minutes | Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Sunday 7 July and Monday 8 July 2013 || My Rating 4 stars excellent


© A24

I suppose that when I think of films about teenagers, I think of those films that play to their self-involved fantasies of acting out — films with clever scripts where teens get the better of the adults and engage in witty verbal sparring. These are films based on established (and establishment) literary sources such as might be studied at school (Clueless, 10 Things I Hate About You or Easy A, for example). Occasionally, as with Brick (2005), the source text is a more ‘grown-up’ film genre (in that case, the hardboiled detective flick), but wordplay remains key.

But then there are those films, like this past year’s Spring Breakers, which seem to put teenagers and their behaviour under a magnifying glass, like a mould culture preserved in agar jelly, beautifully curated and preserved yet strange and distant. Not that I’m comparing director Sofia Coppola’s style directly to that of Harmony Korine, but the two films have some genetic matter in common. Both directors have been observing this strangeness for years, Coppola’s signature look being a sort of woozy, pastel-hued haze of Californian sun dappled through airless modernist cubes of Los Angeleno domestic architecture.

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The Great Gatsby (2013)


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Director Baz Luhrmann | Writer Baz Luhrmann and Craig Pearce (based on the novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald) | Cinematographer Simon Duggan | Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan, Joel Edgerton | Length 143 minutes | Seen at Vue Islington (2D), London, Sunday 19 May 2013 || My Rating 3 stars good


© Warner Bros. Pictures

Like any Baz Luhrmann film, this is a splashy, flashy exercise in surface textures, style and costume, set design and special effects, but like the best of his works it matches these stylistic traits to characters who are constantly telling stories about themselves as a way of ingratiating themselves into the world around them. Yet if it’s a story about adapting, it’s not clear that this adaptation is particularly necessary, and when it tries to visualise some of the novel’s grand metaphors (ones so grand they are writ large on vast billboards or flash brightly and insistently), it can get a bit clunky. Some things are best left on the page and in the reader’s imagination.

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Spring Breakers (2012)


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Director/Writer Harmony Korine | Cinematographer Benoît Debie | Starring Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson, James Franco | Length 93 minutes | Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Sunday 14 April 2013 || My Rating 3 stars good


© Vertigo Films

It’s fairly clear right from the start of this film that there’s nothing particularly appealing about the hedonistic Spring Break ritual whereby a certain subsection of US university students head en masse to the Florida coast for partying in the sun, unless you find the booty-shaking excess of most modern rap videos to be particularly appealing or empowering. For that is how Korine kicks Spring Breakers off, with some hyper-saturated slo-mo shots of bikini-clad (and unclad) girls and guys on the beach, mimicking the familiar music video style. And yet the spring break experience is used as a constant voiceover mantra (“spring break forever…”) throughout the film by the four female protagonists, not least because their current existence is a different kind of bleak and unappealing.

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