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.


FILM REVIEW
Director Ava DuVernay | Cinematographer Isaac Klotz | Length 97 minutes || Seen at home (streaming), London, Wednesday 11 January 2017

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LFF 2016 Day Two

It’s that time of year: time for the London Film Festival (LFF)! And while I’ve not been doing a good job of getting reviews up on my site recently aside from my regular Criterion watch, I thought I’d best share the snippets of the films I’ve been watching at the festival. It’s unlikely any of them will break out as great successes in the coming year, because my policy these last two years has been to go and see films I don’t think will get another screening (with one or two exceptions).

Day One of the LFF was Wednesday 5 October, with its big premiere being the opening gala of Amma Asante’s A United Kingdom which seems to be getting mixed reviews, though I shall go see it when it gets a proper release next month.

Day Two was Thursday 6 October, and I saw my first three films. Two of them I think are pretty obscure, but the Ava DuVernay documentary was always going to get a pretty strong release in the US election season and indeed, as I learned subsequent to purchasing my festival tickets, it’s already on Netflix.


Wild (2016)

Wild (2016, Germany, dir./wr. Nicolette Krebitz, DOP Reinhold Vorschneider)
There are some unsettling thematics being explored in this film about a young woman who is, essentially, in love with a wolf. Themes dealing with female sexuality, throwing off the burdens and expectations of bourgeois conformity, living outside the capitalist system, stuff like that. At times I felt the film wasn’t doing justice to all its ideas, but at other times it seemed pretty on the nose. Ania (Lilith Stangenberg, with the intensity of a young Sarah Polley) works as an IT person and general dogsbody at some kind of recycling company, while finding herself newly living alone and restless. The film has some nice little observations (all the women in the office picking up after their oafish boss Boris) and moments of great humour piercing the odd alienation that much of the film essays. It’s weird, but in a watchable way, and a provoking way. [***]


13th (2016) 13th (2016, USA, dir. Ava DuVernay, wr. DuVernay/Spencer Averick, DOP Hans Charles/Kira Kelly)
The thesis of this new made-for-Netflix documentary is that the prison-industrial complex of the modern United States is effectively perpetuating slavery by another name (the constitutional amendment of the title rescinds slavery except for convicts). It’s difficult to mount any criticism of it as a film* because it’s so focused — through sadness, anger and despair — on driving its message home that it’s hard to look away. A range of activists, scholars and politicians (of whom, surprisingly, Newt Gingrich doesn’t come off as being even close to the worst) comment on the legacy of America’s bitterly divided racial history in creating a massively commercialised and exploitative system that in preying overwhelmingly on the poor (often with little interest in their culpability for their charged crimes) also preys overwhelmingly on people of colour, deracinating communities and continuing to deprive them of voice in opposing the system’s swift extension during the 80s and 90s. Well, DuVernay certainly provides this voice and I can only hope it reaches the people it needs to. Sure it sometimes seems like it’s going after Trump and his cronies (and why not) but neither Clinton exactly comes out slathered in glory, and Obama is largely notable by his absence in this story. It effectively folds in police brutality and the #BlackLivesMatter movement, but also contextualises each as part of a history seemingly doomed to repeat. Sad but urgent stuff. [***½]

(* I only want to mention the endless gliding camera around its interview subjects; I found that technique distracting, but I daresay it works for Netflix, where it’s scheduled to appear on 7 October, and may many more see this film.)


Yom Lel Setat (A Day for Women, 2016)

Yom Lel Setat (A Day for Women) (2016, Egypt, dir. Kamla Abou Zekri, wr. Hanaa Attia)
Sometimes you can watch a film and the fact it exists and what it documents and the point of view it represents, the voice it’s presenting, is enough — to the extent that it hardly matters how ‘good’ a film it is. I guess that sounds like an apologia for not liking it, but really all I can say (not being Egyptian, not being a woman, not being a whole lot of things, a film writer not least) is that it’s not made for me, and that for what it sets out to do, it does well. It’s a melodrama, with some good, subtle performances (and some which seem less so), about a community along a small alleyway in a big city, and the local pool which opens to women only on Sunday, and brings them all together. I liked the shared stories, the way they all have to step carefully on makeshift stones over a deluged alley to get to their homes, the incipient love affairs and personal turmoil each is navigating. Even the ‘simple’ woman and the ‘tramp’ archetypes were challenged by the end, and if nothing else it made a good case for safe spaces. [***]

Selma (2014)


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Seen at Cineworld O2 Greenwich, London, Wednesday 11 February 2015


© Paramount Pictures

It may be largely famous right now for its snub at the Oscars (though it was nominated for Best Picture), but I’m quite sure Selma will have a long life independent of that particular over-rated awards ceremony. For after all it covers one of the important stories of the US civil rights movement — Martin Luther King’s leadership of a voting rights rally in racially-polarised Alabama, and a march from the town of Selma to nearby Montgomery, the state’s capital — one that until now has largely been the preserve of documentaries, but one that still resonates even today (the rap over the closing credits draws direct parallels to events in Ferguson and other racially-motivated murders of black people). Its tone and style are still very respectful as one might expect — there aren’t a great deal of laughs here (you’d hardly expect any) — though everywhere the filmmakers are keen to try and stress the characters’ essential humanity, often occluded by hagiographic portraits of the period. There’s a lovely scene early on of King (David Oyelowo) being helped to tie his ascot by his wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo), and the film later alludes to his womanising. The closest the film comes to caricature is with the paranoid J. Edgar Hoover (surely understandable), and though Tom Wilkinson’s President Johnson sometimes seems set up as the natural antagonist to the civil rights movement, in fact he eventually comes round to accepting its aims and enshrining them in law (if this character arc seems a little too neatly fitted, then it’s also the one that’s caused the most controversy around the film). The filmmaking style is restrained and the dialogue scenes can sometimes seem stagy (I imagine this material would work well as a play), but you get the sense that its aim is not to overwhelm with auteurist style but to testify to the extraordinary characters involved in rally and march, and certainly it’s the faces and the acting which are to the fore. Particularly strong is David Oyelowo in the central role, and his background on the stage no doubt helped him convince as a man renowned for his natural charisma and oratorical skills; Oyelowo can certainly hold the attention of a room (or indeed a cinema). The film may at times feel didactic (and will no doubt be an important educational resource) but thanks to its talented cast and crew — including the excellent cinematographer Bradford Young, and its director Ava DuVernay — Selma is also a fine piece of cinema.


CREDITS || Director Ava DuVernay | Writer Paul Webb | Cinematographer Bradford Young | Starring David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, Carmen Ejogo | Length 127 minutes