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
In my head I had this in much the same category as the recent The Big Short, in the sense of being a largely-beige awards-baiting torn-from-the-headlines dude-centric drama, and it is those things. But Spotlight‘s real interest is in people’s power (specifically via journalism) to make a positive change in a society overrun by corrupt institutions, where that other film is about men self-interestedly taking advantage of corrupt institutions. The institution in Spotlight is the Catholic Church, and the allegations of child sexual abuse against it — a big story at the time (and since then), and one that was particularly noticeable in a largely Catholic community like Boston. The corruption that allowed the abuse to be covered up was endemic within the city, reaching the courts, the police and, indeed, the Boston Globe newspaper itself, which only upon the arrival in 2001 of new editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) started to take an interest in the case once again. It’s the investigative journalism of the Spotlight team (led by Michael Keaton’s Robbie) which is the film’s focus and it does a good job in getting across some of the painstaking research and journalistic legwork involved in putting together a story such as this, including the long period of months it takes. Along the way we get to see the backstage wrangling amongst the team (Mark Ruffalo’s reporter Mike is the one with the meatiest role), along with their dealings with lawyers (such as Stanley Tucci’s overworked attorney, rightly sceptical of the newspaper’s intentions) and with judges, while operating in secrecy to both hide the story from the church itself (which is seen pressuring those in power to shut it down) and from other papers. Naturally some of the timeline is rather telescoped (particularly the months after September 2011), but it’s a movie that avoids grandstanding speeches, preferring also to downplay any filmmaking tricksiness to put across a polished if visually unspectacular story of a group of people just trying to get something done. At that task, like the journalists it depicts, the film excels.
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW Director Tom McCarthy | Writers Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer | Cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi | Starring Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, John Slattery, Liev Schreiber | Length 129 minutes || Seen at Cineworld Fulham Road, London, Sunday 14 February 2016
Whatever else came from the Wall Street crash of 2008, it’s certainly been the impetus for plenty of films since then, going right back to my first entry on this blog, Arbitrage (2012), not to mention the following year’s The Wolf of Wall Street — though those are less specifically about 2008, as about the broken culture of high finance. The Big Short certainly gets that culture across well, while digging deeper into the specifics of sub-prime mortages, collateralised debt obligations (CDOs) and the other jargon and terminology, framing it in an easily-digestible way for viewers whose understanding of such matters is fairly shaky (i.e. most of them, presumably). What this means in practice is jittery camerawork with lots of racking of focus and quick zooms, along with the interpolation of awkward cameos purporting to explain the more abstruse concepts, hosted by such figures as Selena Gomez at a gambling table and Margot Robbie (harking back to Wolf again) in a bathtub. The problem is that all of these tropes are largely distracting, while the bulk of the narrative prefers to focus on a few quirky characters whose stories are presumably more interesting, though it’s not clear to me that they were really central to the crisis (basically they’re traders who made a buck from everyone else’s misfortune). So there’s Christian Bale’s doctor with Aspberger’s, a Cassandra-like figure largely separate from the rest of the cast; there’s Steve Carell’s fund manager and his staff; there’s Ryan Gosling’s shark-like trader; and there’s the small garage-based midwestern startup led by John Magaro, who enlist the help of former Wall Street highflyer-turned-environmentalist Brad Pitt. Needless to say, the acting talents on screen — not to mention the comedy chops of director/writer Adam McKay — ensure that the film is never boring. I’m just not certain that this film filled with shouty men in suits is ever very much more than just a snappily entertaining, fitfully amusing digression.
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW Director Adam McKay | Writers Adam McKay and Charles Randolph (based on the book by Michael Lewis) | Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd | Starring Steve Carell, Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, John Magaro, Brad Pitt | Length 130 minutes || Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Friday 29 January 2016
It feels like there are two distinct films within this relatively big-budget Chilean/Colombian co-production, based on the real-life mining disaster at Copiapó in 2010 in which 33 miners were trapped underground. One is a film of excellent cinematography in underground chambers, of fine acting by the ensemble cast, depicting the lives of ordinary people in an extraordinary situation. It does a really good job, in particular, of capturing these men’s weary lined faces as they assess their chances, and of their families above ground (mostly wives and children) hoping and praying for their survival. That’s a good film.
And then there’s the film as it’s scripted, replete with disaster clichés, spoken in heavily-accented English, and — perhaps suggesting some of the commercial focus of the filmmakers — even setting up a triumphal US involvement towards the end (though thankfully backing off from giving too great a value to that). This is the film in which the engineer played by Gabriel Byrne (of all people; mostly the cast are Latino) points at a 3D rendering of the mine overlaid with a graphic of the Empire State Building (two of them in fact) to represent the size of the obstacle. This film is not nearly as successful. People shake their heads (Byrne again) and say “we need to face the TRUTH dammit” while others (the Minister of Mining, played by Rodrigo Santoro) say “No I believe en mi corazón that they’re still alive, and now let me go listen to a touching old woman’s song” (yes, I’m paraphrasing obviously, but not much).
On balance, I think the good film wins out in the end, but only just. It’s beautifully filmed, and the tension is solidly crafted — it would be all but unbearable if we didn’t know the real-life outcome. Perhaps on reflection, it’s the cast speaking in English I object to the most, but there’s still plenty to like, and Banderas is a dependable linchpin for the unfolding drama.
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW Director Patricia Riggen | Writers Mikko Alanne, Craig Borten and Michael Thomas (based on the book Deep Down Dark by Héctor Tobar) | Cinematographer Checco Varese | Starring Antonio Banderas, Lou Diamond Phillips, Rodrigo Santoro, Juliette Binoche, Gabriel Byrne | Length 127 minutes || Seen at Cineworld West India Quay, London, Tuesday 2 February 2016
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
Spielberg by this point is pretty adept at crafting a solid historical drama with period details and excellent ensemble acting. In this case, his current ‘everyman’ Tom Hanks is in the lead role as James Donovan, an insurance lawyer called on to defend an accused Russian spy in late-1950s New York. Donovan does what he can with an open-and-shut case, ensuring that the accused, Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) is not executed, an insurance policy which pays off years later (somewhat telescoped by this film) when surveillance pilot Gary Powers is shot down over the Soviet Union and the two men are exchanged by their governments, with Donovan acting as the intermediary. There are, then, essentially two acts, with Hanks stepping up to the courtroom drama with aplomb, the screenplay hitting hard on ‘what it means to be American’ (i.e. follow the guiding light of the Constitution), although at the very least not in a way as facilely patriotic as in some other US films. The real revelation is theatre actor Mark Rylance, whose acting style notably contrasts with Hanks’ familiar good-natured shtick (although the character of Donovan has a hard edge in negotiations — if not in action — that Hanks does bring out well). The second act of the film is set in snowy Berlin, and is almost comedic in its portrayal of the competing bureaucracies of the Soviet Union, East Germany (rather sore at not being a recognised state) and the US, with a foolish university student pulled into the mix. There’s nothing shabby about the production as a whole and it’s put together with all of Spielberg’s well-honed craft, aided by the Coen brothers sharpening up the screenplay. It will probably win awards, and why not, eh?
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW Director Steven Spielberg | Writers Matt Charman, Ethan Coen and Joel Coen | Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski | Starring Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Amy Ryan, Alan Alda | Length 141 minutes || Seen at Omnia, Rouen, Saturday 5 December 2015
This film was presented at the London Film Festival, presented by the CEO of the BFI along with the film’s director and producers, who stayed for a Q&A afterwards (though I had to dash off to my next film).
It may be based on real people (the parents of film star Jackie Chan, apparently), but this sweeping historical romance in fact subsumes itself into a familiar overheady melodramatic register, making it a struggle to glimpse the reality behind the burnished cinematography and period set recreations. Still, it’s never boring and occasionally even transcendent at evoking Anhui (a province, not a city, as far as I can tell) and Shanghai during World War II. The third city of the title is Hong Kong, to which the family escapes after the coming of the Communists, and it’s where the film starts out, which may head off worries about our lead characters’ survival, though there’s still plenty of nail-biting tension in the backstory which the following two hours builds up. At the heart of the piece are Sean Lau and Wei Tang as the lovers Daolong and Yuerong, who first meet in a small fishing village when she is caught by him smuggling opium but then released because things are too chaotic and he feels a tug of pity. Like any good epic, the setting changes from scene to scene such that recounting the twists and turns of the plot is difficult, suffice that between Shanghai and their homes in Anhui province, they are reunited once again and fall in love. They each have two kids from previous marriages, but those seem like the story’s losers (certainly their fate is not dwelt upon), as Daolong and Yuerong struggle to make a home for themselves somewhere away from the threat of violence and governmental oppression. Perhaps the past is the safest place to tell a story of people who were openly working against the Communists, but it still imparts a frisson of topicality, and whatever the film’s weaknesses, a fondness for grand storytelling in the David Lean style is not one of them.
FILM FESTIVAL FILM REVIEW: London Film Festival Director Mabel Cheung | Writers Mabel Cheung and Alex Law | Cinematographer Yu Wang | Starring Sean Lau, Wei Tang | Length 130 minutes || Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Thursday 15 October 2015
This film was presented at the London Film Festival. There was no introduction, so I presume there was also no Q&A afterwards.
I think it’s reasonable to say that many films in recent years have been concerned with the impact of technology and changing patterns of communication on societies, particularly young people (it was a central theme of the first film I saw at the Film Festival as well, Mountains May Depart). So it is with this story, based loosely on real events I understand — and sadly, all too believable — about a young woman, Jennifer (Fatime Azemi), who speaks out about her experience of rape by fellow classmate Alexander (John Risto). She is quickly shunned by her classmates and her family ostracised by their small rural community, as nobody is willing to believe the truth of what she says, while her attacker, without his saying very much at all (either affirming or against the allegations), finds himself protected by his family and all the town’s institutions. There’s a strong suggestion that the allegations have divided the town along class lines — Jennifer and her family seem to be viewed as somehow lesser than golden boy Alexander — but it’s all presented very understatedly. Indeed, the film’s style is beautifully controlled, the tension in the script cued up right away with a brief scene of Jennifer and two of her classmates doing little more than carrying a cake at a wedding, while the images have a glacially toned palette and there’s plenty of artfully shallow focus. There’s relatively little overt nastiness on display amongst the characters — the most unpleasant exchanges are presented as captioned text conversations that unfurl over subtly disturbing static shots — and while it’s fair to say it’s hardly cheery, it also feels less emotionally exploitative than your typical Haneke film. There’s a lot to unpack going on here, but Flocking is a useful and timely reminder of the toxic effects of modern rape culture as expressed via anonymised social media.
FILM FESTIVAL FILM REVIEW: London Film Festival Director Beata Gårdeler | Writer Emma Broström | Cinematographer Gösta Reiland | Starring Fatime Azemi, John Risto | Length 110 minutes || Seen at BFI Southbank, London, Monday 12 October 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.
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
When Kenneth Branagh filmed his own dark and politically cynical vision of this play in 1989 it kick-started his career and marked a resurgence of Shakespeare on film, but Laurence Olivier was the original actor/director and puts the play and its hero in quite a different light. Of course, being made at the height of the Second World War, you might expect a more triumphant hue to proceedings. There’s also an admirable commitment to theatrical non-naturalism in the sets and setting — again, this may have been motivated by avoiding anything reminiscent of the actual conditions of war — but brings to my mind Rohmer’s later experiments in staging the Mediaeval story of King Arthur in Perceval le Gallois (1978). Indeed Olivier’s film itself starts through a recreation of a performance at London’s Globe theatre in the early-17th century (strikingly similar to the reconstruction now on the South Bank), before at length moving away from the theatre, without ever quite relinquishing the stagy feel, though that’s as much to do with the beautifully saturated Technicolor cinematography as with anything in the performances. Whatever its limitations, and however carefully it works to work around the more melancholy notes in the play (most obviously its coda of how Henry promptly lost France shortly afterwards), it’s still a fine staging of a classic English play.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection Director Laurence Olivier | Writers Alan Dent and Laurence Olivier (based on the play by William Shakespeare) | Cinematographer Robert Krasker | Starring Laurence Olivier | Length 136 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 14 June 2015