Upon the UK cinematic release today of comedy-drama Brittany Runs a Marathon, I’ve been looking back at this popular hybrid generic form, and wanted to finish with one of the best American examples of the past year, which deftly blends a pathos-filled dramatic story of a writer hitting the bottom with clear comedy notes (impossible to avoid with Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant as your leads), with a side of criminal capers.
What I’ve enjoyed most about both of Marielle Heller’s films as director (she also made 2015’s The Diary of a Teenage Girl) is the empathy and humanity she affords to people who are, pretty clearly, quite bitter and caustic people — the sense that maybe the way they are has been shaped by their environment and their struggles with depression, and that maybe they’re not fundamentally bad people. Melissa McCarthy’s washed-up novelist Lee Israel (and as with Destroyer, I’m reminded this is a generic archetype more usually played by grizzled older men) may be getting involved in criminality but it all seems so very low stakes after a fashion, and she shows apparent creativity in the process of pastiching various authors’ personal style. McCarthy is excellent at getting into this shuffling, self-loathing character, but for me the film is made by Richard E. Grant and Dolly Wells in the supporting performances, not to mention the other wonderfully weary bookshop owners who just have such a genuine thrill at these almost-forgotten names from a more literate past. Grant seems to be largely reprising his Withnail performance, with the hindsight of age and mortality, and (notwithstanding the very late and unconvincing swerve into AIDS themes) it’s an act that works beautifully. Dolly Wells’ Anna may be even more heartbreaking in the way she wants to but is unable to connect with Israel. Overall, and despite its embittered central character, the film just oozes with warmth, and a strange glow cast by antiquarian bookshops and squalid NYC apartments.
Director Marielle Heller; Writers Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty (based on the memoir by Lee Israel); Cinematographer Brandon Trost; Starring Melissa McCarthy, Richard E. Grant, Dolly Wells, Jane Curtin; Length 107 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Soho, London, Monday 4 February 2019.
One of many films attempting to understand the character of Nixon, this is based on a stage play and it certainly shows, given the film takes place entirely in a single room (Nixon’s study) and aside from archival clips and images, the only person we see on screen is Philip Baker Hall. It’s a bravura performance, the kind of thing that on stage would wow a crowd, but at times feels like overacting on film, but in a sense that’s intentional: the way the thoughts tumble out of Nixon’s mouth, often incomplete, jostling with one another to find clarity of expression; the mad dashes he takes around his study, ranting at pictures, staring down the camera, speaking into his tape recorder and addressing an off-screen editor. Altman’s camera fluidly captures all the digressions and frantic movements, opening up the space a little but still with the claustrophobia that you get from a single, heavily wood-panelled, setting. The script touches on a lot of the issues that motivated Nixon, and suggest a deeper, darker reality than the one seen in the media of the time, as shadowy cabals of men are alluded to as his backers, and his misdeeds appear to be more than what brought him down in the end. It’s a passionate performance, but as a film it feels rather like a footnote to the ongoing retelling of the legends of American Presidency.
- There’s a 22 minute interview with Philip Baker Hall discussing the project, his background in theatre and how that meant very little once he moved to LA, how the film kickstarted his acting career on film, but mostly how it was filmed and his work with Altman.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Robert Altman; Writers Donald Freed and Arnold M. Stone (based on their play); Cinematographer Pierre Mignot; Starring Philip Baker Hall; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 28 July 2019.
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.
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.
There’s no shortage of varied string-tugging that goes on in this film, but surprisingly — for a triumph-against-the-odds narrative, for a Disney film, for a big Western-funded film production set in Africa — it does so without hitting the expected marks. As one example, there’s no orchestral score overwhelming the scenes at key moments (which is to say, there is a score, but my point is it doesn’t unduly ingratiate itself; the African pop music is more noticeable, and excellent). More importantly, there’s no white/European central character to channel a condescending understanding of the struggles the African characters face. The closest the film comes to such a figure is David Oyelowo’s university-educated coach, who lives a relatively middle-class life. That said, everyone in this film has and does struggle through poverty, and for a Disney film it does show a lot of that. It’s picturesquely shot, with plenty of vibrant colours, and despite the difficult lives of its characters there’s little reliance on some of the more overworn African film themes (there are some threatening characters, but no gang violence for example), and it gives its characters a chance at lives that aren’t just punchlines to the usual tropes of colonialist filmmaking. I wouldn’t call it perfect, and it’s definitely still a feel-good triumph-against-the-odds sports movie — even if the sport is chess — but for all that, it’s done well, with passion and with great acting from its three leads.
Director Mira Nair; Writer William Wheeler (based on the non-fiction book by Tim Crothers); Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt; Starring Madina Nalwanga, David Oyelowo, Lupita Nyong’o; Length 124 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Victoria, London, Monday 24 October 2016.
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.
Director Tom McCarthy; Writers McCarthy and Josh Singer; Cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi 高柳雅暢; 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.
Director Adam McKay; Writers 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.
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.
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?
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.
Director Mabel Cheung 張婉婷; Writers Cheung and Alex Law 羅啟銳; Cinematographer Wang Yu 王昱; Starring Sean Lau 劉青雲, Wei Tang 汤唯; Length 130 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Thursday 15 October 2015.