Straight Outta Compton (2015)

What’s most surprising to me about this biopic of seminal late-1980s rap band N.W.A. is that it qualifies for my New Year’s Resolution by having a female co-writer. It’s not surprising in the sense of FINALLY PROVING that women can write rounded and realistic male characters (I jest), but because the women in the film are so peripheral to the story as to be little more than gyrating appendages in music videos (aside perhaps from Eazy-E’s widow Tomica, who’s also a producer on the film). It is, indeed, a very male-centred film about a group of friends and their rise from impoverished backgrounds in LA’s Compton neighbourhood to musical dominance as the progenitors of the ‘gangsta rap’ style. The film’s central players are introduced by on-screen captions, with the three most prominent members of the group being Ice Cube (played by his son, O’Shea Jackson Jr., as an embittered and angry young man), the focused Dr. Dre (Jason Mitchell), and the guy that helps to bring them all together, Eazy-E (Corey Hawkins), who true to his name has a more laidback lifestyle — which is to say, there are plenty of women and drugs involved.

The arc of the film is classic Hollywood biopic — rags to riches, complicated by egos and money — but in focusing its story on black characters, the film already moves some way towards redressing the whitewashing of (musical) history engaged in by other mainstream productions. Indeed, the casting of Paul Giamatti as manager Jerry Heller recalls his almost identical work in a very similar (and far whiter) film about Brian Wilson only a few months ago, and if Love & Mercy seemed to impart a good sense of how its music was made, Straight Outta Compton is most focused on positioning its protagonists within the wider social context of racial discrimination — looping in the Rodney King beating and subsequent riots. However, perhaps even more than that, the film is concerned with the band’s contractual and label disputes, which is where Giamatti’s character comes in, not to mention Suge Knight and his roster of stars (Tupac Shakur pops up briefly, for example).

There are undoubtedly valid criticisms of the rampant chauvinism — which after all in a sense reflects the culture of this era and of these protagonists — and there’s also the not unrelated issue of the way the film occludes some of the characters’ more disturbing history with women, but that’s not really something for me to address. Suffice to say that it’s been written about by black women, whether those involved (Dee Barnes on Gawker.com), or in articles both critical of the film’s representation of women and more lenient (the latter two links from Bitch Magazine). However, for what it is, it’s fantastically accomplished, and as one might expect, it’s the live music scenes which are most compelling. Ice Cube’s anger is not only clearly contextualised, it’s sadly still necessary, which is what gives a song like “Fuck tha Police” so much power even after more than 25 years, meaning that N.W.A.’s music still has plenty to offer to audiences, whatever race they may be.


© Universal Pictures

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director F. Gary Gray | Writers Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff | Cinematographer Matthew Libatique | Starring O’Shea Jackson Jr., Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Paul Giamatti | Length 147 minutes || Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Monday 31 August 2015

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Gascoigne (2015)

It’s fair to say my resolution has exposed me to plenty of films I wouldn’t ordinarily have watched this year, but I didn’t expect one of them to be a documentary about an English football player. During the 1990s, Paul Gascoigne was something of a mercurial talent on the field (and lad-about-town off it, from what I gather), though as I was living in New Zealand during this decade, his fame largely passed me by. This documentary about his career (and rather more tangentially, his life) is based primarily on an interview with the striker, now in his late-40s and looking quite different from the chubby-cheeked larrikin as seen in the archival clips. His words and the football footage are bolstered primarily by his Tottenham Hotspur and England colleague Gary Lineker, as well as some shorter pieces with a handful of others. The documentary hints at darker storms gathering around Gascoigne (or “Gazza”), mainly the spectre of alcoholism, but never really digs deeply. However, whatever tabloid-baiting notoriety he may have acquired via thinly outraged stories (clearly fabricated from very little actual evidence), from his appearances here Gascoigne never seems anything less than affable and likeable. The editing of the interviews is perhaps overly reliant on shallow focus camerawork and hazily off-centred close-ups, which get a little tiring in their mannered way, but there’s some excellent sports action for those (like me) who were unfamiliar with Gascoigne’s goals, and it moves through its chronology pleasantly enough.


© Entertainment One

FILM REVIEW
Director Jane Preston | Cinematographer Patrick Smith | Length 90 minutes || Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Wednesday 12 August 2015

Love & Mercy (2014)

To be honest, I’m no huge fan of Brian Wilson or his music. Sure I have a copy of Pet Sounds and I acknowledge its undoubted artistry, but there’s a level of lionisation with Wilson’s work that sits uneasily with me. “Genius” is a word apt to be applied to creative white guys and the film uses it in a rather pointless final card, but at the very least he’s a virtuoso. Still, if you’re going to do a biopic of the man, this one certainly seems to take the right way, overlapping narratives (60s Brian played by Paul Dano, and 80s Brian played by John Cusack) to echo the way that Wilson himself juxtaposes harmonies and keys in his music. Cusack’s (lack of) resemblance to Wilson has already been covered pretty well elsewhere, but in large part he’s just a foil to Elizabeth Banks’s Melinda, who helps him to come out of the heavily-medicated dark hole that his doctor (an almost Grand Guignol villain turn from Paul Giamatti) keeps him in. That story feels like a bit of a cop-out (history is written by the winners after all), and Banks is almost too saintly, though she’s always been a sympathetic performer. However, when the film focuses on Dano’s remarkably poised performance, crafting music in the studio by channelling his wayward creative mind, it really hits its stride.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Bill Pohlad | Writers Michael Alan Lerner and Oren Moverman | Cinematographer Robert Yeoman | Starring John Cusack, Paul Dano, Elizabeth Banks, Paul Giamatti | Length 121 minutes || Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Monday 13 July 2015

Two Recent Documentaries about Jazz Singers

© Altitude Film Distribution

At a certain level, these two subjects couldn’t be more different (one is English, the other from the States; one died at an early age, the other lived a long life) but there’s plenty too that unites them. They both came from relatively unfavoured backgrounds to pursue well-regarded careers as jazz vocalists (though whereas Amy Winehouse moved away from that idiom somewhat, Nina Simone moved into it after early training in classical piano), and both had undoubtedly turbulent lives.

Because Liz Garbus’s documentary is produced by (and largely revolves around testimony from) Simone’s daughter Lisa, we get to hear a lot about her family life, and her marriage to an abusive husband who helped to promote her career, but whose presence terrified her. Likewise, Asid Kapadia’s film about Winehouse paints a vivid portrait of the men around her (including her father Mitch, her husband Blake, and her early manager Nick) and about the different ways in which they too tried to control and shape her life. Even the relatively benign presences of Nick or her bodyguard late in life, while supportive of her talents, still use the language of control and suggest that she needed someone to dictate what she should do, to avoid the drugs and the alcohol which in conjunction with her eating disorders and the exploitativeness of the tabloid press (and the public’s demand for stories about her), weakened her body and led to her early demise. What the film singularly demonstrates is that whatever the truth of these men’s assessment, no one was willing to step in decisively to try and help her over her demons or through the maelstrom of the media (in which the audience sits complicit). I may never have been a huge fan of Winehouse during her lifetime, but watching Amy just makes me sad once again at her life and the unrealised potential of her talents (though what she did release remains wonderful). Simone, by contrast, had plenty of time to develop as a singer, but also as a person who was deeply embedded with the civil rights struggles of the 1960s, and who later in life, following the split from her husband, never fully allowed her voice and talents to be controlled by anyone but her. Perhaps this is how Winehouse’s life might have panned out, but that would be idle speculation.

What can be said is that the two documentaries take a markedly different stylistic approach to their subjects. Whereas Garbus opts for the safety of a compilation of modern talking heads, recorded interviews with Simone, and archival footage, Kapadia instead constructs his image track entirely from archival sources, particularly home videos and behind-the-scenes footage which seem revealing of Amy’s headspace at any given time. This is overlaid with audio interviews with various people who were close to her, but for all this, Kapadia never gives us the opportunity to be distracted from the absent presence at the heart of his film, her image or her voice. Ultimately both films, in their different ways, honour most of all the strong women at their heart, and the remarkable music each created.


© Netflix

Amy (2015)
Director Asif Kapadia | Length 128 minutes || Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Monday 6 July 2015


What Happened, Miss Simone? (2015)
Director Liz Garbus | Cinematographer Igor Martinovic | Length 101 minutes || Seen at home (streaming), London, Saturday 11 July 2015

A Fuller Life (2013)

There’s no doubt that director Samuel Fuller had quite a life, and it’s his autobiography that forms the basis for this documentary by his daughter. The form is simple: a collection of actors and directors — both those who worked with him and admirers of his work — sit in his study and read from his memoirs. So we get the likes of actors James Franco and Constance Towers (whose towering peformance so enlivened his The Naked Kiss), and directors Wim Wenders and Monte Hellman, amongst many others. The first half of the film covers Fuller’s start as a newsboy and copy editor in New York, before moving on to his formative experiences in World War II, while the second half rattles through his film work over the following 30 years. The armchair-readings format is broken up with archival clips, many of them filmed by Fuller himself and taken from his own archives. There’s nothing groundbreaking about the formal methods, though his daughter provides a memorable introduction as the camera roves across his study and all the artefacts within it, but this is a solid and fascinating film portrait of one of the great American directors of the 20th century.


© Chrisam Films

FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Samantha Fuller (based on the memoir A Third Face: My Tale of Writing, Fighting, and Filmmaking by Samuel Fuller) | Cinematographers Hilton Goring, Seamus McGarvey, Tyler Purcell and Rachel Wyn Dunn | Length 80 minutes || Seen at Regent Street Cinema, London, Tuesday 23 June 2015

Criterion Sunday 20: Sid and Nancy (1986)

Whatever other angle one might wish to approach this film from — whether its characters’ participation at the vanguard of the late-1970s punk scene in England, or their descent into heroin addiction — Sid and Nancy is at its heart a romance. The two characters are utterly self-absorbed, dangerously self-destructive, and (arguably) of questionable artistic talent, but their commitment to one another endures in a way that’s almost sweet, even when they’re abusing one another — well, up until a point, at least. One thing you certainly shouldn’t look for in this portrait of the Sex Pistols’ bassist Sid Vicious and his romance with Nancy Spungen is for restrained acting: there’s a palpably gleeful embrace of over-acting by all the actors. This doesn’t always pay dividends, but it does create an atmosphere in which any kind of behaviour seems possible, and in which all too much does indeed happen. As the protagonists slide at length into drug addiction, the film starts to take on a sort of hypnotically repetitive quality (there’s a particularly amusing scene where Sid muses that things will be better when they get to New York, to which Nancy replies that they are there already, prompting him to open the window and look out), such that its concluding act of violence seems indistinguishable from the rest of the pair’s grim existence. It’s difficult to say how much of this is true to the actual events, but the film seems to be suggesting that the two were made for each other. Certainly, if they weren’t, it’s difficult to tell for whom they could have been made.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Alex Cox | Writers Alex Cox and Abbe Wool | Cinematographer Roger Deakins | Starring Gary Oldman, Chloe Webb | Length 112 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (streaming online), London, Sunday 18 January 2015

February 2015 Film Viewing Round-Up

Herewith some brief thoughts about films I saw in February which I didn’t review in full.


Big Hero 6 (2014)

Big Hero 6 (2014, USA, dir. Don Hall/Chris Williams) [Wed 11 Feb at Cineworld O2 Greenwich]. There’s a lot of sweetness to this film, just as there’s a lot of sadness too, and I think for the most part the balance is really well maintained. The hero’s name is Hiro and his brother has created a big soft lovable health droid (voiced by the reassuring Scott Adsit), but when his brother dies in a mysterious lab fire, it’s down to this odd couple to solve the crime. It all gets a bit superhero-film towards the end, and there’s intermittent mawkishness, but for most part this is a delicate story of growing up, as well as an unashamed paean to technological geekery. Its fictional setting too, the Pacific city of San Fransokyo (a composite of American and Japanese culture) is beautifully rendered and makes one wish such a place really did exist. ***


Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

Bride of Frankenstein (1935, USA, dir. James Whale) [Wed 25 Feb at home]. A classic horror film which I’d never seen before, and indeed is quite excellent, including its use of beautifully-contrasted black-and-white photography allied to some quite nifty techniques on the part of the director James Whale. His life story provided its own interest in the 90s biopic Gods and Monsters, which lifts its title from a line in this film, and indeed Bride has plenty of good quotable lines in its story of Dr Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger in a superbly campy performance) who wants to create a mate (Elsa Lanchester) for Dr Frankenstein’s monster (Boris Karloff). Most of the (relatively short) film is taken up with the machinations of Pretorius, though the story of the monster allows for some ever welcome lessons in tolerance and understanding of the Other. But at its heart this is a classic gothic horror film. ***½


Kawachi Karumen (Carmen from Kawachi, 1966)

Kawachi Karumen (Carmen from Kawachi) (1966, Japan, dir. Seijun Suzuki) [Tue 3 Feb at the ICA]. From the archival strand of a touring programme of Japanese films is this curious little number from the prolific Seijun Suzuki (most famous for the contemporaneous Tokyo Drifter and Branded to Kill, the film that got him fired from his studio). He has a real way with deliriously pulpy subject matter splashed across the widescreen black-and-white frame. This film takes themes from the opera of the name, by presenting our heroine Tsuyuko as a poor woman from a working-class suburb working her way up in the big city, including a stint as a hostess at a bar (given the period, it’s all fairly indirect, but seems to imply prostitution), but she’s knocked back by circumstance and some pretty terrible behaviour which affects both her family life, her relationships and her living situation. In fact, almost all the men here act callously, pushing her by turns towards a vengeful track, though the film withholds the kind of judgement you’d expect in a Hollywood morality play of the era. If the sheer force of events suggests a tragic dimension to the character, then this is partially countered by the forthright acting of the leading lady (Yumiko Nogawa), and the film offers much, too, in the way of stylish camerawork and staging. ***


Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988).png

Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988, USA, dir. Stephen Chiodo) [Sat 21 Feb at a friend’s home]. Coming into this film with no prior awareness except to expect a certain level of trashy exploitation, I was pleasantly surprised at the consistent comic inventiveness of the premise. The title sets out a fairly self-explanatory story, but it’s the little details — like when the murderous alien clowns use balloons to make a sniffer dog to track down their human prey — which show the creators have made a real effort to follow through on their shonky premise. The acting is pitched appropriately, and the film delivers plenty of good fun. **½


Lifeforce (1985)

Lifeforce (1985, USA, dir. Tobe Hooper) [Sat 21 Feb at a friend’s home]. I get the sense that a lot of thought has gone into this big budget space horror epic featuring naked vampire aliens running amok in London, but the execution is just a little iffy. There is, however, plenty of bonkers over-the-topness on show, plus a pleasing hamminess to a lot of the performances — particularly Peter Firth’s by-the-book SAS commander, as well as a short appearance for Patrick Stewart — but it’s all in the service of a leering story that lingers over Mathilda May’s body. Perhaps you could read it as a punishment for patriarchal oppression, but I can’t even convince myself of that. **


Lovelace (2013)

Lovelace (2013, USA, dir. Rob Epstein/Jeffrey Friedman) [Thu 18 Feb at home]. I appreciate the film’s attempt at a sort of modern-day Rashomon in presenting two sides of the story of Linda Lovelace, protagonist of the 70s most famous p0rn film Deep Throat. She is alternately a bright young ingénue taking hold of her career, and someone unscrupulously exploited by her then-boyfriend (Peter Sarsgaard) — though obviously the latter is given more prominence, surely being closer to the truth — but either way it’s clear that adult film was the not the world she wanted to be part of. There’s a deep strain of melancholy that runs through Amanda Seyfried’s performance in the title role, and this was clearly a difficult period of Lovelace’s life, but it’s something the film only intermittently captures. **½


Obvious Child (2014)

Obvious Child (2014, USA, dir. Gillian Robespierre) [Sun 22 Feb at home]. A second viewing of a film I loved and reviewed last year, and it’s fair to say I still love it. Jenny Slate does some wonderful work. ****


La Reine Margot (1994)

La Reine Margot (1994, France/Italy, dir. Patrice Chéreau) [Sun 22 Feb at home]. A lot of Chéreau’s directorial work for film was in comparatively little psychodramas, but his background in opera means I can’t imagine many others being able to handle such a grand spectacle of a film, and he does so very comfortably. The tendency with this kind of prestige production is to get bogged down by celebrity showboating and overblown melodrama, but despite having plenty of famous (French) faces and a long running time, Chéreau keeps it all in check, such that the details of what to foreign eyes is a relatively little-known period of European history becomes a vital and interesting study in corrupted power and its bloody effects. It’s been re-released recently in France in a longer cut, closer to the director’s original vision, but even the truncated version I watched had plenty to love. ***½


The Selfish Giant (2013)

The Selfish Giant (2013, UK, dir. Clio Barnard) [Sat 7 Feb at home]. Clio Barnard’s earlier docu-drama hybrid The Arbor (2010) now receives something of a companion piece with this fiction film, also set in the grim industrial north, focusing on a couple of wayward kids living on a council estate trying to make ends meet. The particular path the two follow, of collecting scrap metal and racing horses in the street, seems like something from another era of British history, but despite dealing with a familiar coming-of-age loss-of-childhood-innocence character arc, the film’s performances and setting give it a freshness that this genre can so often lack. ***½


Somersault (2004).jpg

Somersault (2004, Australia, dir. Cate Shortland) [Tue 10 Feb at home]. This little Australian film shows a sure hand from its first-time feature director, with a great sense of its rural locale and a fine performance from Abbie Cornish as the young woman forced to flee home and live by her wits. It’s another coming-of-age but one done with sensitivity to its protagonist’s sexual awakening, along with the dangers attendant on that. ***


Stop Making Sense (1984)

Stop Making Sense (1984, USA, dir. Jonathan Demme) [Sat 7 Feb at home]. Still a giant of the concert film, Demme’s staging and filming of a gig by the New York new wave band Talking Heads masterfully cuts to the heart of the music’s drama. Obviously, any concert film is going to stand or fall on how much you like the band’s music (I love it, having grown up with it), but it helps that frontman David Byrne is a compulsively watchable performer, and that there’s so much joy exhibited on stage, as the spectacle slowly builds up song by song. ****½

Two Short Reviews of Recent Films Set in the 19th Century

Two more short reviews of films I just haven’t been able to summon up the enthusiasm to think about at great length. Not that either of them is bad, mind.


© Entertainment One

Mr. Turner (2014) || Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Tuesday 4 November 2014 || Director/Writer Mike Leigh | Cinematographer Dick Pope | Starring Timothy Spall, Marion Bailey, Dorothy Atkinson | Length 149 minutes || My Rating 3.5 stars very good

This latest by Mike Leigh seems to have divided audiences and critics, though by most metrics it has done very well at the box office, a fine feat considering its length. Presumably it appeals to the heritage crowd, what with being a period film, and at that it does very well, conjuring a good sense of 19th century London, with its galleries and its fine houses, as well as its muck and dirt, not to mention the failings of medicine (Dorothy Atkinson’s servant gets progressively more blighted by psoriasis as the film goes on). At the film’s heart is Timothy Spall’s JMW Turner, a painter of some of the finest works of English art, who here is a gruffly monosyllabic grouch who communicates more in coughs and splutters than with words (Spall’s performance is in fact second only this year to Gérard Depardieu’s in Welcome to New York for guttural grunting). Yet it’s an oddly disjointed film, which moves along in vignettes — Turner at the Royal Academy disputing with his fellow painters, Turner at home, Turner on holiday in Margate, this kind of thing. To be fair, this gives it the sense of a series of (moving) paintings, much like Turner’s work, and like his work a lot of the film is very beautifully shot. However, even the most artfully composed film could never approach the breathtaking vistas of Turner’s later paintings, so perhaps my point of comparison is just unfair in the first place.


© Roadside Attractions

The Homesman (2014) || Seen at Cineworld West India Quay, London, Tuesday 25 November 2014 || Director Tommy Lee Jones | Writers Tommy Lee Jones, Kieran Fitzgerald and Wesley Oliver (based on the novel by Glendon Swarthout) | Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto | Starring Hilary Swank, Tommy Lee Jones | Length 122 minutes || My Rating 3 stars good

Another film set in the 19th century — in fact, covering many of the same years as Mr. Turner, albeit on another side of the Atlantic — is this film by actor turned writer/director Tommy Lee Jones. His debut film as director was the wonderful and underrated The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005), a film with a great feeling for border territories, and this new film is again set on a frontier of sorts. I’m tempted to call it a Western, though it’s not set in the west but rather in Nebraska, and it deals with a sturdy frontierswoman, Mary Bee Cuddy (played capably by Hilary Swank), who for various reasons has to accompany three mad women back to civilisation, where they can be (more) properly cared for. She soon picks up Tommy Lee’s disreputable George Briggs to help her, and thus begins their journey. It’s all very ably and attractively shot by veteran DoP Rodrigo Prieto, and in the two central roles Jones and Swank make for a fine odd couple. But things take a turn later on which is both unexpected and abrupt, though undoubtedly it suggests (and, more widely, the film does capture well) a sense of the difficulties attendant on life in this era and location. In which respect, of course, the roles for the mad women are rather thankless, amounting to little more than gurning and groaning at times. Yet, while it’s a film that feels as if it has two distinct parts, it certainly also has its virtues.

De-Lovely (2004)


FILM REVIEW || Director Irwin Winkler | Writer Jay Cocks | Cinematographer Tony Pierce-Roberts | Starring Kevin Kline, Ashley Judd, Jonathan Pryce, Kevin McNally | Length 120 minutes | Seen at home (DVD), London, Wednesday 26 February 2014 || My Rating 3.5 stars very good


© Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

I seem to have a rather conflicted relationship to self-awareness in films: I was quite unkind towards Anna Karenina (2012) and its efforts at presenting the action at times through a proscenium arch as if it were on stage, but elsewhere it’s the kind of thing I love, and I can’t really pretend I’m in any way consistent. The stage is a big feature of this biopic about the life of Cole Porter and his relationship with Linda Lee Thomas, too, but for some reason I’m more sympathetic towards it here. Perhaps that’s because Porter’s life is one very much lived out on and through the stage and performance, so presenting his life as a pageant to his older self, with periodic flourishes of artificial staginess, all seems of a piece to his story. It’s also filled with delightful musical performances of his work, such that whatever its shortcomings, it drew me in quite nimbly.

Continue reading “De-Lovely (2004)”

Dallas Buyers Club (2013)


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Director Jean-Marc Vallée | Writers Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack | Cinematographer Yves Bélanger | Starring Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Garner, Jared Leto, Steve Zahn | Length 117 minutes | Seen at Genesis, London, Thursday 20 February 2014 || My Rating 2 stars worth seeing


© Focus Features

There’s no doubt that Matthew McConaughey has been turning in some excellent acting performances of late, but once again with this film (as with the similarly critically-feted Mud last year), I find myself unable to quite understand what all the fuss is about. The performance, yes, is very good, but the film it’s in service to seems to be made up of well-worn familiars of the genre, and held together by an unflashy style that occasionally shows sparks of editing flair, but is mostly fairly workaday. It’s hardly a disease-of-the-week teleplay, but the style is not a million miles from a TV movie. Or perhaps I am just reacting to grumpily to that very first appearance of the title cards in Times New Roman. It doesn’t take much sometimes.

Continue reading “Dallas Buyers Club (2013)”