The Favourite (2018)

Biopics and costume dramas often intersect, as we’ve seen in The Favourite, and Keira Knightley has been particularly splendid at wearing an old frock and looking glamorous on-screen, though increasingly she’s also become an excellent actor, and Colette is a fantastic example of her recent craft.


Yorgos Lanthimos can go either way really can’t he? I didn’t even see his The Killing of a Sacred Deer, but I really liked The Lobster, and then there’s this, which seems like a carefully controlled “fvck you” to the whole industry of heritage filmmaking. It has the sumptuous sets and glorious frocks and the use of baroque music pulling it back to something like Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon but then it just throws a bunch of stuff in that feels less like ‘let’s try and get the historical details exactly right’ (as many historical dramas are wont to do) and more ‘let’s do some free-form historical cosplay’. Needless to say, I think the latter is a far more rewarding strategy at this point in time, though given all the fun dance sequences, the chucking rotten fruit at bewigged naked guys, and the racing of lobsters, they might as well have cast more people of colour in prominent roles. Still, it’s a great film for it’s three leads (Colman, Weisz and Stone), and the way they just talk down to and over the men, who clearly think a lot of themselves but are also fools. The filmmaking feels at once liberated in the way it tries out ideas, but also very precise and controlled in the way it’s all filmed and put together.

The Favourite film posterCREDITS
Director Yorgos Lanthimos Γιώργος Λάνθιμος; Writers Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara; Cinematographer Robbie Ryan; Starring Rachel Weisz, Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, Nicholas Hoult; Length 120 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Friday 28 December 2018.

Hidden Figures (2016)

One of the more successful biopics in recent years has also been one that has dealt rather more frankly with issues of racism and sexism in the workplace, hardly avoidable given that in Hidden Figures the workplace is NASA in the 1960s. Some have criticised it for its blandly mainstream qualities and some of the liberties it takes with the truth, but the acting is more than equal to the subject, and it’s a rousing film which presents a different view of a cinematically familiar era.


I thought that I might have a problem with clunky movie clichés about smart people, or period films dealing with racism, or against-the-odds stories, or big Hollywood dramas — you know the ones, like standing in front of a blackboard filled with mathematic equations, or racist white cops and loaded glances from rooms filled with white guys in suits, or that bit where our protagonist proves their essential worth to aforesaid rooms, or music cues that guide how you’re supposed to react — but it turns out I don’t, if those protagonists are played by Janelle, Taraji and Octavia. I would happily watch more of any of them running intellectual (not to mention sartorial) circles around hissable baddies like Kirsten Dunst and Jim Parsons, who in this movie are the very embodiment of white privilege. We need more heroes like these three, and if anything Hidden Figures makes me retroactively disappointed for all those other space race movies about the 1960s, which only had the rooms filled with suited buzzcut white men.

Hidden Figures film posterCREDITS
Director Theodore Melfi; Writers Allison Schroeder and Melfi (based on the non-fiction book by Margot Lee Shetterly); Cinematographer Mandy Walker; Starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons; Length 127 minutes.
Seen at Peckhamplex, London, Friday 17 February 2017.

Fighting with My Family (2019)

This Friday sees the release of Kasi Lemmons’ Harriet, a biopic about Harriet Tubman, starring British actor Cynthia Erivo in the title role, so I thought I’d look back on the biopic genre for this themed week. Fictionalised version of real people’s lives are usually made after their deaths, looking back on their legacies and sometimes making the mythical aspects of their story just a little bit bigger, but there have been a number in recent years that deal with more recent stories, and such is the case with Fighting with My Family. The person it’s about is still very much alive, and really not very old, but it’s also a story that’s likely not known to mainstream audiences, hence its telling here. As it involves professional wrestling, there’s a cameo for Dwayne Johnson, one of cinema’s most charismatic stars (and he was also attached as a producer), though the sport has always been about showmanship so quite how accurate it is to life is down to individual viewers I suspect.


I remember seeing Florence Pugh being introduced to the audience before the first time I saw The Falling (2014), which she was in all too briefly, and then her wowing us in Lady Macbeth (2016, which really was one of the best films of its year, and I concede I was behind on that), so with all her excellent skills at projecting deeply internalised emotional states, I didn’t quite believe the news that she was going to be playing a wrestler. And aside from some small fudges in the wrestling scenes to accommodate a stunt double (which amount to rather more feverish cutting than you’d ideally want, given the sport’s emphasis on physicality), she really nails the performance aspects. In fact, this was a far more emotional film than I’d expected or prepared for, as it becomes a story about her character (a real life professional wrestler, Saraya/”Paige”) dealing with her family, and them dealing with her success, especially her brother (Jack Lowden) whose arc is very much one of resentment and then grudging acceptance. That’s probably the main drawback for me about this film — the very clear and obvious character arcs that everyone is going through, and the sentimental beats that the film tries to hit at the appropriate moments — but it’s such a warm-hearted enterprise, and approach with such affection, that I didn’t really mind. It got to me, I was involved in her story, and I barely even cared that the big WWE arena climax seemed to come out of nowhere (professionally). Also, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson remains as solid a presence as you could hope for, even if he never gets his jeans dirty in Norwich as the poster suggests.

Fighting with My Family film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Stephen Merchant; Cinematographer Remi Adefarasin; Starring Florence Pugh, Lena Headey, Nick Frost, Jack Lowden; Length 108 minutes.
Seen at Odeon Camden Town, London, Tuesday 5 March 2019.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018)

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.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? film posterCREDITS
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.

Criterion Sunday 266: The King of Kings (1927)

It is difficult to watch this epic-length life of the Christ without thinking of Hail, Caesar! and its satirical take on the po-faced earnestness of filmmakers trying to render the Biblical story visual. DeMille’s production hasn’t got an ounce of jocularity or self-awareness to it, and to a certain extent that’s just as well, because it’s difficult to approach some of this material without being utterly committed to the solemnity of it all. It feels less like a portrait of Judaea 20 centuries ago as it does a pageant of big iconic scenes, and DeMille spares no effort to have doves fluttering around the important symbols, or have Jesus holding a lamb. Indeed, the campness is high as Jesus is backlit with lights every time he appears, looking like every (Western) portrait of him, all glistening beard and beatific expression (except, briefly, when Simon Peter has renounced him three times and Jesus looks on smugly). There’s some interesting use of very early colour in the opening and during the Resurrection sequences, though the black-and-white is more persuasive and has a real beauty to it at times. There is undoubtedly some great religious art which has been made, even about Jesus, over the years, but this one feels like it’s more for the existing fans, rendering iconic all the famous scenes, without really finding the drama (as say in another Criterion release, The Last Temptation of Christ) or a persuasive sense of how the lived experience might have been back then (as in Life of Brian). Sosin’s score has a grandeur and, for better or worse, largely matches the film’s own storytelling, at times lapsing into a slight kitschiness.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There are two discs, and the second has a shortened 112-minute release from 1928, with two separate scores. I haven’t watched that yet, but will update this page when I have.
  • On the first disc, the extras are a few production photos, some from the film’s premiere at Grauman’s Chinese Theater (it was the film chosen as the opening premiere at this new cinema), as well as extensive documentation of the original illustrated programme booklet (both photos and extensive text of the contents), and some telegrams from DeMille to his cast.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Cecil B. DeMille; Writer Jeanie Macpherson; Cinematographers J. Peverell Marley and F.J. Westerberg; Starring H.B. Warner, Ernest Torrence, Jacqueline Logan, Joseph Schildkraut; Length 155 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 20 October 2019.

Selena (1997)

I’ve dedicated this as a year of catching up with classic movies, and 20 years on from Selena‘s release, I’d heard this film had become something of a classic — at least, amongst those whose experiences it reflects. After all, like I’m sure plenty of British people, I don’t know anything about Tejano music or cumbia, or indeed about the singer at the heart of this story. Incredible as it may be, it’s true that this film wasn’t made to reflect or reconfirm anything I experience or know about the world — but that’s a quality I like in films and I like it here. Sure you could say it’s about all those ‘universal themes’ (growing up under a demanding father, finding your voice in the world, love against the odds or at least against aforementioned father, all that kind of thing), but it’s grounded in a specifically Texan (or ‘Tex-Mex’) reality, of sparkly 90s fashion, and of music I have already confessed to knowing nothing about (so won’t say anything about). I do like that the director enters the story via mainstream ‘white’ music with the backstory of Selena’s father Abraham cross-cut with her 1995 set at the Houston Astrodome, which incidentally illuminates the outsider experience of America — a fascinating topic now as ever. I like too Jennifer Lopez’s performance, but I’ve always been a fan of her acting. It’s a full-throated biopic that tips occasionally into melodrama and has the hint of hagiography but on the whole is radiant with life and colour (where it could easily have been about death and tragedy).

Selena film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Gregory Nava; Cinematographer Edward Lachman; Starring Jennifer Lopez, Edward James Olmos, Jon Seda; Length 127 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 28 January 2017.

Talk to Me (2007)

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.

Talk to Me film posterCREDITS
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.

Bessie (2015)

I may not always have felt bowled over by the filmmaking here — attractive and well-staged as it is, there is a sense of conventionality to its telling, with a script that rushes through Bessie Smith’s career, pausing for some portentous slow-motion flashbacks and overlaid by an orchestral score that often drowned out any subtlety — and yet, YET. The performances are all uniformly fantastic, starting with the wonderful, too often underrated Queen Latifah as the blues singer of the title, all a-sparkle in those glamorous 20s and 30s show dresses, but also conveying a naked vulnerability and a streak of wilful non-conformism. Latifah has been doing great acting for at least 20 years (at least in the roles that I’ve been seeing her in on screen, starting for me with 1996’s Set It Off), but the plaudits extend too to all the supporting cast. As this is an HBO production, many of them are most familiar from their television work (Michael K. Williams as Bessie’s partner, and Khandi Alexander as her sister are only the most prominent), but I don’t think anyone argues anymore that this is any lesser a platform for screen narratives, and I found myself wishing at times this had been a mini-series instead. But no, Latifah makes Bessie greatly watchable with a performance worth celebrating, whatever other drawbacks the film may have.

Bessie film posterCREDITS
Director Dee Rees; Writers Rees, Christopher Cleveland and Bettina Gilois; Cinematographer Jeff Jur; Starring Queen Latifah, Michael K. Williams, Khandi Alexander, Mo’Nique; Length 107 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Thursday 20 October 2016.

Miles Ahead (2015)

This biopic (of sorts) about Miles Davis is clearly a labour of love for director, writer, producer and star Don Cheadle, but it’s only intermittently successful as a film. Cheadle is excellent, though quite how much he captures of the famously prickly Davis is certainly debatable, but the real issue is the way it makes Ewan McGregor’s Scottish music journo the way into the story. McGregor is largely pointless, and indeed spends a lot of the time on the sidelines distracting attention by repeating inane profanities. Perhaps he’s there, though, to allow Davis someone on whom to unleash his violent temper, for he had a rather more disturbing tendency for spousal abuse, little of which we see here except for one music-led sequence with his first wife Frances (a powerful Emayatzy Corinealdi, probably the film’s best performance). That said, it’s far from a hagiography, and while it comes with the imprimatur of the musician’s estate, it also doesn’t downplay his irritable, violent and self-destructive sides. Indeed, much of the film is taken up with a boisterous (and freewheelingly invented) chase sequence as Davis tries to track down some purloined master tapes from his late-1970s ‘comeback’ (he dropped out of the business for five years), though flashbacks to the first flush of his late-1940s and 1950s success recur throughout. I wanted to like this a lot more than I ended up doing, but it’s a noble attempt to capture something of this jazz legend.

Miles Ahead film posterCREDITS
Director Don Cheadle; Writers Steven Baigelman and Don Cheadle; Cinematographer Roberto Schaefer; Starring Don Cheadle, Ewan McGregor, Emayatzy Corinealdi; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Victoria, London, Friday 22 April 2016.

Hail, Caesar! (2016)

I’ve been on holiday for much of March, hence not posting so much, but I found the time to go and see the latest Coen brothers film twice in that time. Partly this is because since seeing their last film, Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), I’ve found something new to enjoy and celebrate in their work — an attitude not based on snide self-congratulatory archness, or so it feels to me (perhaps unfairly). However, I went to see it a second time also because the critical response — and my own initial reaction — feels so much like it misses the point of this latest work. Yes, the pacing seems initially quite odd — it has a slowly unfolding stiltedness that treads heavily somewhat like the prestige Hollywood pictures of the 1950s which it pastiches — and yes it’s a light and warm-hearted embrace of the era, but neither is surely a bad thing. In fact, it’s almost a release after the dour depression of Llewyn, but it’s not shallow. There’s a significant subplot that burrows into the contortions Hollywood found itself in during the McCarthy period, as his House Un-American Activities Committee investigated Communist sympathies within the industry. Even if leading man Baird (George Clooney) confronts a cabal of screenwriters (“The Future”), who have kidnapped him for possibly nefarious reasons, with a genial good humour, their presence is still given a voice, and not even a mocking one at that (Marxist theorist Herbert Marcuse pops up at one point). It also has a great line in fabulous supporting performances (Josh Brolin is the lead as studio boss Eddie), whether Tilda Swinton’s gossip columnist sisters, Channing Tatum’s Gene Kelly-like tap dancing showman, Ralph Fiennes’ director or, perhaps best of all, Alden Ehrenreich’s singing cowboy Hobie. It’s sweet, and for the Coens it’s played fairly straight, and it’s all the better for that.

Hail, Caesar! film posterCREDITS
Directors/Writers Joel Coen and Ethan Coen; Cinematographer Roger Deakins; Starring Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Ralph Fiennes, Tilda Swinton, Channing Tatum; Length 106 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Tuesday 8 March 2016, and at Embassy, Wellington, Thursday 17 March 2016.