Pariah (2011)

An excellent debut feature by Dee Rees (who went on to do a fine Bessie Smith biopic), about a young black woman trying to find her place in the world and become comfortable with a gay identity, while dealing with the demands of her religious mother. I can’t speak to the specific feelings or setting obviously, but it’s​ a strong piece of filmmaking. The turbulent emotions seem mirrored by the restless camera (wielded by the excellent Bradford Young), the colours by turns saturated and warm, cold and unflinching. The acting is superb, as is the use of music. It’s a film, too, which resists any simple stereotyping: the fact that our lead character Alike (Adepero Oduye) is top of her class academically is barely mentioned, and while it doesn’t help her through some knockbacks, it does add up to a rounded character.

Pariah film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Dee Rees; Cinematographer Bradford Young; Starring Adepero Oduye; Length 86 minutes.
Seen at Airbnb flat, Portland (OR), Friday 7 April 2017, and later at BFI Southbank (NFT3), 13 June 2017.

Selma (2014)

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.

Selma film posterCREDITS
Director Ava DuVernay; Writer Paul Webb; Cinematographer Bradford Young; Starring David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, Carmen Ejogo; Length 127 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld O2 Greenwich, London, Wednesday 11 February 2015.

Two Recent Period Films: A Most Violent Year and Inherent Vice (both 2014)

Two films that I’ve seen in the last week have a sort of complementary quality, as they are both films set in the United States at either end of the 1970s and at either edge of the country, charting a marked social decline and dealing broadly with the creeping corruption of deeply-held ideals. Inherent Vice is set in 1970, and is a broadly-comic meandering Los Angeles-based story focused on stoner detective Larry ‘Doc’ Martello (Joaquin Phoenix), while A Most Violent Year has its principled entrepreneur Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) try to grow his business in the New York City of 1981.

Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac in A Most Violent Year

I like both very much, though I suspect that aspects of the narrative construction will turn off some viewers. Both can be frustrating, albeit in slightly different ways. J.C. Chandor’s New York-set film is one of underlit interiors and slow-build dramatic tension, as Abel tries to get financing for a property deal that will give his company a platform to grow, while trying to figure out who is sabotaging his attempts. It’s a film with a canny sense of space, largely charting a series of offices and homes where Morales and his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) broker deals and balance books. There’s only a small amount of kinetic action: the drama is in the deals, and for a film quite so obsessed with Morales’s company accounts, it generates plenty of tension. Bradford Young’s understated cinematography gains maximum effect from the ever-popular yellowish sepia-toned filters that impart a nostalgic quality (while expertly blocking shots of the city’s skyline to occlude where the Twin Towers would be).

Ostensibly quite different in look and tone, Inherent Vice also builds slowly, but in a more novelistic way (befitting its source text) — a patchwork of characters and motivations that can overload the viewer. Those for whom plot details are important may be turned off by the excess of them, but in that respect it’s not unlike similarly overplotted gumshoe stories as The Big Sleep (1946). The setting and look, not to mention that paranoid West Coast vibe, bring to mind another Chandler point of reference in The Long Goodbye (1973). Cinematographer Robert Elswit has done a terrific job in replicating a lot of that earlier film’s feel, using celluloid stock to gorgeous effect. It’s the visual equivalent of a vinyl record — I’ll stop short of hymning any richer ‘authenticity’ (because I have little truck with those kinds of arguments), but it definitely imparts a quite different feel from the digitally-shot Violent Year.

Right now, I might as well go ahead and admit something controversial amongst critics, which is that I’ve never been much of a fan of auteur Paul Thomas Anderson and his massively overpraised films. Sure they’re well-crafted, but I’ve felt a hollowness of over-eager self-congratulatory intent from The Master and There Will Be Blood in particular; I’ve not hated either, but I’ve stopped short of embracing them. Indeed, at the end of last year, I was all ready to write a bit of anti-PTA clickbait in the run-up to this most recent opus. And yet, well, here we are, and I really liked Inherent Vice. It’s been getting a bit of a kicking from some quarters that feels entirely undeserved. It’s a mood piece, of hippy idealism being quietly subverted by forces of governmental conformism and the unscrupulousness of capitalist property developers. Mental health wellness institutions, massage parlours, office blocks and Aryan thugs are all brought into the picture to complicate the pot-addled simplicity of Doc’s lifestyle, and Phoenix is frequently called upon to express wide-eyed confusion at unfolding developments (not unlike the audience).

Spending time watching Inherent Vice is to immerse oneself in a world, an evocation of this most perplexing of American cities that can stand alongside Chinatown (another film touching on civic corruption). There’s no shortage of cameos for famous actors, but all are in service of the film’s period atmosphere and subtly comic timing. It’s even got me thinking, for the first time ever, that maybe I should reconsider Anderson’s oeuvre.

A Most Violent Year film posterA Most Violent Year (2014)
Director/Writer J.C. Chandor; Cinematographer Bradford Young; Starring Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, Albert Brooks, David Oyelowo; Length 125 minutes.
Seen at Odeon Haymarket, London, Thursday 29 January 2015.



Inherent Vice film posterInherent Vice (2014)
Director/Writer Paul Thomas Anderson (based on the novel by Thomas Pynchon); Cinematographer Robert Elswit; Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Katherine Waterston, Joanna Newsom; Length 149 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld West India Quay, London, Thursday 5 February 2015.

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013)

I don’t know how other people write reviews (and I can’t pretend to even follow any particular methodology myself with any consistency), but sometimes I like to skim through what other people have written on sites like Rotten Tomatoes. Not because I want to crib ideas but just to get a sense of whether my fellow critics generally share my feelings about a film I’ve just seen. Well, let’s just say opinion is divided on Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, but even amongst those who loved the film, there’s a smug sense that wearily comes across of identifying Malick-by-numbers hushed-voiceover rural Southern “magic hour” poetic lyricism amongst the lovingly-recreated hipster-baiting faux-70s dilapidation.

The thing is, yes, all that stuff is there and even at one remove I can’t pretend I’m above wanting to namecheck it*, but even if you’d only started watching movies this year, you’d still have recognised the style. It’s been over 40 years since Terrence Malick’s Badlands and his characteristic feel has been recreated many times since, not least by David Gordon Green in his first two features (of which his second, 2003’s All the Real Girls, is my personal favourite). Now another David, also on his second feature, has given us his take, and though I should be weary of this by now, yet still I find it captivating.

The film’s way with images and sound — all co-ordinated beautifully, with those images shot in the dying light by Bradford Young — owes far more to the straightforward lyricism of 70s Malick than the impressionistic rush that’s evoked by, say, Upstream Color. Partly that’s the fetishised period setting, but for me it all feels very comforting in a peculiarly cinematic way. The same goes for the plot, which also has that kind of preserved-in-aspic timelessness of archetypal generic cliché. In this case, it’s the couple on the run — whose apparent life of violent crime is hinted at in the most extraordinarily telegraphed way — split apart by the forces of the law, and who are trying to find a way to be together. The enigmatic title, all written out on-screen in wonky hand lettering like the rest of the main credits, seems to hint at this, with its sense of fallen angels harbouring wayward souls.

The plotting is probably the film’s weakness. It may not be quite as simplistic as I’ve presented it, but just as some of the plot points are extremely telegraphed, so can the justifications for what’s going on seem perplexingly opaque. There’s little hint at why a lot of what’s happening is happening except at the most basic emotional level — these are characters who have that airy, idealistic and thoroughly cinematic approach to life, which consists in doing what feels most melodramatically appropriate. But that works for me, for whom (as those who’ve read many of my reviews will be getting a sense) plot is not the key to why I like any given film. The film has an almost tangibly heart-rending pathos throughout that kept me emotionally engaged enough to feel affected by all the smallest gestures and looks from the attractively-lit cast (there feels like there’s lots of those close-ups of faces shot so that only one spot is in focus, says some hairs flickering around the subject’s eyes, while the background shades into hazy obscurity).

The cast does well, too, especially given I’d never really considered myself a fan of any of them prior to this film. Rooney Mara, who did so well as the brittle core of the uneven Side Effects, is again the emotional centre as Ruth, the object of outlaw Bob’s affections. She was his partner in crime but has been spared the force of law, possibly in part due to her at-the-time-unborn girl, while he languishes in jail — well, until he escapes. As Bob Muldoon — possibly the most interesting film character named after a former New Zealand Prime Minister since the game warden in Jurassic Park — Casey Affleck is able to successfully pull off the blend of lovestruck naïveté and criminal wiliness that allows him to escape prison yet unerringly return to precisely the place he’s most likely to be accosted, the small rural Texas town of Meridian where Ruth and her daughter now live. Into this mix comes the local sheriff, Patrick (Ben Foster), whose facial hair and personal style is certainly on-trend (if you happen to live in Brooklyn NYC, or East London). Pleasingly, there’s quite a bit of complexity to Patrick’s character, who is not simply there as a heavy-handed agent of the law, but in fact seems rather sympathetic towards Bob, if rather moreso towards Ruth.

I guess what I’m saying is that I’d quite understand if this film wasn’t to everyone’s taste, but those who have a fondness for the lyricism of sunsets and cornfields, of characters who drift though their lives as if blown by winds across the Texas prairie, of hushed voiceovers and limpid gazes, well this film is probably for them. And sure, those may be clichés but they’re very cinematic ones, and for me at least, very likeable ones.

* Though I personally would avoid using “hipster” as a lazy way of mocking people who are having more fun than you, and think that those who are paid to write film criticism should probably, as they say, check their privilege.

Ain't Them Bodies Saints film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer David Lowery; Cinematographer Bradford Young; Starring Rooney Mara, Casey Affleck, Ben Foster, Keith Carradine; Length 96 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Fulham Road, London, Thursday 19 September 2013.