Criterion Sunday 151: Traffic (2000)

Well, first up, I can’t really deny Soderbergh is a skillful director. He has a way with cinematic narrative that puts him up there with that other sibilant Steven of Hollywood preeminence. Despite a two-and-a-half-hour running time, Traffic (like the British television mini-series it’s based on) is never boring; it’s well-paced, tightly structured and it has plenty of fine performances (not least from Soderbergh regulars like Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman as a pair of cops investigating a mid-level drug dealer, Miguel Ferrer — also excellent). It’s just, at a fundamental level, I’m not sure at some of the hand-wringing arguments being made here about drugs, not least the racialised aspect of it. I mean quite aside from the Mexicans (they’re all corrupt, all of them), there’s the weirdly morally judgmental descent of Michael Douglas’s daughter (played by Erika Christensen) — he’s a high-flying government drugs czar, she’s privately-educated (and hangs out with Topher Grace of all people), her nadir apparently being sleeping with a black drug dealer. I mean maybe I’m reading too much into it, though I found the attitude towards the teenagers generally a little condescending. Also, Soderbergh was deep into his own addiction to coloured lens filters (Cincinatti is BLUE, Mexico is YELLOW, and at least DC and LA are sort of normal), which gets trying too. Anyway, it’s enjoyable enough, but I wouldn’t call it his masterpiece.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Steven Soderbergh | Writer Stephen Gaghan (based on the television miniseries Traffik by Simon Moore) | Cinematographer Steven Soderbergh [as “Peter Andrews”] | Starring Benicio del Toro, Michael Douglas, Don Cheadle, Catherine Zeta-Jones | Length 147 minutes || Seen at Manners Mall Cinema, Wellington, Sunday 25 March 2001 (and again on Blu-ray at home, London, Thursday 13 July 2017)

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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.


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

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.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
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

Things Behind the Sun (2001)

Allison Anders has had a somewhat patchy relationship with film success, though I’m not quite sure why. Her Grace of My Heart (1996) deserves far wider renown than it perhaps has, and she returned to a music-based theme with this film five years later, which tracks a journalist for a vinyl obsessives’ magazine, Owen (Gabriel Mann), as he writes a piece about an up-and-coming Florida indie rock band fronted by Sherry (Kim Dickens). For all that it occasionally moves into slightly hokey TV melodramatic territory, this is for the most part really very assured work, with a dark palette suited to its milieu of grimy bars and gig venues, and a confident storytelling appeal. That the backstory into which the journalist delves deals with rape can also be difficult to less confident filmmakers, but Anders makes this a story about a rounded and complex character who has trauma in her past, rather than about an outsider’s response to it. When Owen tries to inveigle himself into this narrative and make it about his own role and how he deals with it, the film doesn’t so much belittle him as just insist he allow some perspective — Sherry putting her hand up to his face and walking away as he tries to empathise. The acting is uniformly strong (particularly from Dickens and the ever-dependable Don Cheadle as her manager/boyfriend-of-sorts), and it has a confidence to it that rewards attention.


FILM REVIEW
Director Allison Anders | Writers Allison Anders and Kurt Voss | Cinematographer Terry Stacey | Starring Kim Dickens, Gabriel Mann, Don Cheadle | Length 120 minutes || Seen at home (streaming), London, Tuesday 19 January 2016

Out of Sight (1998)

I’d like to say that I rewatched this film adaptation on learning the sad news a few days ago of author Elmore Leonard’s death, but the truth is that I had got home after watching Michael Bay’s hypersaturated Floridian-set Pain & Gain and wanted something of a palate cleanser: a heist movie set in Florida that did not make me despair of my fellow humans. As it happens, though, it’s also my favourite of the many Elmore Leonard film adaptations over the years, though Tarantino’s Jackie Brown (1997) — almost contemporaneous and featuring Michael Keaton playing the same role — gives it a close run to my mind.

The film has many strengths. The plot may be high concept — a bank robber falls in love with a federal agent is at its core, though the film is structured around a big concluding heist — but it hardly seems to be much more than a skeleton on which to hang the elements that really make the film. There’s the setting I’ve already mentioned: the warm saturated colours of Florida are contrasted with the cold grey surfaces of Detroit (allowing Soderbergh another opportunity to use his favoured coloured filters on the camera). Then there’s the pop-culture inflected banter of the dialogue, which seems to fall with easy grace from the actors’ mouths.

Most of all, though, there’s the excellent acting ensemble that Soderbergh has assembled. George Clooney plays bankrobber Jack, and Jennifer Lopez is federal agent Karen, and neither seems better suited to a role than here, but then Soderbergh’s camera is rose-tinted to a fault. In some ways, the techniques used here are not hugely different from those in Michael Bay’s film, but are just used more judiciously — there are freeze frames and jump cuts, slow-motion and some nice use of reflective surfaces, all seemingly in the service of making these two characters as gorgeous and glamorous as possible. At the heart of the film is a strikingly tender scene when Jack and Karen get together, and the editing is largely lifted from Nic Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973), a loving hommage indeed.

Of course, the story of these central characters would never have the same impact without the depth of character actors featured here. Ving Rhames and Don Cheadle play Jack’s friend and antagonist respectively, while Steve Zahn has a stand-out performance as slow-witted accomplice Glenn, competing with the similarly-slapstick Luis Guzmán for the film’s comedy relief. There’s Albert Brooks as the prickly trader whose wealth is the heist’s target, while Dennis Farina (who also sadly died earlier this year) has a small role as Karen’s dad, but he invests it with far more warmth — and biting sarcasm when Michael Keaton’s FBI agent Ray is around — than such a small role would usually warrant.

It’s that generosity of Soderbergh’s film and Scott Frank’s script (presumably taking its cue from Leonard’s novel) — the willingness to give the same fond attention to even the smallest character as is lavished on the leads — that makes me especially fond of it. In fact, it ranks among my favourite films, and somehow renews my faith in humanity (while still presenting a range of murderous and criminal behaviours) even under the heaviest of assaults.


© Universal Pictures

FILM REVIEW
Director Steven Soderbergh | Writer Scott Frank (based on the novel by Elmore Leonard) | Cinematographer Elliot Davis | Starring George Clooney, Jennifer Lopez, Don Cheadle, Steve Zahn, Ving Rhames | Length 118 minutes || Seen at Manners Mall, Wellington, Sunday 8 November 1998 (and at home on other occasions, most recently on Blu-ray, London, Sunday 25 August 2013)

My Rating 4.5 stars a must-see

Iron Man Three (2013)

I have rather pedantically used the fully written-out title as it appears at the start of the credits sequence, though the posters stick with the number.


As far as I’m concerned, when watching a superhero action film such as this one, the key question is whether you feel immersed in the mythology and are swept along by the story sufficiently to put out of your mind quite what the villain’s motivations are, or how conveniently elements of the action setpieces come together. For surely those would be caveats if it weren’t for the fact that I enjoyed the whole enterprise enough to not really worry about them. Along the way there were also enough purely comedy moments which made me laugh (mostly thanks to Ben Kingsley’s character) that I consider this a good film, and certainly an excellent sequel.

The central characters are well enough established from the previous two films and the ensemble piece The Avengers (aka Avengers Assemble, 2012), but for the sake of getting up to speed — which is done in this film via an opening sequence set in 1999 — they are Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), massively wealthy playboy and inventor of the title’s robotic iron suits (which of course he wears to fight crime, foil plots, et al.), and Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), initially his business partner, but by this third film far more his life partner. They now live together by the Californian coast, but Stark is dealing with fallout from the previous film, unable to sleep and suffering from periodic panic attacks whenever the life-threatening events in New York are mentioned (which they are, by several characters, such is his media profile). His character is ever more wisecracking, mumbling and bumbling along to fulfil some version of the eccentric inventor stereotype, while still being a supercilious dandy (on which point, my friend Mark over on Freaky Trigger has provided a handy guide to the Marvel universe’s male characters). Paltrow has less to do, as ever, though looks suitably alarmed/threatened/threatening as the film’s plot requires, and at the very least has a far more active role in several of the sequences.

The antagonist for this film is another character seemingly hewed from the ‘mad scientist’ mould, Aldrich Killian (played by Guy Pearce). In the opening sequence, he is a stooped, lank-haired presence consumed by delusions and labouring under some kind of unstated disability, for which it is implied that the shadowy Extremis project of Dr Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall) promises a cure; thirteen years later he returns, rejuvenated and apparently well-adjusted. Undoubtedly there will in future be theses written about the Extremis programme of genetic mutation to ‘cure’ disabilities and the resulting strain of fire-breathing superhumans, but for the film’s purposes it’s a convenient way to get Stark to refocus his energies on saving America and defeating the public face of the enemy, Ben Kingsley’s Bin Laden-like ‘Mandarin’.

The heart of the film is the tensions between Stark, Killian and the shadowy ‘Mandarin’ figure, and how these develop. There’s a constant jokey comedic undertow which leavens the slightly stultifying action scenes, and as ever Downey is the actor who really carries the film through. He is assisted in this in a few memorable sequences by a 10-year-old Tennessee kid (Ty Simpkins) and less memorably by an under-utilised Don Cheadle. In the end, that lightness of touch to the characterisations carried me through action sequences that at times threatened to be deadeningly thudding displays of mechanised destruction, and I left largely satisfied. Plus, the post-credits sequence also reminded me how much I enjoyed Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner character. To see the two of them together again properly would be a treat.


© Walt Disney Studios

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Shane Black | Writers Drew Pearce and Shane Black (based on the comic book Iron Man by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, Don Heck and Jack Kirby) | Cinematographer John Toll | Starring Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Ben Kingsley, Guy Pearce, Don Cheadle | Length 130 minutes | Seen at Cineworld West India Quay (2D), London, Tuesday 7 May 2013

My Rating 3 stars good