Moonlight (2016)

I am hardly the person to attempt a critique of this film, for so many reasons, at so many levels, so take my comments as just a brief personal response to a film that will be sure to be in many top-10 lists this year and next (it’s not officially released in the UK until February).

I found a great deal to appreciate in the filmmaking, which, for all the limitations of its budget and shooting/rehearsal time (as the director talked about in a Q&A after my screening), has clearly been constructed with a lot of care. It follows a tripartite structure, three ages of a character, three different acts in one life, which is also refracted as multiple lives in a sense. The first character we see (Mahershala Ali’s Juan, whose role is confined to the first part of the film) is a reflection of the man the protagonist Chiron (at that point called ‘Little’) becomes by the film’s third part, and it’s tempting to read some of the same feelings into Juan that Little/Chiron/Black is grappling with.

The milieu the director is playing with at once seems all too familiar (something almost of clichés, and certainly of too many bad ‘ghetto’ dramas) but never follows the expected contours, such that the scenes are infused with the constant expectation of violence, and even when they don’t play out that way, a strong sense of trauma is still conveyed, a sense of an experience lived in this place, which is also (partially) the director’s own.

Ultimately, for all its formal gravitas — the polished lighting, the (presumably intentionally) dizzying camerawork, the music and orchestral score, the structure — despite all this, the heart of the movie, and what I liked so much in it, was in the acting: all three of the actors playing Chiron at different ages (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and then Trevante Rhodes) do wonders with very few words. The character of Chiron and the way he develops puts across the generational pain of toxic masculinity in a powerful way. It also, I hope — I really hope — augurs more films exploring its particular intersection of identities, because it also feels like a film that’s trying to make up for a lot of missed opportunities.


Moonlight (2016)

ADVANCE SCREENING FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Barry Jenkins (based on the play In the Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney) | Cinematographer James Laxton | Starring Trevante Rhodes, André Holland, Ashton Sanders, Alex Hibbert, Naomie Harris, Mahershala Ali | Length 110 minutes || Seen at Curzon Mayfair, London, Monday 5 December 2016

Advertisements

Magic Mike XXL (2015)

In many ways, 2012’s Magic Mike was one of Steven Soderbergh’s most purely enjoyable movies, and its box office success meant that this sequel came along a few years later, with the (retired from directing) Soderbergh on camera and editing, and ditching McConaughey, but otherwise retaining the core male characters under a new director. Reading back over my old review, it seems I was not enamoured of Channing Tatum’s work, but oh how things change in a mere few years. Tatum is a linchpin of modern Hollywood cinema and his every appearance immediately lifts a film’s enjoyability (even if it can’t always save some of them). He has shown himself to be game for a lot of things not traditionally considered the domain of the macho leading man within the Hollywood system, not least of all the demographic-pleasing direction this sequel takes.

For clearly the makers know exactly who’s going to see the film — that much was clear at the double-bill I attended — and so, far more than the first film, there’s a direct attempt to engage with women in the audience. It’s not that the film is therefore sleazy or objectifies the men, but it makes a real effort (sometimes too much) to refocus the story on the lead characters satisfying their audiences. This means that the romantic subplot of the first film is largely ditched in favour of dance setpieces, including one at an all-Black club run by Jada Pinkett Smith, another in which Mike & co. cater to a drunken party of Southern belles presided over by Andie MacDowell (her overacting finally put to good use), all building to the finale of a regional stripping competition in South Carolina where Elizabeth Banks calls the shots. Even more importantly for the audience, Soderbergh has ditched the tepid yellow filter that made the first film so distinctively ugly — this is a world of visual pleasure provided by Mike’s crew, and the camerawork does not get in its way.

A lot of people hailed the female-centric Mad Max: Fury Road in end-of-year polls last year, but for my money (and what little my opinion matters on this topic, which is not very much at all), Magic Mike XXL is the real mainstream movie champion of 2015. (It’s certainly the best performance-based sequel starring Elizabeth Banks.) It knows exactly how generic it is, and exactly how trashy it needs to pitch itself, but it somehow skirts away from the pitfalls of that gamble through sheer good-natured charm and a lot of very tight choreography.


Magic Mike XXL (2015)

SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW
Director Gregory Jacobs | Writer Reid Carolin | Cinematographer Steven Soderbergh [as “Peter Andrews”] | Starring Channing Tatum, Joe Manganiello, Matt Bomer, Kevin Nash, Adam Rodríguez | Length 115 minutes || Seen at Prince Charles Cinema, London, Saturday 23 January 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

Sisters (2015)

The legacy of Saturday Night Live has always weighed strongly over American comedy since its debut in 1975, not least in the last 10-15 years. One of the strongest of the players in that time has been Tina Fey, lead writer at SNL before heading on to create and star in 30 Rock (itself loosely based on the show), and her friend Amy Poehler has often been involved in her work. In transferring the hit-and-miss variety comedy approach to film, this year has already thrown out Trainwreck (which shares a lot of SNL alumni), but Sisters is in an even more direct line, given its lead actors as well as its screenwriter Paula Pell, a long-term writer for SNL also. So it should be no surprise that it’s quite often very very funny. It’s also perhaps not so surprising that there’s a variable quality to the humour, and some lands a lot better than others (or maybe we can say it works better on different audiences). There’s also an undertow of sentimentality that becomes most evident towards the conclusion, but for the most part Sisters remains a solidly entertaining comedy based around the antagonism between the two leads — Fey as Katie, a mother with no ability to hold down a job; and Poehler as her younger sister Maura, far more responsible and in control of her life — as they return to Florida to help their parents move home. This premise could easily have bombed with smug male leads (and indeed I understand Vince Vaughn has already more or less made this film), as its one-last-party-gone-awry plot leads to an extended period of home-trashing, which would far more quickly have outstayed its welcome without the chemistry between Fey and Poehler. Bobby Moynihan’s superlative physical comedy is somewhat wasted in a supporting role, by requiring him (as in so much of his earlier SNL work) to be a sort of stand-in for Chris Farley, but it’s great to see comedians of this calibre get to deliver some really funny material. I’m just left wishing it was all a bit tighter and less gloopy towards the end, but maybe I’m being unfair. It’s worth a watch.


© Universal Pictures

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Jason Moore | Writer Paula Pell | Cinematographer Barry Peterson | Starring Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, Dianne Wiest, James Brolin, Ike Barinholtz | Length 118 minutes || Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Sunday 13 December 2015

The Queen of Versailles (2012)

We’re surely all familiar with pop culture focusing on the lives of the ultra-wealthy, whether reality TV shows or movies that lavish attention on their homes, their cars, their social lives and parties, their style, clothes, cosmetics and cosmetic surgery. There are film genres (the teen film for example) that have almost entirely rededicated themselves to this niche category of existence, because it’s the American Dream writ large: come from humble beginnings, play the capitalist game, rake in unimaginable wealth on the backs of life’s losers (who slide further into poverty and addiction, something not generally acknowledged), and cash in with homes, cars, et al., mi(se)rabile dictu. So it’s a strange thing indeed to be made to feel… what’s this emotion, sympathy (?!)… for one of these blessed people, Jackie Siegel, a 40-something former beauty queen who married David, a property multi-millionaire, now facing hard times after the 2008 sub-prime mortgage stock market crash. The couple had been building the country’s largest mansion in Florida, modelled after that at Versailles, but it was left an empty shell as work came to halt. It’s clear that their money is built on exploitation and hucksterism (time-share properties), and that they’re still on paper phenomenally wealthy, it’s just that suddenly this family of husband, wife and seven children no longer have the cashflow to indulge their every whim. It’s strangely affecting to see Jackie visit a childhood relation in her cramped suburban property, to see the family have to feed their pets personally (pity the unfortunate lizard), or tidying up after themselves — in short, having to deal with all the detritus and maintenance required by their massively oversized lifestyles. Their marriage is put under strain, as is their relationship with their children, their socialite friends, their family and their company. Lauren Greenfield’s film takes all those glitzy surfaces and scratches away at them, not itself wallowing in the family’s misfortune (though we as viewers may do so) but anatomising its footprint and effects. In doing so, it weaves an entertaining and watchable tale that incidentally becomes a treatise on American capitalism in crisis.


© Magnolia Pictures/Evergreen Pictures

FILM REVIEW
Director Lauren Greenfield | Cinematographer Tom Hurwitz | Length 100 minutes || Seen at home (streaming), London, Sunday 23 August 2015

Hot Girls Wanted (2015)

It makes for fairly depressing viewing, this documentary, and I’m not convinced that any film about the porn industry could ever fail to be, at least a little bit. Then again, there are times during Hot Girls Wanted when I can’t help but feel we’re only being given part of the picture. It’s clearly an exploitative profession, and the film’s focus is on young women who have just turned 18 getting into the business, so the angle is that these women are prey for a rapacious industry that demands constant turnover of talent. And yes, quite a bit of the work we see them doing is blatantly misogynist, particularly the unsettling abuse porn. But at the same time it’s refreshing to hear from the women themselves, all of whom, despite their ages, are intelligent and self-possessed and hardly seem particularly ingenuous about what they’re getting involved with. The film makes it clear that most women are in the industry for only very short amounts of time (less than 6 months in most cases), though the end titles reveal that two of the five young women who are featured most prominently are still in the industry, so perhaps there’s an angle with their stories that wasn’t quite so evident. What the film prefers to focus on is the importance of social media (particularly Twitter, which informs the film’s on-screen titling), as well as the way that the work influences the women’s families and relationships, and to a lesser extent the casually possessive and derogatory way of some of the (male) filmmakers and agents. Perhaps indeed more regulation is required, and this feels like the film’s big message, but from what we see it almost looks like a quaint cottage industry (our talent scout is a puppy-loving 23-year-old dude, and the male actors all seem little more than pathetic). That said, I’m hardly about to mount a vigorous defence of pornography. Another of the ideas the film toys with in an early sequence is the way that the pornography industry redefines how people see and present themselves and the way that this affects their interactions at a far wider level (and social media certainly plays a part there) — and I think there’s a far more angry film to be made about that. However, as a film about the human cost of working within this world, I’d have liked to have heard more from the women who stuck around. In some ways, I think that might have been more challenging.

NB: This doesn’t technically qualify for my New Year’s Resolution, as it wasn’t officially released to cinemas, but instead premiered on Netflix.


© Netflix

FILM REVIEW
Directors Jill Bauer and Ronna Gradus | Writer Brittany Huckabee | Cinematographer Ronna Gradus | Length 84 minutes || Seen at home (streaming), London, Wednesday 29 July 2015

Chef (2014)

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Saturday 28 June 2014 || My Rating 3.5 stars very good


© Open Road Films

I’ve lived in London for just over ten years now, and if you’ve known me over that time, you’ll know I’ve put on a bit of weight. I’m pretty sure it’s not from lack of exercise, though having a job (and a hobby!) that involves sitting down all day probably doesn’t help. No, I suspect it’s because I like food, and anyone who also likes food (especially if they live in a large metropolitan area) can scarcely have failed to notice the rise of food trucks over the last decade as a delivery mechanism for more than just ice cream and hot dogs. You can get just about anything from trucks these days. In some American cities (like their spiritual heartland in the Pacific Northwest), they are often to be found rotating around a set of fixed locations (‘pods’, if you will) and turning up at all kinds of outdoor, beer or food festivals. Indeed, the concept of ‘street food’ has really taken off, especially in the wake of the 2008 financial crash. So this new film starring and directed by my compatriot in girthfulness, Jon Favreau, can at the very least be said to be on-trend.

Continue reading “Chef (2014)”

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

Pain & Gain (2013)

Like a lot of people, I’m guilty of throwing out disparaging comments about Michael Bay’s filmmaking style, based on his favoured genre, the special effects-laden science-fiction tentpole Summer blockbuster; I did it just the other day in a review of Jurassic Park. The thing is, though, he does have a distinctively meretricious style, which probably makes it perfectly suited for an action comedy heist film set in the permanent dayglo of Florida in the 1990s. I’ve seen quite a few films this year set in that pendulous part of the world — it’s a popular film setting after all — and all of them have gone out of their way to impress upon me what a strange and warped corner of society it is.

So we find ourselves in a world where obscene displays are the norm — whether of wealth or of bodies. Our protagonists are bodybuilders who meet through Sun Gym. Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) and Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie) are personal trainers, the former very much the ringleader. Daniel fancies himself a smart self-made man, who has helped to build up the gym to be a flourishing business with little personal return to himself. Inspired by the self-help motivational speaking of Johnny Wu (another memorable small turn from the dependably maniacal Ken Jeong), he gets the idea to take what he deserves in that time-honoured fashioned of stealing it, and for this he enlists the help of born again Christian, the impressively built Paul (Dwayne Johnson). Their mark is Jewish-Colombian businessman Victor (Tony Shalhoub) and this, as is also the time-honoured fashion, is where things start to go awry.

It’s not just the men’s impressively-defined pectorals that are on display. There’s the wealth of Victor — with his flashy cars, boats and large airy mansion by the sea — and Frank, the porn baron who becomes the gang’s second victim. And of course there are the women, most of whom seem to be (or have been) strippers; the movies are starting to convince me this is the only profession down in Florida, and it’s wearying to be honest. Therefore, Rebel Wilson is refreshing as Robin, a nurse at an erectile dysfunction clinic who marries Adrian without being aware of his source of income. She’s only on screen for a few scenes, long enough though to convince us that when this film isn’t obsessing over pecs and breasts, penises are a matter of abiding interest. The only ones we see on screen are rubber (one of Victor’s sidelines is in sex toys), though they are much discussed — apparently Adrian has suffered some adverse effects from his heightened steroid usage — and we even get one teasingly brief shot of Daniel in his Calvin Kleins, a cute little nod to Wahlberg’s pre-acting days.

For aside from its plentiful action setpieces — chases and shootings — the film is also a comedy, and I cannot deny there are laughs. Mostly these are had at the expense of the three central protagonists, who get up to some very silly (and very morbid) stuff. It’s a difficult blend to pull off, but this much I think the film succeeds at, and reveals Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson to have a deft touch as the dimmest but most personable of the three, a man somewhat misguided by the power of Christ, but still hopeful for redemption; for me, his character is the strongest in the film and remains compulsively watchable. The difficulty is in finding these men funny while also needing to judge them for the horrific crimes they commit — the film seems to be in several minds as to whether they are murderous aggressors or victims (of class and circumstance) or heroes (low angle shots against the sky, heroic slow-motion striding into combat), and ends up trying to advocate rather uncomfortably for all three.

After all, the other thing on display is Michael Bay’s directorial style, and it’s not a style that feels comfortable being subservient to characters or a story. There’s not a scene that goes by where the action doesn’t move briefly into slow-motion, or feature some other eye-catching visual effect (a freeze-frame with witty text superimposed is another favourite). By now, he’s able to make it seem the most natural thing in the world — possibly thanks to having in part created the grammar of visual expression in modern blockbuster movies — but it’s still diverting, and doesn’t always mesh with the emotions on screen.

That all said, I wanted to like what feels like Michael Bay’s first recognisably human film, though the location and the story can at times make that difficult. It’s based on real events, as the film likes to constantly remind us, but as ever such claims must be taken advisedly (the Wikipedia entry details all the changes made to characters and storylines) and there’s not always a lot to grasp onto in terms of recognisable character motivation. It’s a look at a seedy underbelly of society filmed as if it’s the most glamorous thing in the world and if it’s not entirely hateful, that at least marks it as a small step for one of the titans of violently dehumanised spectacle.


© Paramount Pictures

PREVIEW SCREENING FILM REVIEW
Director Michael Bay | Writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (based on articles by Pete Collins) | Cinematographer Ben Seresin | Starring Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, Anthony Mackie, Tony Shalhoub, Rebel Wilson | Length 129 minutes || Seen at Cineworld O2 Greenwich, London, Sunday 25 August 2013

My Rating 2 stars worth seeing

Some Like It Hot (1959)


FILM REVIEW || Director Billy Wilder | Writers Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond | Cinematographer Charles Lang | Starring Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon, Marilyn Monroe | Length 122 minutes | Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wednesday 31 July 2013 || My Rating 4.5 stars a must-see


© United Artists

I already have a habit on my blog of giving the shortest shrift and the weakest reviews to my favourite films. It’s been over a week since I watched this, and for my memory that’s probably already too long to give it its due. In part, perhaps, I feel a little ashamed that I’ve let so many decades pass before getting round to seeing this highly-regarded comedy classic by the great Billy Wilder for the first time. But it is indeed a great film, and an enjoyable one.

Continue reading “Some Like It Hot (1959)”