Set It Off (1996)

In many ways this is a genre heist flick, a product of the Hollywood system, but unlike most such products it’s very clearly rooted in a systemic understanding of class and racism as it applies to the home of the movies, Los Angeles, where haves and have nots are strictly separated. It’s about four women just trying to get by, but being repeatedly failed by a corrupt, racist system — the one that every so often the rest of America is forced to admit is broken before everyone moves on, and then it’s all repeated once again. This is precisely the world of state and police violence against Black communities that so many films in the 90s were about, and which has continued to recur ever since in popular culture and, sadly, in reality.


In the 90s, it seems, it was difficult to get funding for films about Black lives or experiences unless they were gritty, set in the projects, and had an almost moralistic sense of come-uppance for those whose lives dared to transgress the boundaries strictly set by authority, so I regret that we didn’t get an Oceans 11 style heist caper in which everyone managed to get away, but that’s not what this film is about. In fact, one of its particular strengths is in making it clear just what exactly is oppressing our heroines, and it’s not other Black women. This is Los Angeles, after all, and there aren’t many opportunities available to these women. Through a series of events that are as brutally predictable as they are unsuprisingly still very current, each is beaten down to the point where committing a bank robbery seems like a viable option, and so it goes. The action when it comes is pretty thrilling and grandly done, and even the token figure of white empathy feels somewhat rounded (John C. McGinley, who seemingly always used to play these sorts of authority figure roles), even if in the current climate it feels difficult to believe he’d actually Care. This is a strong film that bucks certain trends while playing into others, but it’s never unclear who the empathetic heroes of this film really are, and that’s as it should be.

Set It Off film posterCREDITS
Director F. Gary Gray; Writers Takashi Bufford and Kate Lanier; Cinematographer Marc Reshovsky; Starring Jada Pinkett Smith [as “Jada Pinkett”], Queen Latifah, Vivica A. Fox, Kimberly Elise, Blair Underwood, John C. McGinley; Length 123 minutes.
Seen at Mid City, Wellington, May 1997 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Tuesday 21 April 2020).

Jinn (2018)

Stories about the conflicts and difficulties of growing up within faith-based communities haven’t really been covered very strongly within American cinema, I don’t think — or at least not outside of engagement with Christianity. This West Coast-based film deals with a Black Muslim-American family and their daughter, who is struggling to reconcile this new identity with her life and her school-age peers. It didn’t entirely work for me, but there’s plenty to commend it all the same.


This film, although set in Los Angeles, is based on the writer-director’s experiences growing up as a young Muslim girl in Oakland (the setting for a number of recent excellent films touching on the Black experience in the United States). The performances from its actors are all uniformly excellent, not least Zoe Renee as the lead character, aspiring dance student Summer, whose mother Jade (Simone Missick) has converted to Islam. Summer finds herself drawn into her mother’s life and faith as a result, which provides the dramatic tensions for the rest of the film. It’s undermined a little by the at times didactic script, which creates a conflict between her and her mother, and has a lot of very pointed dramatic exchanges about being Black and Muslim in American society, about the nature of faith, and the struggles of the characters to find their way within the teachings of Islam (though as someone who has myself started participating in a religious community fairly late in life, I definitely felt some resonances). There’s a lot of judgmental behaviour, though the script ensures everyone gets their learning moment. Although I saw it at the London Film Festival with the producer and stars present to speak to the film afterwards, I think this film would work strongly on a streaming service (and given it never received a British cinematic release, I suppose that’s how most people will see it): it has likeable, interesting characters and develops its drama in a pleasing way, and I look forward to more stories from the director.

Jinn film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Nijla Mu’min; Cinematographer Bruce Francis Cole; Starring Zoe Renee, Simone Missick; Length 92 minutes.
Seen at Odeon Tottenham Court Road, London, Friday 12 October 2018.

Dolemite Is My Name (2019)

One of the first films I watched in the new year was one I’d missed out on at the end of last year, though I’d heard positive things. I don’t daresay it will get Eddie Murphy an Oscar acting nomination, and it is deserving of its fine word of mouth, one of the new tranche of prestige Netflix projects that had some limited cinematic distribution too. I shall probably get back to my themed weeks again starting next week.


Eddie Murphy, it is clear from this movie, can definitely act, and when he puts his mind to it he’s surely among the better performers in Hollywood even now. This in particular is a lovely film because it puts on screen so many excellent and capable Black character actors, in the service of telling a story that’s pure American Dream in a way: the idea that with enough application of willpower and can-do attitude, you can achieve your dreams, especially when those dreams are putting out raunchy comedy records and getting into the movies (which one could imagine would be appealing to Murphy, given his own history). He plays Rudy Ray Moore, a struggling musician and variety performer who gained some localised fame with a streetwise character called Dolemite, whom he then put on the big screen in a blaxploitation film of that name in 1975. This, then, is a fairly mainstream rendering of the man/the myth which hits all the requisite biopic notes (the rise and fall and rise sort of narrative) but with grace and humour, and guided by that stellar performance of Murphy’s, meaning it’s never dull. It also shows that for all Moore’s raunchy attitude on stage, he was reflective and thoughtful about the material itself and wasn’t just interested in exploiting people for his own personal success, which as a moral doesn’t hurt either.

Dolemite Is My Name film posterCREDITS
Director Craig Brewer; Writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski; Cinematographer Eric Steelberg; Starring Eddie Murphy, Tituss Burgess, Craig Robinson, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Wesley Snipes, Keegan-Michael Key; Length 118 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Thursday 1 January 2020.

The Decline of Western Civilization trilogy (1981/1988/1998)

I’m still going back posting reviews of my favourite films I saw for the first time in 2019, as I try to catch up to the inevitable end-of-year and end-of-decade lists, and one notable trilogy is this one covering the LA punk scene by Penelope Spheeris from the late-70s through to the late-90s. It’s one of the rare trilogies in which its final part is probably the strongest, indeed in my opinion it only gets better as it goes along, mainly because Spheeris builds a broader picture of sub-cultural changes with each successive film. It’s very much her greatest achievement, I think, and well worth watching.

Also, today is Christmas Day as it turns out, so happy Christmas for those who are celebrating, and have a nice holiday in any case. I can thoroughly recommend these films as fine holiday watching if you are thus inclined.

Continue reading “The Decline of Western Civilization trilogy (1981/1988/1998)”

Marriage Story (2019)

This new Noah Baumbach film has just been released on Netflix, so currently everyone seems to have an opinion about it. Why not let me add mine to the mix, for what very little it is worth at this point.


Despite being primed to dislike this film that appears to be about wealthy white people falling out of love — not to mention some kind of pointed self-fiction dealing with the director and his first marriage — I did really like this film, which in some of its textures and characters reminds me of last year’s Private Life (another Netflix film, albeit one that didn’t even get any cinema screenings over here sadly). This is about Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson, who have been married ten years but find themselves drawn apart, as much because they want different things than anything they particularly dislike about the other person — though of course those all come out. It’s a film that’s dealing with divorce as an idea, working through all those feelings but working them out in public on film. I was expecting more of a character assassination of the wife, but she comes across to me as pretty reasonable, whereas it’s Driver’s character who can be the real ass most of the time. There are laughs and there’s tension, but most of all there’s really excellent acting that supports this central couple (my confession is I’ve never been a huge fan of either Driver or Johansson), most notably Alan Alda and Laura Dern as the competing divorce lawyers, though it’s nice to see Julie Hagerty on screen again.

Marriage Story film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Noah Baumbach; Cinematographer Robbie Ryan; Starring Adam Driver, Scarlett Johansson, Azhy Robertson, Laura Dern, Alan Alda, Julie Hagerty; Length 136 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Soho, London, Saturday 23 November 2019.

The Holiday (2006)

Though it would not be possible to do a themed week around romcoms without something by Nancy Meyers, it turns out she’s also dipped her filmmaking talents into the Christmas-themed picture with The Holiday, which of course is still a romcom primarily. Her films always feature couples trying to work out their issues, such as in 2009’s It’s Complicated, or even 2015’s The Intern (though the romcom plot is not at the core of that film), and she doubles it up for The Holiday, a comforting blanket of a movie, like so much of her work.


A Meyers family movie is a comforting thing (whether by mother Nancy or her daughter Hallie Meyers-Shyer, who made Home Again). Indeed, like the daughter’s film a decade after this one, there’s even something refreshing about a film where guys may act badly but no one is being an out-and-out creep. This means that there’s no danger that, however menacingly weird Jack Black’s smile may look, he’s going to try and force anything more than a kiss on Kate Winslet’s cheek and even then he’ll apologise winsomely for it. Oh sorry, I haven’t even mentioned the plot, have I? Well, Iris (Kate Winslet) and Amanda (Cameron Diaz) swap homes, for reasons… that’s all that you really need to know, though you might like to be aware that Jude Law will show up. The film does have a certain clunkiness to the setups, with some very self-aware “meet cutes” and an internet relationship that doesn’t seem likely, as well as a toe-curling opening voiceover from Winslet about her relationship with the dastardly Jasper (Rufus Sewell). Still, it is supremely Nancy Meyers-ish, and there are some very nice bourgeois homes on display in both the States and rural England.

The Holiday film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Nancy Meyers; Cinematographer Dean Cundey; Starring Kate Winslet, Cameron Diaz, Jude Law, Jack Black, Rufus Sewell, Edward Burns; Length 135 minutes.
Seen at home (Amazon streaming), London, Monday 1 January 2018.

Amazing Grace (2018)

Harking back to last week’s musical theme is this concert film of Aretha Franklin in 1972. Despite being filmed at the time, there were technical issues to deal with, not to mention Franklin herself, and was only released finally last year. As it is essentially a gospel concert filmed in a church, with contributions from Franklin’s own father and others in the same tradition, it provides a slice of African-American religious experience, albeit one that has been elevated and curated for a quite different audience.


We see director Sydney Pollack near the start, chatting to his camera operators as the church is set up, and then throughout the film we see him from time to time gesticulating wildly to get his cameramen to pick out something happening in the audience or away from centre stage. Indeed, because this concert was filmed in a church, there’s not really any space to hide and so, unlike many concert films, there are a lot of shots where we can clearly see all the cameras and sound recording equipment, and somehow that makes this feel all the more intimate and personable. But, as the familiar documentary marketing blurb goes, due to technical complications the footage was never released… until now. (Actually it seems it was ready a decade ago, but while she was alive Aretha Franklin blocked it from being released.)

Aretha is of course staggeringly good, but the film is wonderful in affording time to everything around her: the faces of the gospel choir are featured every bit as heavily, the well-practised patter of Rev Cleveland introducing the songs and helping out on the piano and vocals on a number of the more straightforwardly gospel numbers, and then there’s the audience, who are like a time capsule in and of themselves, getting to their feet, providing the call-and-response that Cleveland expects. On the second of the two nights, word has clearly got around, so Aretha’s father is there (hopping up to wipe down her sweating brow while she’s in full stride), Clara Ward (another gospel singer), even Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts can be spotted up the back in the audience.

Still, ultimately, this is Aretha’s film, and her performance is really spine-tingling, cementing it almost instantly as one of the all-time classic great concert movies.

Amazing Grace film posterCREDITS
Directors Sydney Pollack and Alan Elliott; Starring Aretha Franklin; Length 87 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Wednesday 15 May 2019.

Shakedown (2018)

There are of course plenty of African-American women making films, but I think it speaks to some of the depth of talent that many of their recent films (like those of Ava DuVernay, Angela Robinson or Karyn Kusama, amongst others) have not really been about Black people specifically, or set within communities of colour, although of course they have shown a greater diversity of casting and crew hires than many mainstream (white) film directors. There are in any case many excellent examples to choose from, and a film from last year which impressed me as one of the better documentaries was Shakedown, documenting a marginalised sub-culture in a very sympathetic and engaging way.


I’ve seen some reviews comparing this film to everyone’s problematic fave Paris Is Burning, which makes a certain sense given that it is a film documenting an underground sub-culture involving primarily queer black people, and focuses on the personalities within it. Perhaps the scene in question here seems less like a community creating its own language (as with vogueing and ball culture), but equally I may be being naive: there are definite characters who thread through the narrative, even if there’s less of a sense of various tribal rivalries taking place.

In any case, the scene in question is a Los Angeles-based stripping community, the focus being on Shakedown Entertainment, a group putting on underground shows for largely queer black women (there are men there, but when we see white faces, they usually turn out to be cops). We get to see extended sequences in the clubs, as well as backstage in the dressing rooms, intercut with interviews with the women and some of those around them (the club’s manager, the security personnel, and a modern day interview with one of the dancers called Egypt). Much of the footage is from the early-2000s, shot on the technology of the time, which gives it a curious distance as well as a sort of lo-fi warmth, and any charges of exploitation (as occurred with Paris Is Burning) seem largely avoided because the documentarian was part of the scene being shot. (Indeed, thinking about it, I am reminded of other documentaries about LA-based underground subcultures: Ava DuVernay’s one about hiphop around the same time, This Is the Life; or Angela Boatwright’s Los Punks about more recent Latinx punk communities.)

It’s an engaging portrait of a time and place, and an excellent documentary speaking from the margins, and if anything more focused and fascinating for that.

Shakedown film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Leilah Weinraub; Length 72 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Thursday 12 July 2018.

Criterion Sunday 265: Short Cuts (1993)

It’s strange the way memory works: I’ve read the Raymond Carver short stories this film is drawn from, and I’ve seen this film too, back in the 1990s. I was then (and probably still am) an enormous fan of Carver’s spare prose, and I remember some of those stories and the traumas within them — the two lads peeling off from their families to chase after some girls while on a picnic, or the guys out fishing who find a dead body, amongst others; they’re not exactly cheery tales, but rather exhume a certain fascination with everyday working class lives and the pathology of downtrodden men in particular. So it’s odd that I remember the film adaptation with such warmth, though perhaps I confused its technical qualities, and the careful emotional construction (with its cross-cutting that only heightened the onward rush of narrative revelation), with some kind of uplift to the story as a whole. No, this is bleak stuff really, even if it is compelling and wonderfully well-made. Almost all of these characters have trouble relating to one another — husbands with their wives (the wives have rather less trouble understanding their husbands), fathers with sons, groups of friends, and then of course there are business-client relationships (Lyle Lovett is not a happy baker).

To this extent, when there is a shared moment of understanding or emotional honesty — like Madeleine Stowe and Julianne Moore as sisters, laughing themselves silly at their respective a*hole partners (Tim Robbins as a humourless and adulterous cop, and Matthew Modine as a self-important surgeon), or Tom Waits and Lily Tomlin patching up their differences for what feels like the umpteenth time — it hits home that much more forcefully, and compensates a little for some of the darker interactions. Some characters can be empathetic in one scene, but boorish in the background of someone else’s, and there’s a constant fluidity to the way that identification moves throughout the film. And while at times it does feel a little dated — there’s a throughline of cynicism that feels very much of the 1990s, as is some of the class commentary — Altman never loses the compassion for any of his characters (though, okay, Chris Penn’s Jerry is very trying), and it never gets boring.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • The chief extra is Luck, Trust & Ketchup: Robert Altman in Carver Country (1993, dir. John Dorr/Mike Kaplan), a fairly solid video-based 90 minute making-of documentary. There are sit-down interviews with the actors on the set about working with Altman, which veer from the bland pabulum to more in-depth discussions — Frances McDormand lays out Altman’s way of shooting master shots and the technical challenges of that, or Julianne Moore thoughtfully reflects on one key scene for her character. There’s plenty of footage of Altman on set, which gives you an idea of how he manages actors, and we see him making little changes or suggesting different ways of capturing a scene. There are also interviews with Carver’s widow (and the film’s screenwriter) about the process of adapting the stories and what exactly she sees as the continuities between Carver’s Pacific NW-set short stories and Altman’s LA film.
  • There are a couple of short minute-long or so additional scenes, as well as an alternate take for the big confrontation between MacDowell/Davison’s parents and Lovett’s baker.
  • Three of the songs which were penned for Annie Ross’s character are presented in audio demos, as sung by their original composer, Mac Rebennack (Dr. John), in his customary drawl.
  • Some years later Tim Robbins and Robert Altman discuss the film in a likeable half-hour piece for the Criterion release, sharing memories of the production and going over some of Altman’s influences and the way he shaped the project in collaboration with his actors.
  • There’s also some good context for the marketing of the film, including a huge number of suggested posters (some of which really betray their 90s roots), as well as the eventual teaser trailer, full trailer and six 30-second TV spots that emphasise different aspects of the production (including one which just drops the actors’ names, and two which heroically try to recount the storylines).

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Robert Altman; Writers Altman and Frank Barhydt (based on the short stories “Neighbors”, “They’re Not Your Husband”, “Vitamins”, “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?”, “So Much Water So Close to Home”, “A Small, Good Thing”, “Jerry and Molly and Sam”, “Collectors”, “Tell the Women We’re Going” and the poem “Lemonade” by Raymond Carver); Cinematographer Walt Lloyd; Starring Andie MacDowell, Bruce Davison, Julianne Moore, Anne Archer, Fred Ward, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tim Robbins, Frances McDormand, Lily Tomlin, Tom Waits, Madeleine Stowe, Matthew Modine, Lili Taylor, Robert Downey Jr., Chris Penn, Annie Ross, Lori Singer, Peter Gallagher, Jack Lemmon, Lyle Lovett; Length 188 minutes.

Seen at university library (laserdisc), Wellington, October 1998 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Monday 26 August 2019).

Gook (2017)

I reviewed Korean-American director Kogonada’s Columbus (2017) the other day, but today’s film is far more specifically about the Korean-American experience, specifically as filtered through the lens of the 1992 race riots in Los Angeles. It’s about battered and impoverished communities trying to co-exist, expanding significantly on the sideplot of Korean shop-owners in Do the Right Thing (1989).


An interesting premise from a different viewpoint which takes the context of the ’92 LA riots and uses it to tell a story of tensions between the African-American and Asian-American communities (specifically, Korean in this case) in LA. It’s all filmed in a languorous black-and-white, though there aren’t really any white characters, and that’s one of the film’s strengths: that it’s about communities you don’t often see portrayed on screen. However, beyond that it feels like some of the ways the film is tackling its themes are buried in the dramaturgy, engineering conflicts and pushing them to a head with a death that feels like a cheap tactic given what has preceded it. The writing emphasises some of the ways that poverty begets violence, as characters seem to have no other outlet for their feelings than with violence, which just infects everyone to the extent that otherwise sensitive, thoughtful people are just screaming profanities at each other senselessly at times — this film is therefore pretty removed from the Tarantino model of urban warfare. Still, for all that I didn’t particularly warm to that aspect of things, it was good to see some of these performers and filmmakers, and I’d certainly like to see more from them.

Gook film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Justin Chon; Cinematographer Ante Cheng; Starring Justin Chon, David So 데이비드소, Simone Baker; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Sunday 18 March 2018.