This Is the Life (2008)

Ava DuVernay’s first feature-length film was this documentary (just up on Netflix) which focuses on a scene she was not only close to, but part of — the rap community based around the weekly hip-hop open mic nights at LA’s Good Life Cafe from 1989-1995 (we even get to see a short clip of her MCing, and she features in a lot of the talking heads interviews as part of her duo Figures of Speech). Formally, it’s very straightforward, blunt even: those interviews interspersed with video footage recorded at the time (and a few more recent clips to illustrate points being made, or subsequent careers). Sometimes someone will be remembering something (a notable MC’s flow, perhaps, or their distinctive stage presence) and then we’ll get the exact footage they are referring to — clearly, there exists plenty of documentation of the Good Life’s open mic nights, always good for this kind of project. If it seems raw and earnest, that’s hardly a failing, but comes from the love of filmmaker for subject. It’s good, too, to witness a scene explicitly founded in resisting what by that point were considered the boring tropes of gangster rap (so prevalent at the time, and this was around when Boyz N the Hood was filmically defining South Central Los Angeles). Much of the rap education I got from my ex in the early-00s was alternative hip-hop acts like Antipop Consortium and Blackalicious, and seeing this documentary makes it clear that other communities in the US were crafting lyrical, thoughtful reflections on the genre (leading to careers for rappers like Aceyalone and acts like Jurassic 5, the latter probably the most famous of the outfits which came from the Good Life scene). A film both inspiring and sweet.


FILM REVIEW
Director Ava DuVernay | Cinematographer Isaac Klotz | Length 97 minutes || Seen at home (streaming), London, Wednesday 11 January 2017

The Nice Guys (2016)

There’s been a low-level hum of satisfaction around the critical community when it comes to Shane Black’s latest directorial effort, perhaps a reaction to his return to a recognisable world after the superhero excesses of Iron Man Three, or perhaps because, well, his two lead characters played by Ryan Gosling (as squeamish PI Holland March) and Russell Crowe (as enforcer Jackson Healy) are kinda nice guys. Deep down, that is, because of course both have jobs that involve them in some sordid work, not least Crowe’s character Jackson, who is the tough guy sent round to break noses when payments aren’t made or respect isn’t given. That said, I’m not always convinced the film is itself particularly nice, though it’s at least a mark of upfront candour about your sexual politics to start with the image of a murdered and bloody, naked p0rn star splayed out centerfold-style as a teenage boy’s (literal) fantasy image. The film is set in 1977 so of course there’s a lot of that’s-how-things-were-back-then type set-ups, and for me a lot of them leave a bad taste in the mouth, as if the filmmakers are aware of the gross misogyny but just sort of think it’s fine if one of the lead characters is a woman — well, a 13-year-old girl (Holland’s daughter Holly, played by wide-eyed Anna Chlumsky-alike Angourie Rice), who has to witness some pretty nasty stuff, but also gets to boss around the men. It’s got some good writing and definitely a likeable swagger to its leads — and in the case of Russell Crowe, that’s a rare enough thing these days — but Black, like his film, came of age writing in the 1980s and a lot of that retrogressive spirit shines through pretty clearly.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Shane Black | Writers Shane Black and Anthony Bagarozzi | Cinematographer Philippe Rousselot | Starring Ryan Gosling, Russell Crowe, Angourie Rice | Length 116 minutes || Seen at Curzon Soho, London, Thursday 9 May 2016

The Neon Demon (2016)

There is no shortage of films that deal with the subject of the artificiality of Los Angeles (one of them even features this movie’s star Elle Fanning), or the nasty insidiousness attendant on the objectification of women within the creative industries (think Showgirls). And then there are films that go for a heightened atmosphere, with dialogue which would be almost risible were it not for the acting being pitched at such an icily aloof plateau, and the images being so artful and gorgeously composed that it all seems of a piece with the allegorical (perhaps Orphic) subject matter (frankly, Refn’s last film Only God Forgives went for that register too). Oh, and there are even horror films about vampiric sexuality (in a sense most vampire movies are about sex, though Claire Denis’s Trouble Every Day was sort of working in a similar place).

Needless to say, I was thinking about lots of films while watching The Neon Demon, because it’s very much a film about making films — photographers do not come out at all well here and that’s surely a directorial self-critique. However, it works too as a further development of the lushly misanthropic style of Refn’s previous film, married to a throbbing Cliff Martinez electronic score that only further emphasises the strangeness of the many liminal, blank spaces the film sets itself in. By the end, Jena Malone’s make-up artist Ruby has more or less taken over the film from Fanning’s ingenue model Jesse, a narrative shift the film marks with a sort of Crowley-like magickal ritual transference involving much neon and mirrors (the demon of the title, one presumes), but then much of the film works more at an allegorical level (even Malick’s Knight of Cups seems naturalistic compared to this). It’s unsettling, certainly, not least for what it says about Refn’s view of women’s relationships with one another (there’s a disturbing lesbian/necrophiliac theme to emphasise this), but then everyone in this world is a parasite (not least the characters briefly essayed by Keanu Reeves and Christina Hendricks), and all sexuality is violent, it seems to posit.

I’m almost willing to talk myself out of liking it but for the sustained atmosphere and excellent performances — if heightened hyperstylised camp is your thing that is.


The Neon Demon (2016)

ADVANCE SCREENING FILM REVIEW
Director Nicolas Winding Refn | Writers Nicolas Winding Refn, Polly Stenham and Mary Laws | Cinematographer Natasha Braier | Starring Elle Fanning, Jena Malone, Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee | Length 117 minutes || Seen at Soho Hotel, London, Wednesday 1 June 2016

Beijing Yushang Xiyatu Zhi Bu Er Qingshu (Finding Mr Right 2 aka Book of Love, 2016)

The title translates as “Beijing Meets Seattle”, but those were the settings of the first film (which I didn’t see), and instead our star-crossed lovers (Tang Wei and Wu Xiubo) here live in Macau and Los Angeles, the former setting introduced in tourist-brochure terms as a mecca for glamorous international gamblers. Indeed, I gather this sequel uses the same actors and the same basic premise, but is an otherwise standalone film — not that anyone would have any difficulty catching up with it, given the broad generic sweep of its storyline. The plot leans heavily on the romantic novel 84 Charing Cross Road in orchestrating a romance based on the anonymous exchange of letters between lovers which have been sent to that London address (London only shows up in the film’s rather absurdly, but almost touchingly romantic, denouement). In a sense, all of its contrivances are little more than absurd nonsense — and in its insistence on written letters, a strangely old-fashioned film — but after all, it’s a romantic weepie in which our two photogenic leads keep almost bumping into each other, as their feelings gradually deepen into love. Therefore, whatever reservations I may have, I still find it ultimately likeable, though it helps to see a film which finishes up in London at a cinema mere steps away.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Xiaolu Xue | Cinematographer Chi-Ying Chan | Starring Wei Tang, Xiubo Wu | Length 129 minutes || Seen at Odeon Panton Street, London, Friday 29 April 2016

Lovely & Amazing (2001)

Everyone’s ever so slightly neurotic and has trouble living with themselves in Nicole Holofcener’s films (most recently in 2013’s Enough Said). I’d say they’re generally white and middle-class too, although here the matriarch Jane (Brenda Blethyn) has a young black adopted daughter Annie (Raven Goodwin). Anyway, if it’s a formula, it’s one that makes for enjoyable, watchable films, because Holofcener writes observant character studies of people who you imagine it might be difficult to live with, but not to watch on screen for 90 minutes. As ever, Catherine Keener is the film’s real star, here playing Michelle, a struggling artist who feels like she’s wasting her life, so takes a job at a photo booth with a tiny Jake Gyllenhaal. Meanwhile there’s her sister Elizabeth (Emily Mortimer), an aspiring actress feeling fragile due to body image worries, no thanks to the superficial men she needs to court jobs from. It may not build to any big melodramatic climax, but for its brief running time it feels like it’s touching on feelings that are common and understandable and not always related in American comedies.


FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Nicole Holofcener | Cinematographer Harlan Bosmajian | Starring Catherine Keener, Brenda Blethyn, Emily Mortimer, Raven Goodwin, Jake Gyllenhaal | Length 91 minutes || Seen at home (streaming), London, Sunday 10 January 2016

Twinsters (2015)

Starting as a light-hearted documentary focusing on a young Asian-American actor in Los Angeles, Samantha Futerman, who makes YouTube videos and has dreams of more substantial acting roles, this soon broadens out into a film about what it means to have family, and engaging with one’s roots. Futerman is one of a generation of Korean kids adopted out to families in the West, and when she’s contacted out of the blue by a French fashion student in London, she soon discovers she may have a twin sister. Together they try to verify their sisterhood via DNA testing and thereby trace their birth mother in Korea. Along the way there’s an idea of connections being made via social networking, and of the fluid movement of people in modern economies, as Samantha and her family fly over to London and vice versa, before heading on to a conference in South Korea. But more profoundly, it touches on a sense of what it means to be related when you’ve not grown up or even known about a familial connection, a rather more amorphous and mysterious topic (especially to one such as myself, who has no siblings). The documentary retains its lightness of tone, and is easy to watch thanks to the charisma of its director and (co-)star, though the story is clearly not finished by the time the film’s 81 minutes have gone by.


FILM REVIEW
Directors Samantha Futerman and Ryan Miyamoto | Writer Samantha Futerman | Cinematographer Ryan Miyamoto | Length 81 minutes || Seen at home (streaming), London, Monday 18 January 2016

Bachelorette (2012)

Like Bridesmaids before it, and the more recent film Sisters, Bachelorette is a comedy about adults misbehaving which is written by and primarily stars women, and which if written by and starring men would probably be atrocious. (These scenarios have almost certainly already been made in that guise. They probably star Vince Vaughn.)

Sadly, Bachelorette doesn’t quite attain the hilarity of those other films, but it’s also fascinating in a quite different way, because all the central characters are uniformly awful, unlikeable people. Sure, there’s a move towards softening some of these characteristics by the end (which, for a film about marriage and strained friendships, is of course a wedding), but that’s really just the very final scene (it’s a bit soppy). For the most part the film doesn’t spare these characters, and yet despite that, the film mostly kinda works.

As for the storyline, it’s Rebel Wilson’s Becky who’s getting married (Wilson sounding weird doing an American accent), but the film is most interested in her closest friends, Regan (Kirsten Dunst), Katie (Isla Fisher) and Gena (Lizzy Caplan), none of whom are particularly happy, and who manifest this in various ways. When they accidentally ruin the bride’s dress (for the benefit of a particularly nasty joke at Becky’s expense), they end up having to call in favours and run around figuring out how to fix it, and it’s this almost-slapstick set-up which is probably the weakest part of the film. However, there are plenty of observant moments for each of these characters, and the acting is of a high calibre, such that it’s never quite as bad as it feels it should be. It’s even a little bit refreshing.


Bachelorette (2012)

FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Leslye Headland (based on her play) | Cinematographer Doug Emmett | Starring Kirsten Dunst, Lizzy Caplan, Isla Fisher, Rebel Wilson | Length 87 minutes || Seen at home (streaming), London, Tuesday 5 January 2016

Tangerine (2015)

On the Wikipedia entry it states that director Sean Baker was inspired by films seen at the New Zealand International Film Festival, and I can empathise with this, as this was my main window into the world of cinema when I was at an impressionable age (my 20s). Low-budget New Zealand filmmakers really do work with nothing (I shared a flat with one for a few years), so working under pressure and improvising with what’s available is very much a necessity. That spirit of fvck-it-let’s-just-make-a-film comes across well in Tangerine, which to some is famous for being the ‘film shot on an iPhone’. More importantly, it’s a film which represents characters who don’t often make it to the mainstream multiplex, and does so in a sympathetic but rounded way. The transgender characters (and actors) portrayed here are neither saints nor villains, but just people, albeit ones who are marginalised in a city (Los Angeles) that, more than many, judges on appearances and is surely difficult to live in for those without money. And so it’s an LA not often seen in Hollywood cinema, of wide streets and seedy back alleyways, of indistinguishable chain restaurants and, in a surprising parallel plot, a regular working-class Armenian couple’s home. It’s also set at Christmas, perhaps for extra alienation, as certainly the Los Angeleno Christmas vibe is hardly what most people think of when that holiday is depicted (though perhaps it may put at least some viewers in mind of religious virtues of forgiveness and tolerance). In any case, it’s a bitter, cut-throat world of prostitution and drug deals, of bitter relationships forged in adversity, and — most noticeable — the film is, quite frequently, caustically funny. It may not be a polished film in any traditional sense, but it’s visually striking, and is made and acted with plenty of vigour that more than makes up for any longueurs.


© Magnolia Pictures

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Sean S. Baker | Writers Sean S. Baker and Chris Bergoch | Cinematographers Sean S. Baker and Radium Cheung | Starring Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, Mya Taylor | Length 88 minutes || Seen at Odeon Panton Street, London, Tuesday 29 December 2015

Grandma (2015)

I liked Paul Weitz’s last film, Admission (2013), more than many people, perhaps because of its university setting (that’s where my day job is), but also because of its likeable protagonists. Yet I’d never have guessed the same person (responsible, lest we forget, for American Pie as well), might turn in something like Grandma. It’s just so unfussy and unpretentious, plus (surely unusual in the kind of political culture of the modern USA), it takes for its premise the unquestioned assumption that women have the right to want an abortion and be able to get one. It’s not as if the teenage character of Sage (an excellent Julia Garner, whose performance moves from teenage petulance to more sympathetic as the film progesses) is let off the hook for her decisions, just that it avoids the quirk (and moral compromise) of Juno. Still, whatever the excellent qualities of the script (and they should not be diminished, as a good script is the basis for all good films), it’s anchored by a fantastic performance from Lily Tomlin as Elle, an ageing lesbian academic and poet, who is irascible and cranky without ever being loveable exactly, but yet surely has the audience’s strongest sympathy in her response to the news from her granddaughter. It moves towards what you might expect is a group-hug heartwarming family moment, but never quite delivers on one’s worst fears in this regard. It’s a quiet champion of a film, and best of all, clocks in at under 80 minutes.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Paul Weitz | Cinematographer Tobias Datum | Starring Lily Tomlin, Julia Garner, Marcia Gay Harden | Length 79 minutes || Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Thursday 31 December 2015

Knight of Cups (2015)

By now we surely all know what to expect from a Malick film, and if you’ve seen To the Wonder or any of his output of the last 10 years or so, Knight of Cups won’t present any new narrative challenges. But for those who haven’t been keeping up and look at the cast list thinking this could be good should bear in mind that there is no plot to speak of; rather one could say there’s a series of questions that we as viewers and Christian Bale as the screenwriter protagonist Rick, seek answers to. The title and the film’s structure is taken from the Tarot deck, and we are in a sense led through a reading for Rick’s title character. The film is dominated by Bale; all the other actors are very much in the background, glimpsed in passing, as fragments of the conversation Rick is having with himself, into which Malick’s camera seems to inveigle itself. As ever, the camera floats around, lingering behind Bale’s shoulder or viewing him and those he interacts with from a low-angle, bound to the earth, looking up at the sky. There’s no dialogue to speak of: if we see two characters interacting, their words are faded out, to be replaced by an interior monologue, whether of one of the other characters or of Rick — this aspect of Malick’s filmmaking has been in place since almost his beginnings. So, narratively it’s dense and it’s opaque and it’s difficult to get drawn into, but it does allow for some moments of beauty and fascination. Yet the associative editing (two years in post-production, we’ll recall) leads the film out on obscure tangents. At this point terms like ‘self-indulgent’ and ‘pretentious’ seem entirely unequal to what Malick is doing, though they’ll no doubt be trumpeted by plenty of critics. For myself, I don’t find this work as successful as his earlier To the Wonder, largely because Bale’s Rick seems so empty a character, not unlike the protagonist of Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere (2010). Yet, after all, the issues that Rick is grappling with are fundamental ones: how to re-connect with others after the death of his brother and the havoc this event, only elliptically alluded to, has wrought on his remaining family (other brother Barry, Wes Bentley, and father Joseph, Brian Dennehy) and his relationship with ex-wife Nancy (Cate Blanchett).


© Broad Green Pictures

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Terrence Malick | Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki | Starring Christian Bale, Wes Bentley, Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, Brian Dennehy | Length 118 minutes || Seen at Omnia, Rouen, Sunday 6 December 2015