This is an odd film, and there are things about it I really like, but ultimately it just comes across as somewhat introspective and petit bourgeois. It’s about suburban ennui, specifically that felt by middle-class mother Rachel (Kathryn Hahn). She’s married to the slightly boring Jeff (Josh Radnor, the most annoying character on How I Met Your Mother), and does her best to work through her issues with her offbeat psychiatrist Lenore (Jane Lynch, with quite the most distracting glasses seen in recent cinema). The plot stretches credulity somewhat in orchestrating her becoming friends with a stripper, McKenna (Juno Temple), but once that initial meeting is out of the way, it starts to promise something rather radical in exploring the overlap between McKenna’s sex work and Rachel’s frustrated desires, although it feels to me like it doesn’t quite deliver on that. There’s some melodrama, but the film remains closely focused on Rachel breaking out of what ultimately feels like a mid-life crisis. Still, Hahn does well with the central role, and there’s some excellent supporting work (notably Michaela Watkins as a hyperorganised busybody in Rachel’s Jewish women’s group).
FILM REVIEW Director/Writer Jill Soloway | Cinematographer Jim Frohna | Starring Kathryn Hahn, Juno Temple, Josh Radnor, Jane Lynch, Michaela Watkins | Length 97 minutes || Seen at home (streaming), London, Friday 30 October 2015
Taking up some of the stylistic traits of the film noir, this early-50s film is from London-born actor/director Ida Lupino, and — I admit this is of quite incidental interest to most people I imagine — casts a number of actors who are originally English, not that you’d spot it. In any case, Lupino plays the femme fatale role, although the insight of the film is that it’s not quite so simple to categorise the women as simply free-spirited sexual adventuress Phyllis (Lupino) and frigid careerist businesswoman Eve (Joan Fontaine), though this is how the film sets them up initially. The title character is Harry, played by the solidly-built but slightly shambolic Edmond O’Brien, and if there’s obviously no surprise about his predicament, perhaps that’s because it’s not really about him. Finding himself sidelined in his own business by his more talented wife Eve, he embarks on a new life with Phyllis in Los Angeles while on the job as a travelling salesman. Class is enfolded into the mix, as Phyl (for short) leads a precarious existence of short-term work and unstable living conditions and relationship status. And if Eve is the one who’s hard done by, there’s a strange bond between her and Phyl by the film’s close. It may finish with a moral pronouncement from on high (a literal judge in a courtroom), but the messy tangle of relationships promises to carry on beyond the film’s snappy running time.
SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW Director Ida Lupino | Writers Collier Young, Larry Marcus and Lou Schor | Cinematographer George E. Diskant | Starring Edmond O’Brien, Ida Lupino, Joan Fontaine, Edmund Gwenn | Length 80 minutes || Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Thursday 5 November 2015
Even by the standards of Sofia Coppola’s films about ennui amongst the lives of the rich and overprivileged, Somewhere is a slow one, but that feels of a piece with its protagonist, movie star Johnny (Stephen Dorff). We open with him speeding around a race track, the camera unmoving as his car loops into and out of frame, repetitively, for several minutes. Other long takes show him sitting prone on his bed or a sofa, watching identical twins give him a pole dance in his Château Marmont hotel room where he’s living. It’s a carefully-delineated existence of perfect boredom, alleviated only by occasional desultory sex with pliable women, and drinks with his friend, all of this taking place again in his hotel room. It’s only when his young daughter Cleo (Elle Fanning) shows up for a day, and then again for a longer period during which time they jet off to Milan for a press junket, that Johnny slowly starts to re-form emotional connections. Watching this painfully slow process unfolding, via almost impercetible changes in his mood and activities, is the core of Coppola’s film, beautifully shot by her regular DoP Harris Savides. It’s less accessible perhaps than Marie Antoinette before and The Bling Ring after, both dealing with similar themes, but it still has an almost hypnotic beauty to it that rewards attention.
FILM REVIEW Director/Writer Sofia Coppola | Cinematographer Harris Savides | Starring Stephen Dorff, Elle Fanning | Length 98 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 29 October 2015
Now that I’m a regular habitué of online streaming services, I’m increasingly wading into the murky but usually very time-friendly (given most are around an hour long) subgenre of stand-up comedy sets. One of the recent stars of this scene, who’s been doing the stand-up round for years, is Tig Notaro, though filmically I’d only previously seen her in a small cameo in In a World… This documentary, however, isn’t just a record of one of her stand-up sets, so much as how that set in August 2012 intersected with her life and those around her in some surprising ways. Those who have seen Louis CK’s TV show, or the film Obvious Child (and if you haven’t, seriously, rectify that) know that stand-ups frequently draw from their own experiences in ways that can sometimes be quite uncomfortable for audiences, and in drawing on her recent diagnosis of breast cancer, Notaro ends up challenging a number of ideas about the disease. The most notable, perhaps, is that she can’t have a baby, and indeed although her body may not be capable of carrying a child anymore, we see her enter a stable relationship and forge forward with plans to have children. Because of its likeable subject, the documentary feels like a relatively easygoing watch despite some tough subject matter, but that’s not to diminish its achievement, and one can only hope for the best for Notaro herself.
FILM REVIEW Directors Kristina Goolsby and Ashley York | Cinematographer Huy Truong | Length 95 minutes || Seen at home (streaming), London, Saturday 31 October 2015
What’s most surprising to me about this biopic of seminal late-1980s rap band N.W.A. is that it qualifies for my New Year’s Resolution by having a female co-writer. It’s not surprising in the sense of FINALLY PROVING that women can write rounded and realistic male characters (I jest), but because the women in the film are so peripheral to the story as to be little more than gyrating appendages in music videos (aside perhaps from Eazy-E’s widow Tomica, who’s also a producer on the film). It is, indeed, a very male-centred film about a group of friends and their rise from impoverished backgrounds in LA’s Compton neighbourhood to musical dominance as the progenitors of the ‘gangsta rap’ style. The film’s central players are introduced by on-screen captions, with the three most prominent members of the group being Ice Cube (played by his son, O’Shea Jackson Jr., as an embittered and angry young man), the focused Dr. Dre (Jason Mitchell), and the guy that helps to bring them all together, Eazy-E (Corey Hawkins), who true to his name has a more laidback lifestyle — which is to say, there are plenty of women and drugs involved.
The arc of the film is classic Hollywood biopic — rags to riches, complicated by egos and money — but in focusing its story on black characters, the film already moves some way towards redressing the whitewashing of (musical) history engaged in by other mainstream productions. Indeed, the casting of Paul Giamatti as manager Jerry Heller recalls his almost identical work in a very similar (and far whiter) film about Brian Wilson only a few months ago, and if Love & Mercy seemed to impart a good sense of how its music was made, Straight Outta Compton is most focused on positioning its protagonists within the wider social context of racial discrimination — looping in the Rodney King beating and subsequent riots. However, perhaps even more than that, the film is concerned with the band’s contractual and label disputes, which is where Giamatti’s character comes in, not to mention Suge Knight and his roster of stars (Tupac Shakur pops up briefly, for example).
There are undoubtedly valid criticisms of the rampant chauvinism — which after all in a sense reflects the culture of this era and of these protagonists — and there’s also the not unrelated issue of the way the film occludes some of the characters’ more disturbing history with women, but that’s not really something for me to address. Suffice to say that it’s been written about by black women, whether those involved (Dee Barnes on Gawker.com), or in articles both critical of the film’s representation of women and more lenient (the latter two links from Bitch Magazine). However, for what it is, it’s fantastically accomplished, and as one might expect, it’s the live music scenes which are most compelling. Ice Cube’s anger is not only clearly contextualised, it’s sadly still necessary, which is what gives a song like “Fuck tha Police” so much power even after more than 25 years, meaning that N.W.A.’s music still has plenty to offer to audiences, whatever race they may be.
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW Director F. Gary Gray | Writers Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff | Cinematographer Matthew Libatique | Starring O’Shea Jackson Jr., Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Paul Giamatti | Length 147 minutes || Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Monday 31 August 2015
I’ve been on holiday the last week, and have just returned home, so I’m a bit late in writing up this review. Apologies if it seems particularly weak as a result.
Director Gina Price-Bythewood’s most recent film Beyond the Lights was fantastic and an eye-opener for me, in being a serious-minded romance film that didn’t condescend or resort to sentimentality. Looking back at her feature film debut from 15 years earlier, all the elements were in place even then, though this story takes place against a backdrop of college basketball rather than music. Both leads (Omar Epps as Quincy, and Sanaa Lathan as Monica) are adept at their respective roles, and the film tracks their friendship (and courtship) over a period of years, from childhood moving into neighbouring Los Angeles homes, to professional careers in basketball. Along the way, Prince-Bythewood adroitly tackles the way that gender influences their respective careers, and though the women’s game is no less absorbing when we see it played, it’s clearly not the money ticket that Quincy has with the NBA. The roles of their parents (particularly Quincy’s father, himself a famous basketball player, played by Dennis Haysbert; and Monica’s mother, played by Alfre Woodard) are quite central to the film, which is a coming of age of sorts, and sets out the generational difficulties rather well, as the kids must emerge from their parents’ shadows.
FILM REVIEW Director/Writer Gina Prince-Bythewood | Cinematographer Reynaldo Villalobos | Starring Sanaa Lathan, Omar Epps, Dennis Haysbert, Alfre Woodard | Length 124 minutes || Seen at home (streaming), London, Monday 31 August 2015
It can be easy to write reviews of films which are a bit rubbish for whatever reason, but sit me down to try and set out my thoughts about a well-made, well-acted and enjoyable low-key drama in a naturalistic mode, and I’m a bit stumped. That’s the case with this film about the children of a lesbian couple looking for their donor father. It’s an excellent ensemble cast (with Julianne Moore and Mark Ruffalo, as ever, standing out as being particularly good), and it doesn’t feel false, not least because the director, Lisa Cholodenko, seems to be drawing from aspects of her own life. Ruffalo’s Paul is living a bachelor life running an organic food shop and restaurant, when Joni (Mia Wasikowska) gets in touch via the sperm donor centre on behalf of her younger brother Laser (yes, that’s his name apparently and no one seems to find it particularly silly; played by Josh Hutcherson), who is curious as to his parentage. The film is trying to get at what it means to be a parent, articulated most clearly by Annette Bening’s character Nicole, a doctor and somewhat controlling mother figure who doesn’t take particularly well to Paul’s appearance in their family life. I liked the characters, I felt I could identify with them (maybe that’s a middle-class aspirational thing) and believe in their motivations. but beyond that I can’t really be any more helpful. A fine piece of work.
FILM REVIEW Director Lisa Cholodenko | Writers Lisa Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg | Cinematographer Igor Jadue-Lillo | Starring Julianne Moore, Annette Bening, Mia Wasikowska, Josh Hutcherson, Mark Ruffalo | Length 107 minutes || Seen at home (streaming), London, Monday 24 August 2015
There’s a sense in which this new movie about a DJ and his three friends living in Los Angeles’ Valley and trying to carve out a place for themselves is like a sub-Entourage story about flagrant wealth and dudebros being alpha 4ssholes (not that I’ve seen Entourage, but that seems to be the gist of it). Except that criticism seems unfair to me. Yes the film deals with some unpleasant male pathologies of entitlement — focused around Wes Bentley’s veteran DJ James, who has the apartment and the lifestyle — but our central character Cole (Zac Efron) and his buddies are very far from the wealth and the glitz, and the film is never less than clear that their lifestyle and aspirations are rather pathetic. That’s not enough to redeem the film — just because it knows these guys are d1cks, doesn’t make it any more fun to watch them — but for me, Zac Efron’s charismatic leading role just about is. Efron is one of the finest actors of the modern era, a smouldering pin-up Disney poster boy originally, but with the ability to infuse even the most wan and underwritten characters with genuine pathos. His inscrutable air seems to lend moral depth where there probably is none, making his Cole here a compulsively watchable protagonist. Still, it’s not quite enough to redeem a film that, even for one such as myself who is not nor ever has been a dance music DJ, seem facile: there’s an over-reliance on on-screen graphics to get us into the mindset of a DJ, all x-ray vision of hearts beating, and text hymning the power of 128 beats-per-minute (even as we learn there are other dance music styles which are slower and faster than this), and when it gets to its core message about finding one’s own voice, emphasising the musical authenticity of sampling real-world sounds and actual musical instruments, it kinda loses me. It also ropes in its female lead and Cole’s love interest, Sophie (Emily Ratajkowski), for one particularly flat scene where she just has to dance seductively at him while he plies his magical art and mansplains a bunch of stuff that she at least has the acting talent to pretend isn’t really obvious, but the audience surely aren’t so fooled. So yeah, these guys, they’re not my friends, and I remain unclear as to why some of them are anyone’s friends, but the film makes Los Angeles look pretty special, and it proves once again that a poor script and a dudebro mentality is no impediment to the pure expression of Efron’s acting art (not that I’m about to watch That Awkward Moment to bolster my argument).
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW Director Max Joseph | Writers Max Joseph and Meaghan Oppenheimer | Cinematographer Brett Pawlak | Starring Zac Efron, Wes Bentley, Emily Ratajkowski | Length 96 minutes || Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Thursday 27 August 2015
I think we’re all familiar with this type of film. I mean, it’s not a million miles away from her sister Sofia’s work. Gia Coppola’s debut feature deals with white teens living in prosperity in the titular Bay Area city, but laden down with ennui, knocking disconsolately about from house parties to school to family homes, all empty with desperation. It’s an ensemble piece, based on a series of short stories by multi-hyphenate James Franco (who has a sleazy supporting role as a teacher here), but at the heart of this group of schoolkids is Emma Roberts as April and Jack Kilmer as Teddy. If those actors’ names sound familiar, it’s because they have famous actor parents (though Roberts’ aunt is probably more well-known on balance), so that gives a sense of the world of privilege we’re dealing with here. Still, I like this kind of thing, I like stories of aimless young people suffocated by their own artfully-designed solipsism. It’s called affluenza isn’t it? It’s all shot beautifully by cinematographer Autumn Durald, and comes together under Coppola’s steady direction, and I think it’s fair to see all these people know their subject well. It’ll be good to see where they go from here, but as for the characters, they’re largely left in limbo, but I’d wager they’ll probably be fine.
FILM REVIEW Director/Writer Gia Coppola | Cinematographer Autumn Durald | Starring Emma Roberts, Jack Kilmer, Nat Wolff, Zoe Levin, James Franco | Length 100 minutes || Seen at home (streaming), London, Friday 7 August 2015
This was released at the end of last year in the US and it should by any reasonable measure have had a UK release too (after all, there’s plenty of dross which does). It’s a story in which the central character Noni and her mother (Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Minnie Driver respectively) are from Brixton, and it even has sequences set in this country. And yet it went straight to DVD, which is why the folks from the Bechdel Test Fest thankfully stepped in to give it a mere two (well-attended) cinematic screenings. The film is packed with powerful scenes that seem to be rendered out of raw emotion, not through some intensity of over-acting but just an acuity of writing on the part of director Gina Prince-Bythewood (who has sadly not been as active a filmmaker as her short but distinguished filmography suggests). That said, I’m not sure if I’m explaining its effect well. Maybe “raw emotion” is too portentous a phrase to convey how the narrative operates. It seems to tap into a wellspring of female-centred melodramatic tradition — of the artist (here a pop/R&B singer) trying to reconcile her work and public image with her private desires (towards cop and nascent politician Kaz, played by Nate Parker) — without actually quite being that. The plot synopsis could suggest some kind of Notting Hill refit, except that it’s not a comedy either. It’s a serious-minded romantic drama that treats its characters with respect, even when they don’t respect themselves. It’s also packed with some of my favourite scenes from any of this year’s films, just for their sheer straightforward punchiness, and for Mbatha-Raw’s wonderful performance, which calls on her to shed layers of protective emotional armour not in order to secure a man, but in order to find something within herself that she can be happy with. It’s quite an achievement and it deserves your time.
SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW Director/Writer Gina Prince-Bythewood | Cinematographer Tami Reiker | Starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Nate Parker, Minnie Driver, Danny Glover | Length 116 minutes || Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Sunday 2 August 2015