Criterion Sunday 120: How to Get Ahead in Advertising (1989)

There’s a gleeful absurdism at work here that’s hard to deny has some pleasure, though I found it overwrought, almost stretching too hard to be considered “cult” (familiar territory for director Bruce Robinson, this being his follow-up to Withnail and I). It’s a High Thatcher British culture media satire and Richard E. Grant is its high priest, an ad exec pushed over the edge by zit cream, forced to account for his work to a boil that grows from his neck and threatens to take over his identity and his life. There’s a do-you-see #SATIRE quality that I find strained, but maybe it’s the very soul of anarchic comedy genius. It certainly has its admirers, and Grant certainly isn’t sparing any actorly extreme in his dual-role performance.

Criterion Extras: Aside from the transfer and the liner notes, there are no extras here.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Bruce Robinson | Cinematographer Peter Hannan | Starring Richard E. Grant, Rachel Ward | Length 94 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 18 September 2016

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Criterion Sunday 118: Sullivan’s Travels (1941)

Of all Preston Sturges’ output — he had a glorious run in the 1940s, in particular — this is the film that tends to get most often featured as his pinnacle. And yet, and yet. I assume I’d be missing the point to say this is a film about an absurdly privileged paternalistic condescending white man, a film director no less, who learns a Truth about poor folk: that comedy films are what the people want and that he’s been wrong to speak down to his audience. I mean, as far as Lessons go, it’s a good one, but it does rather require sitting through a lot of Joel McCrea being a pampered, pompous cretin. After all, he’s been wanting to make a serious work of Art, a disquisition on the plight of Man: O Brother, Where Art Thou? (it was left to the Coen brothers many years later to imagine just how this director character might have fused drama and comedy). Of course, yes, Sullivan’s Travels is a commentary on the operation of class privilege, but yet there’s plenty in the film that still irks me (as just one example, that he showed no contrition whatsoever for assaulting a railway worker with a rock). The ending suggests Sturges’ intentions are good — and the scene in the church with the black pastor is beautifully moving — but as a comedy it has a streak of meanness to it that makes it a frustrating film for me at least. Veronica Lake as “the girl” (nice work with that name) doesn’t impress as a great actor on this outing, but I love her character’s attitude for much of the film, at least, and could have stood to see more of it. I don’t wish to dispute the film’s Great-ness overly, but it just impresses me less than Sturges’ other films upon rewatching.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Preston Sturges | Cinematographer John Seitz | Starring Joel McCrea, Veronica Lake | Length 90 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 4 September 2016 (and earlier on VHS at university, Wellington, March 1998)

Dear White People (2014)

It’s worth celebrating this film for what it is and what it achieves, rather than cavilling about the things I wish it had done. After all it is rare enough to see a mainstream depiction in a film from the United States of lives other than privileged white kids, especially within a stylistic framework that equally evokes Wes Anderson (the Ivy League-like setting additionally recalls his Rushmore) and Stanley Kubrick (whose Barry Lyndon gets referenced via some of the classical music cues), amongst others. In fact, given the film’s budget, it’s a wonder that it looks as good as it does, shot in crisp bright colours, beautifully lit and with a lot of frontal framing of the film’s black faces. It’s in these boldly direct images that the film scores highest, with challenges to such things as racial power dynamics (the myth of black ‘racism’ for example) and the crassness of media representations of minorities, generally delivered by its forceful leading lady Tessa Thompson (playing a character called Sam White, head of her college house’s student body).

Aside from the titular radio show in which Sam delivers further challenges to her collegiate audience, the film is filled with other references to the co-optation of ‘authentic’ black experiences by privileged white people (all the college’s houses are named after black jazz musicians, there’s a reference to the audience for aggressive rap music largely being non-black, while the denouement involves a staging of a hiphop-themed party at a white fraternity). Meanwhile, its other lead character, the student journalist Lionel (Tyler James Williams), moves from being stand-offish around his black colleagues as a show of resistance to black stereotypes, to being part of their movement to challenge campus-based racism. His arc seems to reference Spike Lee’s Mookie in Do the Right Thing, though his climactic rage at the white fraternity he was a part of has less of the power of Mookie’s trash can moment in that film, possibly because none of the white characters here are in any way sympathetic (or indeed given particularly rounded roles — not that that’s a problem, of course). The narrative also becomes more conventional as the film progresses, dissipating some of the early excellent character work and humorous barbs.

However, much as I wish it had been angrier — its target seems almost quaint within a media landscape currently dominated by stories of murderous police aggression — it never allows the power of its black protagonists to be co-opted or dissipated within the dominant power structures. I look forward to further films from this cast, and from writer/director Justin Simien.


© Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Justin Simien | Cinematographer Topher Osborn | Starring Tessa Thompson, Tyler James Williams, Brandon Bell, Teyonah Parris | Length 108 minutes || Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Monday 13 July 2015

Step Up: All In (2014)

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Seen at Vue Westfield [2D], London, Thursday 7 July 2014 || My Rating 3 stars good


© Summit Entertainment/Lionsgate

There seems to be a fair amount of critical sniffiness about the Step Up series of modern dance masterpieces. A lot of the reviews I skim past on Rotten Tomatoes seem to think the acting is bad, or the whole enterprise is somehow fundamentally flawed, but yet I don’t see it. The quality of the acting may not be comparable to the stuff that wins awards, but comparing them would be a foolish undertaking. The acting is perfectly matched to the setting, to the genre and to the ambitions of the producers: the acting is perfect. What this latest instalment of the franchise does that’s new is that it brings back the leads from previous films to star together. Thus far, each film has had two (admittedly white) lead characters, a man and a woman, who over the course of the film come to respect and finally love one another through their shared passion for dance. So far, so generic, and it’s a formula slavishly followed here. Now two of the best of them return, somewhat like the filmic equivalent of one of those reality TV shows like Top Chef where periodically they do a season featuring previous season winners. So we have Ryan Guzman as Sean from the Miami-set Step Up: Revolution (2012) and Briana Evigan as Andie from Baltimore-set Step Up 2: The Streets (2008) — which incidentally are also the two strongest films from the franchise so far, in my opinion. Backing them is an ensemble featuring plenty of familiar faces to viewers of the series, including a larger role for the adorable “Moose” (Adam Sevani) after his cameo in Revolution and his now-partner Camille (Alyson Stoner).

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Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues (2013)


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Director Adam McKay | Writers Will Ferrell and Adam McKay | Cinematographer Oliver Wood | Starring Will Ferrell, Steve Carell, Paul Rudd, David Koechner, Christina Applegate | Length 119 minutes | Seen at Cineworld Enfield, London, Monday 23 December 2013 || My Rating 2 stars worth seeing


© Paramount Pictures

It’s surely the most trailered and hyped-up release of the season. There were few places to turn where Will Ferrell’s Anchorman persona, newscaster Ron Burgundy, has not popped up at some point ever since he announced the return on US late-night TV talkshow Conan well over a year ago. The original film of 2004 has found an ever more committed fan base since being released to DVD and remains familiarly quotable. With the sequel, the setting has moved forward a bit from the mid-1970s to the early-1980s, and from the West coast of San Diego to the Big Apple of New York, meaning all the period references have been overhauled. There are a huge number of additional cameo appearances, and all the core cast have returned. So maybe that explains why the feeling of finally sitting in a cinema to watch this return was so deflating for me. I can’t say it entirely lacks laughs, but it does lack cohesion. I don’t doubt the cast had fun making it, but the experience of watching it is a little wearying, especially for a comedy film that nudges two hours in length.

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The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Director Francis Lawrence | Writers Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt (based on the novel Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins) | Cinematographer Jo Willems | Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Stanley Tucci | Length 146 minutes | Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Sunday 24 November 2013 || My Rating 3 stars good


© Lionsgate

Blockbuster franchises by their nature always seem to be perfect for teenage viewers, more than ever in recent years. I suppose that Peter Jackson’s Tolkien adaptations skew a little older, just as that seemingly unending Harry Potter series went for the younger ones. But even amongst the crowded marketplace, The Hunger Games has set itself rather above the competition to my mind. That said, I haven’t read the books, and I don’t think the films are perfect by any means, but they flesh out a credibly multilayered world with a more dystopian bent than you might expect given the target audience, and occasional flashes of cutting satire. Most of all, the series has for its lead actor Jennifer Lawrence, who’s been carving out quite a niche in playing resourceful young women since her breakout performance in Winter’s Bone (2010). This second film in what’s shaping up to be a tetralogy is another notch in her acting belt and a proficient change of pace for the franchise.

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