What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? (2018)

Another film that seems relevant to recent political and social crises is this documentary from 2018, re-edited in a shorter ‘director’s cut’ the following year (where it also screened at the Sheffield Doc/Fest). I’ve seen critiques of the film from Black critics, a sense of it as being overly aestheticised and a little removed perhaps from the lives and struggles it’s showing, but the director was keen to emphasise the collaborative nature of the work.


The director was presenting a ‘director’s cut’ of this film (at 106 minutes, slightly shorter than the version premiered at Venice last year and shown at the 2018 London Film Festival), and though I can’t compare the two versions, this is a beautiful monochrome-shot film about a few different Black experiences of life in and around New Orleans. At times there’s some of the quietly observed quotidian reality that you get in, say, RaMell Ross’s Hale County This Morning, This Evening, or a hint at the kinds of generational stories in the TV show Treme, not to mention a panoply of images that recall a myriad of great films about the American South, even at times a sense of a staged performance (as during Judy’s literal performance in her bar near the end of the film). However, this feels like a film that’s not quite observational documentary but a sort of collaborative improvisation, in which Minervini (as he was careful to stress in an on-stage Q&A afterwards) wanted to present voices and stories that were not and could never be his own, and to respect them. So all those familiar stories, about Black peoples’ lives and deaths, about trying to move beyond trauma, or sometimes the inability to do so, these are presented in a graceful, economical manner — you’re never far from the trauma, but that doesn’t feel like the totality of experience by any means. Judy in her bar, the Mardi Gras Indians sewing their elaborate costumes while singing, the two boys playing outside and alongside railroad tracks, Judy’s mother doing her washing out the front of her home, even the New Black Panthers organising and handing out meals and water to local homeless people or protesting the deaths of Black men at the hands of police, all of these moments are both filled with joy and hope even while being inflected by countless stories, memories and history, ones spoken about and others unspoken. There are three central groups of characters in this film, but there are hundreds of stories in every sequence I think, and that’s what Minervini is great at capturing.

What You Gonna Do When the World's on Fire? film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Roberto Minervini; Cinematographer Diego Romero; Length 106 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Friday 12 April 2019.

Out of Blue (2018)

Carol Morley has been a key creative figure in British cinema for over a decade, having made such films as the exemplary hybrid documentary Dreams of a Life (2011), as well as The Falling (2014), a film tinged with as much mystery as her latest film, a US-UK co-production set in New Orleans.


People really dislike this film, it turns out, having looked up some reviews while forming my thoughts, and that really surprises me for some reason. There are aspects of the film that feel to me somewhat over-written at times, the way all those little images and sonic clues come back full circle to gain meaning within the plot later on, not to mention that boldly astrophysical subtext — cinematic strategies that  certainly aren’t always pulled off with any great success in other films. And yet I think director/writer Carol Morley has a really strong feeling for atmosphere, in evoking memory and trauma, an almost spiritual presence that exists beyond the frame. At times it comes across somewhat like a woman’s take on Twin Peaks in that sense, of unsolved mysteries, a woman spiralling out of control, and rather less like, say, the noirish-ness of Destroyer, another recent film about a veteran woman detective coming apart. Also, Patricia Clarkson is a wonderful actor, perhaps the closest that the North American cinema has to Isabelle Huppert. So, yes, I rather liked this film.

Out of Blue film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Carol Morley (based on the novel Night Train by Martin Amis); Cinematographer Conrad W. Hall; Starring Patricia Clarkson, Toby Jones; Length 109 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Sunday 31 March 2019.

Criterion Sunday 166: Down by Law (1986)

One of Jarmusch’s early minimalist existentialist black-and-white films, structured around a fairly genre setup (crimes, trials, imprisonment, escape) without bothering to show any of the mechanics, just the interpersonal relationships of its three leads. It really looks gorgeous thanks to Jarmusch cannily recruiting Wim Wenders pre-eminent DoP of the 1970s, Robby Müller, and the style works well within that high-contrast black-and-white frame. The New Orleans/Louisiana setting is used well for its expressive architectural and natural possibilities, though the film is a little less sure-footed when it comes to race, which you’d think would be a bigger part of a story from that part of the world. But what it does do, it does with exemplary finesse, that same spare deadpan storytelling that Jarmusch would continue to deploy throughout his career. There’s also a memorable comic turn from Roberto Benigni, a figure who would become far more grating in the following decade.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jim Jarmusch; Cinematographer Robby Müller; Starring John Lurie, Tom Waits, Roberto Benigni; Length 107 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 6 August 2017.

Girls Trip (2017)

At some level this is a black women’s twist on a gross-out comedy, which is not traditionally a genre I’ve liked, and yet… It may be too long (at 122 minutes, a good half-hour could easily have been excised), it may be quite mean about celebrity gossip journalists and women posing for selfies on Instagram (I felt like something personal was going on there), it may wrap things up with an excess of saccharine (though admirably focused on women’s friendship with one another rather than on men), but it really is very funny. At times it’s exceptionally funny, especially Tiffany Haddish as Dina, a performer I wasn’t aware of before, but whom I now expect to be in everything, and deservedly so (the scene where she imagines her revenge on a cheating man is satisfying in so many ways). It also features quite the most unexpected male nudity.

It feels like Bridesmaids was in the writers’ minds as a touchstone (not least because they have an actor, Kate Walsh, apparently doing her best to imitate Kristen Wiig), but it also has the brio of Magic Mike XXL in both its setting in the American south (here New Orleans), and its single-minded focus on the buddies-on-a-trip narrative (the presence of Jada Pinkett Smith helps in that regard; she and Queen Latifah also inspire a sweet shout-out to Set It Off, a real 90s classic of the black women buddy genre). Plus, the focus on the women means it dispenses with some of the unpleasantness that marked the women characters in the same director’s The Best Man (1999).

In all, a top comedy, which really deserves its success.

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Malcolm D. Lee; Writers Kenya Barris and Tracy Oliver; Cinematographer Greg Gardiner; Starring Regina Hall, Queen Latifah, Jada Pinkett Smith, Tiffany Haddish; Length 122 minutes.
Seen at Odeon Holloway, London, Wednesday 2 August 2017.

Bayou Maharajah (2013)

This film seems to have had a long trail from festivals to release, and as there’s a 2016 date at the end of the credits, I assume there’s been some re-editing in the interim. It’s certainly an interesting piece, not least because its subject is himself an interesting character (James Booker, a multi-talented largely-jazz pianist from New Orleans; black, gay, one-eyed) but also one who is relatively obscure: obviously this isn’t more than anecdotal evidence, but I’d never heard of him. That said, the director here makes the choice to present much of his music in full and that’s a strong statement about the quality of his playing, something a lot of music documentaries (even ones about acknowledged ‘geniuses’) don’t do. And yes those performances are worth watching in full.

Bayou Maharajah film posterCREDITS
Director Lily Keber; Writers Keber, Aimée Toledano and Tim Watson; Cinematographer David S. White; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Monday 18 July 2016.

Now You See Me (2013)

Magic and cinema have always seemed to be a good fit, though the kinds of things that will impress a crowd in the live setting are obviously different from those depicted on screen; after all, we flatter ourselves that we understand a little bit of how image makers can manipulate reality. Movie magic depends on a different alchemy, and unfortunately it’s one that the makers of Now You See Me aren’t quite up to providing, though for the most part it’s a jolly ride.

The story introduces four illusionists with different skills: Daniel (Jesse Eisenberg), whose chief skill appears to be supercilious smugness; Merritt (Woody Harrelson), a louche ‘mentalist’, very good at reading people; Henley (Isla Fisher), an escapologist; and Jack (Dave Franco), whose expertise I’ve already forgotten. They are recruited by a shadowy hooded figure into teaming up as the Four Horsemen to engage in a series of high-profile robberies, redistributing their filthy lucre from banks and insurers to others in society who are less fortunate. Obviously this becomes a cue for the movie to drop all kinds of hints and misdirects as to who this mysterious arch-manipulator might end up being. Is it Michael Caine’s insurance magnate? Morgan Freeman’s embittered ex-magician turned internet debunker of magic acts? Grumpy federal agent Dylan (Mark Ruffalo) or his mysterious French partner Alma (Mélanie Laurent), both of whom are in hot pursuit of the four?

The movie is breathlessly propulsive in its forward momentum, staging grand magic acts on a variety of stages (from Las Vegas to New Orleans to New York), car chases, heists, breathless pursuits across rooftops, and the like. However, these amount to mere parlour tricks for distracting the viewer’s attention, much as in Star Trek Into Darkness or Olympus Has Fallen (my other candidates for silliest film of the year, comparisons which will either be heartening or depressing depending on your own point of view). Director Leterrier’s style appears to be never letting the camera stay still. There are swooping crane and helicopter shots interspersed with dizzying spins around actors. At the very least it is disorienting, at its worst it can just be confusing. The script at times doesn’t reach much further, and there are supporting characters whose dialogue is entirely formed from crime film clichés, which would be a Godardian provocation if you didn’t suspect they’d just run out of ideas.

What is a bold provocation is making your four leading characters so unlikeable; indeed, Laurent as the French detective is probably the only sympathetic character in the film. Perhaps all illusionists are similarly cursed, but I suspect it’s a side effect of having to play tricks on people for your livelihood. For the film this could have been a fatal flaw, but for the protagonists’ crimes being against an even less sympathetic group: financiers. Thankfully, too, the actors bring some big screen charisma to these cast-offs, and there’s occasional delight in their ability to get one over the gruff Ruffalo and the incompetent forces of the state.

It’s a difficult trick to perfect: taking your time and money and making you thankful for that, and I can’t say Now You See Me entirely succeeds. And yet, whatever its drawbacks, I did enjoy it. It may not linger in my memory for very long, but there are worse ways to pass a few hours.

CREDITS
Director Louis Leterrier; Writers Ed Solomon, Boaz Yakin and Edward Ricourt; Cinematographers Mitchell Amundsen and Larry Fong; Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Mark Ruffalo, Woody Harrelson, Morgan Freeman; Length 115 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Shaftesbury Avenue, London, Monday 17 June 2013.