American Psycho (2000)

If there’s one thing that Netflix is most commonly criticised for, it’s the relentless focus on the new. If you want old films generally you go to other places, like the Criterion Channel or TCM (if you’re in North America), or Mubi, or even Amazon Prime. Still, you can sometimes find some vintage classics on Netflix, and that’s the film I’m covering today, because yes the year 2000 is now a good 20 years’ away in time. I should mention, as an aside, I have not read nor at this point would I read the original novel on which this was based; it has its adherents, but I don’t think I need to welcome the voice of Mr Ellis into my life.


For Christmas Day, my wife and I watched this film, what I would now consider a modern classic (and almost a Christmas film itself), though I’m not sure I was quite so sold on it when I first saw it almost 20 years ago. If anything, I think age has only made the satire sharper and more resonant, though the core of the film remains the monologues of Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale), often critiquing popular music of the era, which he delivers in a completely straight way that only heightens their comic impact. For me the key thing the film does is blur the line between what’s actually happening and what’s in Bateman’s head, to the extent that it’s never clear where anything lies as the film progresses. It’s a film about the opulent allure of specifically American wealth creation, and a nasty dissection (as it were) of all the flaws inherent in corporate consumerism, about the way it turns society against itself, and leads to the murderous psychosis that’s at the film’s heart, and which it very clearly links to the functioning of American capitalism itself. Plus, it’s beautifully shot and acted. I wonder that Mary Harron never again had a chance to emulate its success, but this film at least stands as proof of her talent.

American Psycho film posterCREDITS
Director Mary Harron; Writers Harron and Guinevere Turner (based on the novel by Bret Easton Ellis); Cinematographer Andrzej Sekula; Starring Christian Bale, Willem Dafoe, Jared Leto, Samantha Mathis, Chloë Sevigny, Reese Witherspoon; Length 101 minutes.
Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Saturday 9 September 2000 (and most recently on Netflix streaming at home, London, Wednesday 25 December 2019).

Two Black Women Filmmakers with a Budget: Mudbound (2017) and A Wrinkle in Time (2018)

I concede this is a fairly tenuous connection to make in order to lump together reviews of these recent films by two of the most successful of recent Black women directors, but I wanted to give them some attention during my week of Black American women filmmakers, despite having reviewed already a good number of their more famous works.

Obviously Ava DuVernay has become the most well-known of the two, primarily for Selma (2014), but she made some low-key dramas like Middle of Nowhere (2012) and I Will Follow (2010) which I like even more, as well as documentaries starting with This Is the Life (2008) but recently the high-profile 13th (2016), and graduated to the big budgets with this Disney-produced fantasy adventure film.

Meanwhile, Dee Rees made a splash with one of the best coming-of-age movies of the decade, Pariah (2011), before turning her attention to the (in my opinion) underrated biopic of Bessie Smith, Bessie (2015). Her budget for her World War II-set period drama Mudbound may only have been a fairly modest US$10 million, but you can see a lot of that up on screen, one of the earlier films in Netflix’s recent run of big prestige productions which have had some crossover between online streaming and big screen presentation.

Continue reading “Two Black Women Filmmakers with a Budget: Mudbound (2017) and A Wrinkle in Time (2018)”

Hot Pursuit (2015)

I feel like I spend quite a bit of time trying to say nice things about films which aren’t objectively any good. I shouldn’t really have liked Exeter or Return to Sender to take two recent low-achieving candidates for the straight-to-DVD shelf, but they had at least a kernel of something I enjoyed within them. Hot Pursuit is no doubt competently put together by a Hollywood journeywoman — and it’s nice to see that women just as well as men can be picked on for such a thankless task — but it suffers from a fatal flaw, without which no film can ever truly achieve its potential. It has a shitty script. It has a script so insufferably bad that it contrives ridiculous plot twist upon banal cliched plot device to try to distract the audience from the fact that it makes no sense whatsoever. Now this kind of thing can be redeemed by a light touch and self-aware acting (I’d say She’s Funny That Way manages to at least partially rescue a tired and similarly-screwball scenario by such means), but neither Witherspoon as the by-the-book strait-laced Texan cop or Vergara as the sultry gangster’s wife are ever allowed to stop being shrill and incompetent at everything they do, except for a short scene of heart-to-heart bonding (I think it’s over Witherspoon’s character getting a man) and another which allows us to imagine just for the briefest of moments (like, maybe 10-15 seconds) that Vergara may turn out not to be a hideous Latin American stereotype, but another slightly-less-hideous Latin American stereotype. In fact for a woman-directed film with two women in the lead roles, it’s remarkably willing to degrade and insult them for our comic delectation — except that it’s not funny, not even a tiny little bit. Not during the “hilarious” transphobic sight gag in the opening montage, nor the “comedy” explanation of menstruation in order to get out of a fix which relies on all men being entirely unaware of either its existence or what it actually entails, certainly not during the “slapstick” sequence where they pretend to be lesbian lovers to get out of an entanglement with a redneck wielding a rifle, and most of all not for the fact that Witherspoon is apparently a trained law enforcement officer and one who is supposed to take herself incredibly seriously (for laughs, of course), yet cannot seem to do anything with any measure of professionalism. But you know, whatever. I’m sure it’s been successful and everyone who made it are happy with their paychecks and the return it’s made on its investment and etc etc. Just don’t, whatever you do, make the mistake of thinking this will be interesting or transgressive or even enjoyable just because it’s a female buddy comedy directed by a woman and passes the Bechdel Test. Because it isn’t interesting and it isn’t transgressive and it definitely isn’t enjoyable.

Hot Pursuit film posterCREDITS
Director Anne Fletcher; Writers David Feeney and John Quaintance; Cinematographer Oliver Stapleton; Starring Reese Witherspoon, Sofía Vergara; Length 87 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Monday 3 August 2015.

The Good Lie (2014)

You just have to look at the poster to get the sense that this will be (yet another) feel-good story of poor African people redeemed by magical white Western saviours, but — and I think most reviewers have pointed this out — that would be largely inaccurate. Even when Reese Witherspoon’s employment agency counsellor does appear, once our refugee heroes have made it to the United States, it’s made clear that she’s largely clueless about the refugees’ situation and constrained by many other factors from being of more help to them (though she does what she can). No, this ends up being a story primarily of three Sudanese men and one woman, in two acts: first, as they struggle as children to flee bloody warfare in the late-1980s, eventually reaching a Kenyan refugee camp; and then over a decade later when they are relocated to the United States (a programme which largely ceased in September 2001). It makes plain the struggles that they and their compatriots faced in this period — one which was never exactly top of the Western news agenda (where one African conflict somewhat shaded into all the others) — and imbues a great sense of empathy and humanity to these four embattled young people. Once the film moves Stateside (where we stay with the three guys in Kansas City, Missouri, while their sister is sent away to Boston), there’s a bit of fish-out-of-water comedy, and though one senses that the struggle narrative of the first half could easily be picked up and folded into tensions around immigrants and race, the film thankfully opts instead to embrace a hope for positive change. So The Good Lie may not be perfect, but it’s also warm-hearted and generous to its protagonists, and ultimately a fascinating story well told.

The Good Lie film poster CREDITS
Director Philippe Falardeau; Writer Margaret Nagle; Cinematographer Ronald Plante; Starring Arnold Oceng, Ger Duany, Emmanuel Jal, Reese Witherspoon; Length 110 minutes.
Seen at Olympic Studios, London, Sunday 10 May 2015.

Mud (2012)

There’s something about all those signifiers of a ‘coming of age’ story that can really raise my hackles when watching a film. The idealistic young kids coming up against the harshness of their parents’ world, the fumbling and humiliation of young love, the wistful voiceover recalling an earlier time of life. Well at least that last isn’t in Mud, and I will concede that the ‘coming of age movie’ clichés don’t totally overpower the story, but the richness and wonder of the opening isn’t really sustained throughout the whole film.

I wanted to get that positive in there early, because it’s not really fair to lead a review with the stuff that bothered me. If Mud can be praised for anything, it’s a really sure sense of place, probably because the director and many of the actors are familiar with this part of the world (the American South of Arkansas, specifically). And there is wonder in those trips up river that the young kids take, a wonder at the spectacular vista of nature in the opening shot that is undimmed in the adults as the film ends. Of course, the river as a metaphor for the onward progress of life with all its twists and tributaries is a very old and powerful one, but the specifics of this location are everything. There is the floating riverside home of the film’s central character Ellis (Tye Sheridan), the island inhabited by Matthew McConaughey’s modern castaway Mud, and the pearl fishing undertaken in a dramatic diving helmet (almost steampunk in its stylised antiquity) by Michael Shannon, playing the uncle of Ellis’ best friend Neckbone.

There’s also nothing shabby about the acting. McConaughey is introduced with cigarette clenched between his teeth, drawling a few enigmatic pseudo-profundities to the kids on the sandy beachfront of the island, but he moves well beyond a one-note caricature of the man with a shadowy past, and over the course of the film has rounded out enough as a character that the violent dénouement (I shall say no more about what happens or the reasons for it, for the usual spoilery reasons) comes as a bit of a surprise, puncturing the atmosphere the film has hitherto created. The young Tye Sheridan, as the actual heart of the film, carries off his role without too much recourse to wistful blankness at what’s happening around him. I liked Jacob Lofley too as Neckbone, in particular his constant compulsive recourse to gauche profanity as if it made him feel more like a knowing grown-up, not to mention his gruff direct questioning of the adults.

Reese Witherspoon too does what she can with Juniper, Mud’s love interest who appears to be waiting for him in a nearby town. The problem is that the female characters are very much at the mercy of the men in the story — certainly not subservient by any means, but, as characters, largely defined by the way the men talk about them. For this, above all else, is a film about (admittedly misguided) patriarchal attitudes as passed down from fathers to sons. All the adult male characters talk about women, share their bad experiences with love, and create an environment wherein Ellis’s central journey (that coming of age story) is to move past these preconceptions with the help of McConaughey’s societal misfit. And if that all seems a little bit too neatly orchestrated, then there’s also the way the script introduces characters (Sam Shepard’s grizzled old veteran Tom, in particular) with skillsets all too convenient for the way the film resolves itself.

Ultimately, the film tries too hard to draw out profundity from the murky depths of these characters and sets itself up for a slightly unsatisfying conclusion. Ellis’s character arc is so predicated on his emotional coming of age that the life-threatening situations he is put in barely seem to register. It’s instead the final shot, refocusing again on the spectacular Arkansas landscape, which provides the key to where the strengths of the film really lie.


CREDITS
Director/Writer Jeff Nichols; Cinematographer Adam Stone; Starring Tye Sheridan, Matthew McConaughey, Sam Shepard, Reese Witherspoon; Length 131 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Tuesday 14 May 2013.