Criterion Sunday 152: George Washington (2000)

I really like this spare, fugue-like elegy for the dispossessed in all its overtly Malickian sensibilities. Perhaps seeing it at a film festival when it was released, before a lot of other filmmakers had jumped on that particular ride (and the one who made this had very much jumped off), was more surprising but there’s still beauty and warmth, in those magic light colours of a place where the South meets the rust belt, and the feeling in the non-professional actors. A really vivid take on the coming of age that does most of its thematic work in little vignettes of community life and almost throwaway dialogue, preferring stretches of contemplative reflection of quiet desuetude.

Criterion Extras: Besides a trailer, there’s also quite a few interesting extras, most notably two student short films by Green, Pleasant Grove (1997) and Physical Pinball (1998). Both share quite a few similarities with George Washington, which lifts the first’s story of a boy with a stray dog who can’t take it home as a little detail for George. While this first one is a sweet slow little film that sets up some ideas that would be progressed by the feature, the second feels more fully rounded. It’s about a father-daughter relationship (both actors would return for the feature), and has a nice sense of how out of his depth the father is after his wife has passed.

Along with these is A Day with the Boys (1969), a short by actor Clu Gulager, a wordless film with a hazy nostalgic tone, all slo-mo running set to plaintive trumpet (very much of its era), jazzed up with all kinds of visual touches. It all turns a bit Lord of the Flies, as I suppose many days with the boys will, but it’s a diverting mood piece.

Aside from this there’s a Charlie Rose interview with a (very young!) David Gordon Green, which covers a few of his influences, not to mention some insights about how he cast and shot the film, though it is quite short. A deleted scene of a town hall meeting imparts a sense of some of Green’s verité reference points, as the camera does quick zooms and pans in the style of those fly-on-the-wall documentaries from the 60s. Finally, there’s a short piece interviewing its child stars a year after release in 2001, as they expound on how it was to make the film, and some of their aspirations.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer David Gordon Green | Cinematographer Tim Orr | Starring Candace Evanofski, Donald Holden | Length 89 minutes || Seen at Te Papa, Wellington, Friday 20 July 2001 (and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 7 May 2017)

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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 | Cinematographers Greg Gardiner | Starring Regina Hall, Queen Latifah, Jada Pinkett Smith, Tiffany Haddish | Length 122 minutes || Seen at Odeon Holloway Road, London, Wednesday 2 August 2017

Uncertain (2015)

At a certain level, this could be a documentary about the crippling environmental effect of a fast-spreading algae across an inland lake on the Texas-Louisiana border, by the town of the film’s title… Except it’s not really about that, it’s instead about a few of the town’s residents, men lost to the world and to themselves, just trying to get by, find meaning, abide. The film creates a deep atmosphere of damaged people trying to repair their lives, while in the background others try to save the lake by essentially introducing the kind of biological conflict the humans have been trying to move away from (weevils that attack the algae; violence permeates the film). Anyway it’s all beautifully shot, with some of the finest scenery you’ll see.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Directors/Writers Ewan McNicol and Anna Sandilands | Cinematographer Ewan McNicol | Length 82 minutes || Seen at ICA, London, Thursday 16 March 2017

Selena (1997)

I’ve dedicated this as a year of catching up with classic movies, and 20 years on from Selena‘s release, I’d heard this film had become something of a classic — at least, amongst those whose experiences it reflects. After all, like I’m sure plenty of British people, I don’t know anything about Tejano music or cumbia, or indeed about the singer at the heart of this story. Incredible as it may be, it’s true that this film wasn’t made to reflect or reconfirm anything I experience or know about the world — but that’s a quality I like in films and I like it here. Sure you could say it’s about all those ‘universal themes’ (growing up under a demanding father, finding your voice in the world, love against the odds or at least against aforementioned father, all that kind of thing), but it’s grounded in a specifically Texan (or ‘Tex-Mex’) reality, of sparkly 90s fashion, and of music I have already confessed to knowing nothing about (so won’t say anything about). I do like that the director enters the story via mainstream ‘white’ music with the backstory of Selena’s father Abraham cross-cut with her 1995 set at the Houston Astrodome, which incidentally illuminates the outsider experience of America — a fascinating topic now as ever. I like too Jennifer Lopez’s performance, but I’ve always been a fan of her acting. It’s a full-throated biopic that tips occasionally into melodrama and has the hint of hagiography but on the whole is radiant with life and colour (where it could easily have been about death and tragedy).


FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Gregory Nava | Cinematographer Edward Lachman | Starring Jennifer Lopez, Edward James Olmos, Jon Seda | Length 127 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 28 January 2017

Moonlight (2016)

I am hardly the person to attempt a critique of this film, for so many reasons, at so many levels, so take my comments as just a brief personal response to a film that will be sure to be in many top-10 lists this year and next (it’s not officially released in the UK until February).

I found a great deal to appreciate in the filmmaking, which, for all the limitations of its budget and shooting/rehearsal time (as the director talked about in a Q&A after my screening), has clearly been constructed with a lot of care. It follows a tripartite structure, three ages of a character, three different acts in one life, which is also refracted as multiple lives in a sense. The first character we see (Mahershala Ali’s Juan, whose role is confined to the first part of the film) is a reflection of the man the protagonist Chiron (at that point called ‘Little’) becomes by the film’s third part, and it’s tempting to read some of the same feelings into Juan that Little/Chiron/Black is grappling with.

The milieu the director is playing with at once seems all too familiar (something almost of clichés, and certainly of too many bad ‘ghetto’ dramas) but never follows the expected contours, such that the scenes are infused with the constant expectation of violence, and even when they don’t play out that way, a strong sense of trauma is still conveyed, a sense of an experience lived in this place, which is also (partially) the director’s own.

Ultimately, for all its formal gravitas — the polished lighting, the (presumably intentionally) dizzying camerawork, the music and orchestral score, the structure — despite all this, the heart of the movie, and what I liked so much in it, was in the acting: all three of the actors playing Chiron at different ages (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and then Trevante Rhodes) do wonders with very few words. The character of Chiron and the way he develops puts across the generational pain of toxic masculinity in a powerful way. It also, I hope — I really hope — augurs more films exploring its particular intersection of identities, because it also feels like a film that’s trying to make up for a lot of missed opportunities.


Moonlight (2016)

ADVANCE SCREENING FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Barry Jenkins (based on the play In the Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney) | Cinematographer James Laxton | Starring Trevante Rhodes, André Holland, Ashton Sanders, Alex Hibbert, Naomie Harris, Mahershala Ali | Length 110 minutes || Seen at Curzon Mayfair, London, Monday 5 December 2016

Bessie (2015)

I may not always have felt bowled over by the filmmaking here — attractive and well-staged as it is, there is a sense of conventionality to its telling, with a script that rushes through Bessie Smith’s career, pausing for some portentous slow-motion flashbacks and overlaid by an orchestral score that often drowned out any subtlety — and yet, YET. The performances are all uniformly fantastic, starting with the wonderful, too often underrated Queen Latifah as the blues singer of the title, all a-sparkle in those glamorous 20s and 30s show dresses, but also conveying a naked vulnerability and a streak of wilful non-conformism. Latifah has been doing great acting for at least 20 years (at least in the roles that I’ve been seeing her in on screen, starting for me with 1996’s Set It Off), but the plaudits extend too to all the supporting cast. As this is an HBO production, many of them are most familiar from their television work (Michael K. Williams as Bessie’s partner, and Khandi Alexander as her sister are only the most prominent), but I don’t think anyone argues anymore that this is any lesser a platform for screen narratives, and I found myself wishing at times this had been a mini-series instead. But no, Latifah makes Bessie greatly watchable with a performance worth celebrating, whatever other drawbacks the film may have.


SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW: BFI Black Star
Director Dee Rees | Writers Dee Rees, Christopher Cleveland and Bettina Gilois | Cinematographer Jeff Jur | Starring Queen Latifah, Michael K. Williams, Khandi Alexander, Mo’Nique | Length 107 minutes || Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Thursday 20 October 2016

American Honey (2016)

It’s a long, meandering journey across parts of America that too few other films have documented, and there’s a lot here that really is beautiful and diverting. To see those boundless roads, those sprawling suburban homes, the strip malls and motels that lie in the interstices, the young people living precariously, dumpster diving, doing rubbish jobs, all to make ends meet. It’s not entirely new exactly — exploring the lives of the young, suburban precariat seems to be something of a niche sub-genre these days — but there’s a genuine energy to Andrea Arnold’s use of non-actors and her beloved Academy ratio to box up an unpalatable society. At some level it’s possible to develop an empathy towards most of the characters — even Shia LaBeouf’s exploitative, slightly creepy boss Jake (and he is definitely on the abusive side at times, for all his charm at others), who himself reports to an even more venal and demanding one (in the form of Krystal, as played by Riley Keough) — not least newcomer Sasha Lane in the central role of Star, who does very well indeed.

And yet, for all that I admired about it (loved even at times, more than in many of Arnold’s films), I can’t say I fell for the film in its entirety. Much of the weakness I think lies in the script. Indeed, I didn’t really believe that the job the characters are doing (selling magazines door to door) still exists, and for me there was a strong sense that issues were being raised along the way that were never really tackled. For example, others have written persuasively (here’s one piece at Fishnet Cinema and here’s another at Gal-Dem, both by women of colour) about Arnold’s deployment of race: Lane is half-black, yet there are no other significant black characters in the film (a crack-addicted mother, and the almost-dreamlike — because so fleeting — encounter with another, black, crew). Much of the music is excellent, but a lot of it comes from a specifically black perspective, and using African-American vernacular which is parroted by Krystal’s crew without any apparent self-awareness (undoubtedly due to their youth; one gets the sense that the music itself may have come from the cast rather than Arnold). Krystal wears a Confederate flag bikini at one point, but her ‘redneck’ status never comes into play at a dramatic level. Moreover, there are no racialised conflicts in the film, though as a strategy Arnold seems in general to be avoiding overt conflict in favour of setting up situations that seem to be going that direction, before defusing them or taking another route. Structurally, the film does this continually: building up an impression for the audience of where it’s going before feinting in another direction. It’s a strength and a weakness, to my mind.

For all the reservations I have, though, as a loose, rambling take on the American journey in quest of an ever-illusory American Dream, it has a compelling quality.

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Andrea Arnold | Cinematographer Robbie Ryan | Starring Sasha Lane, Shia LaBeouf, Riley Keough | Length 163 minutes || Seen at Curzon Soho, London, Wednesday 19 October 2016

Criterion Sunday 96: Written on the Wind (1956)

Of all Sirk’s vibrantly-coloured over-the-top domestic melodramas of passionate lives curtailed by societal mores, for me Written on the Wind is the very finest. It sets up its privileged setting and protagonists over the opening credits: the Hadley family mansion in small-town Texas, where dissolute son Kyle (Robert Stack) and wayward daughter Marylee (Dorothy Malone) fight over the affections of stolid lower-class boy Mitch (Rock Hudson), an engineer who works for their oil tycoon dad, and has been friends with them all his life. Lauren Bacall plays Lucy, an advertising executive who gets married to Kyle and is able to provide an outsider’s viewpoint on the tumultuous story, but really this is about that three-way relationship triangle between the Hadleys and Mitch. This means that the homoerotic readings are certainly available, and there’s plenty of play with phallic imagery (Marylee caressing a model of an oil well is only the most memorable of many), but it all operates on that coyly suggestive level typical of the repressed 1950s. Malone won an Academy Award, but in retrospect her performance seems the very hammiest of the lot. That said, it works well within the film’s seething context, so perhaps those 50s Academy voters were just more aware of the many ironic levels of interpretation on offer here. It’s a masterpiece, in any case, and I love it.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Douglas Sirk | Writer George Zuckerman (based on the novel by Robert Wilder) | Cinematographer Russell Metty | Starring Rock Hudson, Lauren Bacall, Robert Stack, Dorothy Malone | Length 99 minutes || Seen at Paramount, Wellington, Wednesday 21 July 1999 (also on VHS at the university library, Wellington, April 1998, and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 24 April 2016)

Midnight Special (2016)

I’m not quite sure the extent to which this film has penetrated mainstream consciousness, but like Jeff Nichols’s last film Mud (2012), everyone in the critical community (and online chatterers such as myself) is talking about Midnight Special. Now, I didn’t like Mud, for the most part due to its reliance on coming-of-age archetypes, though I admired the way it opened its story, and its sense of place. Nichols hasn’t strayed too far away geographically for this latest film (it starts in Texas), and again his storytelling instincts are very strong: there’s a palpable sense of mystery and threat that hovers over much of the film from the outset. This may partially be because I didn’t know anything about the film or its subject matter in advance, but really there’s so much mystery embedded in the film — mystery which is never fully resolved — that it creates a strong desire in the audience to want to know more.

Quite whether you’ll be satisfied with how Nichols’s screenplay answers that desire is going to be a matter of difference (I’m not quite sure I am), but the acting within those key roles is rock solid, particularly from the dependably intense Michael Shannon as Roy, and Joel Edgerton as his childhood friend Lucas. We open on a cultish religious community, from whom has been kidnapped a boy, Alton (Jaeden Lieberher); the kidnappers are Roy and Lucas, and Alton turns out to be Roy’s son. This is all set out fairly quickly, but there’s clearly a lot more behind this fairly straightforward set-up, something touching on profound mysteries involving the boy, his origins and powers. In a sense, it’s like a science-fiction blockbuster film refashioned as a low-key indie road movie, which gives it a fascinating dynamic that some have linked to cerebral 70s efforts like those of Steven Spielberg, though perhaps his more recent work A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2000) would be more apposite — Lieberher reminds me particularly of that film’s Haley Joel Osment in both looks and the mysterious blankness of his character.

For me it’s a flawed film with a lot of ambition, but it has the filmmaking nous to be able to realise what it sets out to achieve, especially in those opening stretches.


Midnight Special (2016)

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Jeff Nichols | Cinematographer Adam Stone | Starring Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Jaeden Lieberher, Adam Driver, Kirsten Dunst | Length 111 minutes || Seen at Curzon Mayfair, London, Monday 11 April 2016

Magic Mike XXL (2015)

In many ways, 2012’s Magic Mike was one of Steven Soderbergh’s most purely enjoyable movies, and its box office success meant that this sequel came along a few years later, with the (retired from directing) Soderbergh on camera and editing, and ditching McConaughey, but otherwise retaining the core male characters under a new director. Reading back over my old review, it seems I was not enamoured of Channing Tatum’s work, but oh how things change in a mere few years. Tatum is a linchpin of modern Hollywood cinema and his every appearance immediately lifts a film’s enjoyability (even if it can’t always save some of them). He has shown himself to be game for a lot of things not traditionally considered the domain of the macho leading man within the Hollywood system, not least of all the demographic-pleasing direction this sequel takes.

For clearly the makers know exactly who’s going to see the film — that much was clear at the double-bill I attended — and so, far more than the first film, there’s a direct attempt to engage with women in the audience. It’s not that the film is therefore sleazy or objectifies the men, but it makes a real effort (sometimes too much) to refocus the story on the lead characters satisfying their audiences. This means that the romantic subplot of the first film is largely ditched in favour of dance setpieces, including one at an all-Black club run by Jada Pinkett Smith, another in which Mike & co. cater to a drunken party of Southern belles presided over by Andie MacDowell (her overacting finally put to good use), all building to the finale of a regional stripping competition in South Carolina where Elizabeth Banks calls the shots. Even more importantly for the audience, Soderbergh has ditched the tepid yellow filter that made the first film so distinctively ugly — this is a world of visual pleasure provided by Mike’s crew, and the camerawork does not get in its way.

A lot of people hailed the female-centric Mad Max: Fury Road in end-of-year polls last year, but for my money (and what little my opinion matters on this topic, which is not very much at all), Magic Mike XXL is the real mainstream movie champion of 2015. (It’s certainly the best performance-based sequel starring Elizabeth Banks.) It knows exactly how generic it is, and exactly how trashy it needs to pitch itself, but it somehow skirts away from the pitfalls of that gamble through sheer good-natured charm and a lot of very tight choreography.


Magic Mike XXL (2015)

SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW
Director Gregory Jacobs | Writer Reid Carolin | Cinematographer Steven Soderbergh [as “Peter Andrews”] | Starring Channing Tatum, Joe Manganiello, Matt Bomer, Kevin Nash, Adam Rodríguez | Length 115 minutes || Seen at Prince Charles Cinema, London, Saturday 23 January 2016