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

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Things Behind the Sun (2001)

Allison Anders has had a somewhat patchy relationship with film success, though I’m not quite sure why. Her Grace of My Heart (1996) deserves far wider renown than it perhaps has, and she returned to a music-based theme with this film five years later, which tracks a journalist for a vinyl obsessives’ magazine, Owen (Gabriel Mann), as he writes a piece about an up-and-coming Florida indie rock band fronted by Sherry (Kim Dickens). For all that it occasionally moves into slightly hokey TV melodramatic territory, this is for the most part really very assured work, with a dark palette suited to its milieu of grimy bars and gig venues, and a confident storytelling appeal. That the backstory into which the journalist delves deals with rape can also be difficult to less confident filmmakers, but Anders makes this a story about a rounded and complex character who has trauma in her past, rather than about an outsider’s response to it. When Owen tries to inveigle himself into this narrative and make it about his own role and how he deals with it, the film doesn’t so much belittle him as just insist he allow some perspective — Sherry putting her hand up to his face and walking away as he tries to empathise. The acting is uniformly strong (particularly from Dickens and the ever-dependable Don Cheadle as her manager/boyfriend-of-sorts), and it has a confidence to it that rewards attention.


FILM REVIEW
Director Allison Anders | Writers Allison Anders and Kurt Voss | Cinematographer Terry Stacey | Starring Kim Dickens, Gabriel Mann, Don Cheadle | Length 120 minutes || Seen at home (streaming), London, Tuesday 19 January 2016

LFF: Petting Zoo (2015)

BFI London Film Festival This film was presented at the London Film Festival, introduced by its director (with a small baby in tow) who stayed for a Q&A afterwards, which sadly I was not able to attend due to having another film across town.


I haven’t read many other reviews of this film as it’s quite recent, but I’m guessing a lot of them — including, oh hey, mine as well — are going to name-check Richard Linklater’s work, particularly Boyhood (because of its San Antonio, Texas setting), and they’re going to mention Juno (because of its teen pregnancy themes), but these are superficial reference points. If it has something of a thematic similarity to the latter, that’s pretty much where it ends, because Petting Zoo is very careful to avoid the writerly cliches and the self-conscious quirk of that style of film, preferring a far more naturalistic rendering of the world. The teens here talk like, well, like teens — with all the laconic self-absorption you’d expect, but also a healthy measure of unselfawareness. Layla (Devon Keller) is a good student, and has just received a scholarship to the University of Texas Austin, but has no real sense of direction or indeed much of a home life to speak of (her parents are only really around for one scene, enough for us to grasp why she might not want to live with them). As the film opens, she is hanging out with Danny, a guy her friends are quick to brand a loser when she just as quickly ditches him to move back in with her grandmother. So when she finds out she’s pregnant, it’s not obvious to her what she should do, especially when another guy, a much nicer one, shows up in her life. Acting awards tend to go to ostentatious displays of actorliness, but Keller does excellent, unshowy work at being sort of blank a lot of the time, which can be frustrating for an audience but is exactly right for where Layla is in life, and if there’s a sense of that life closing inexorably in (as so often there is in teen films, always heavy on the dystopia), it’s something the film never gives in to, though you worry at times that Layla might. For all its well-worn themes and situations, Micah Magee’s film nevertheless manages to find an interesting take on these turbulent life events.


FILM FESTIVAL FILM REVIEW: London Film Festival
Director/Writer Micah Magee | Cinematographer Armin Dierolf | Starring Devon Keller | Length 93 minutes || Seen at Ritzy, London, Friday 16 October 2015

Orion: The Man Who Would Be King (2015)

From the prominent BBC Storyville credits, I’m assuming this documentary was made for TV, and in a way it’s sort of appropriate to that format as it’s about a guy that time and fate has pushed into the background. Jimmy Ellis, who performed under a mask and the stage name Orion for a period in the late-70s and 1980s, was a tall man from Mississippi with a very distinctive singing voice, in that he sounded exactly like Elvis. However, he was no impersonator — he tended to distance himself wherever possible from Elvis — but just desperate to pursue a singing career. This is how, despite being brought up on a farm, he ended up taking a gig following the death of Elvis as the mysterious masked Orion, a mystique that his manager at Sun Records insisted upon as a way for him to succeed. The documentary makes its way through his life with some talking heads (including surviving family members) and testimony as to both how much he wanted the life, and how much he was exploited by those who saw the chance for a quick buck (very little of which Jimmy saw) out of this beautifully-voiced but fairly ingenuous guy. It’s a fascinating story for those of us (like me) unfamiliar with the legend, and a sad one, though that much seems clear from the outset — you never get the sense that Ellis was ever destined for real stardom. Still, it’s a sweet little film. Ellis seems like he was a gentleman, and those left behind remember him fondly, plus there are some surprises along the way (specifically about his possible genealogy), so it holds the viewer’s interest.


© Entertainment One

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Jeanie Finlay | Cinematographers Mark Bushnell and Steven Sheil | Length 86 minutes || Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Tuesday 29 September 2015

Sicario (2015)

I’m not a ‘real’ film critic, I just bash away reviews here on the internet for my own amusement, and that of a small handful of readers, who I imagine are only intermittently engaged even then. So when I don’t like a film as much as I feel I’m supposed to by the ‘real’ film critics, I tend to get self-deprecating and assume there’s something wrong with me. You, for example, may love the taut, tense atmosphere established in the brooding first hour of Sicario, beginning with its portentous explanation of the title (something about the Hebrew scriptures, I’ve kinda forgotten, but the film poster says it means “hitman” in Spanish). You may find the apparent moral complexities of the scenario set on the US-Mexican border deeply involving, in which those running the operations (Josh Brolin’s Matt, in league with Benicio del Toro’s Alejandro) have a shadowy identity unknown even to our nominal hero, the quiet and studious FBI agent Kate (Emily Blunt). I don’t want to put you off going to see the film, and it does have its strengths, hence my tentatively positive review. I’m on the level about the atmosphere, for example — it really is very well set up by Canadian director Denis Villeneuve (whose mindfuck Enemy was most recently on UK screens), with a laconic script and plenty of long-shots suggesting at times that we’re watching surveillance footage. We see Kate in action with her FBI team at the outset, uncovering a home filled with dead drug mules (somewhat in the grisly style of Se7en) and rigged with explosive devices, and from there, scarcely rattled, she is swiftly co-opted into Matt’s team via a series of unseen (to her) high-level meetings.

It’s just that, for all the efficacy of its portentous tone, none of the insights seem particularly believable, though the key to that I suspect is that audiences want to believe that the US government operates shadowy black-ops teams who — and here be spoilers, albeit without any names, as these are explanations the film doesn’t indulge until about halfway through — co-opt Colombian drug cartel hitmen to help take control of the Mexican drug trade so as to better… I don’t know, assassinate all the bad guys? In that sense, it all feels a bit 80s. By the time the film gets to its denouement, its titular hitman is as potent a symbol of pure imperialist ideology as anyone out of a Tarantino flick; he might as well be wearing shades and quoting scripture. Certainly the moral complexities seem to evaporate in a haze of Mexican dust and dead bodies, as certain members of the audience emit nervous (or perhaps triumphant, depending on where you’re watching) laughter at key scenes of torture and bloodshed. Meanwhile our apparent hero Kate, despite being an FBI agent, entirely lacks agency within the film, and the times she does attempt to step up, she’s quickly rebutted by violence and intimidation. In this way, it certainly reveals patterns of male violence and controlling behaviour as well as some rather confrontational attitudes towards immigration, but then so did Touch of Evil, a film with which Sicario certainly shares a setting and a few moral grey areas, with Kate and her legal-trained FBI buddy the audience’s stand-in for Charlton Heston. Still, if you’re going to stand up to such a towering work of cinema then Sicario does pretty well all told. Just be prepared for a lot of guys, guns and nasty business.


© Lionsgate

NEW RELEASE ADVANCE SCREENING FILM REVIEW
Director Denis Villeneuve | Writer Taylor Sheridan | Cinematographer Roger Deakins | Starring Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin, Benicio del Toro | Length 121 minutes || Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Wednesday 23 September 2015

Buttercup Bill (2014)

Released to UK cinemas in the same week as Miss Julie, I reckon these two films make an interesting, if somewhat dispiriting, double-bill. Stylistically they couldn’t be more different, but they’re both films about a creeping sense of (male) sexual violence that permeates the life of a woman, in this case Pernilla (Remy Bennett, one of the film’s co-writer/directors). It’s good that the film gained a release, as in many ways it feels equally akin to the experimental textures of Josephine Decker’s Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, another story of psychosexual dread in a liminal setting. Here we have the humid climes of Louisiana, and the characters’ vices seem conveyed right from the off by their parched, raw voices, constantly dragging on cigarettes or downing booze. The dread I mentioned is for much of the film kept in abeyance, a recurring hint towards some childhood trauma involving an unseen dead girl called Flora. Following the funeral, Pernilla goes to see Patrick (Evan Louison), the brother-like figure with whom they grew up, and they rekindle a relationship that gradually becomes more dysfunctional and perverse. In many ways it’s the atmospherics of the location, the Christian imagery of the set design, and the gorgeous cinematography which convey this mood rather than anything inherently prurient in the camerawork (excepting perhaps a trip to a strip club), but I get the sense of an assured direction from newcomers Richard-Froozan and Bennett. Definitely filmmakers worth keeping an eye on.


© Blonde to Black Pictures

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Directors/Writers Émilie Richard-Froozan and Remy Bennett | Cinematographer Ryan Foregger | Starring Remy Bennett, Evan Louison | Length 96 minutes || Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Thursday 10 September 2015

6 Years (2015)

It’s surely impossible to give proper time or consideration to every new micro-budget semi-improvised US indie relationship drama out there, though it’s heartening to see this kind of thing giving breaks to potential new filmmakers, even if too many seem to take their relationship cues from the songs of Taylor Swift and the like. (That’s unfair: I love the songs of Taylor Swift.) Still, the stories and characters are all largely familiar if you’re already part of the urban-dwelling white middle-classes, but perhaps it can at least be said that some of characters’ emotional arcs are less well-explored by mainstream filmmaking. With 6 Years the story is, yes, about a young white middle-class couple (in the hip bit of Texas), but I reckon there’s still plenty to be interested in. The characters are nicely drawn — Mel (Taissa Farmiga) seems to be still a student and has a tendency to lash out at Dan (Ben Rosenfield), who has music-label aspirations and his own problems with being a mansplainey avoider of responsibility for his actions — which include a new, increasingly intimate attachment to one of his work colleagues, Amanda (Lindsay Burdge). The acting on the part of the two leads is excellent (Farmiga had a small but memorable role in The Bling Ring, while Rosenfield was largely comatose in Song One so it’s nice to see him more active here). It may not go in an entirely feel-good direction by the end, but in a way it’s more honest to its characters, and that much makes both the ending and the film as a whole feel more assured — and in a way, hopeful — at least to me.


FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Hannah Fidell | Cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo | Starring Taissa Farmiga, Ben Rosenfield, Lindsay Burdge | Length 80 minutes || Seen at home (streaming), London, Tuesday 15 September 2015

Dallas Buyers Club (2013)


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Director Jean-Marc Vallée | Writers Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack | Cinematographer Yves Bélanger | Starring Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Garner, Jared Leto, Steve Zahn | Length 117 minutes | Seen at Genesis, London, Thursday 20 February 2014 || My Rating 2 stars worth seeing


© Focus Features

There’s no doubt that Matthew McConaughey has been turning in some excellent acting performances of late, but once again with this film (as with the similarly critically-feted Mud last year), I find myself unable to quite understand what all the fuss is about. The performance, yes, is very good, but the film it’s in service to seems to be made up of well-worn familiars of the genre, and held together by an unflashy style that occasionally shows sparks of editing flair, but is mostly fairly workaday. It’s hardly a disease-of-the-week teleplay, but the style is not a million miles from a TV movie. Or perhaps I am just reacting to grumpily to that very first appearance of the title cards in Times New Roman. It doesn’t take much sometimes.

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12 Years a Slave (2013)

There have of course been American films that deal with its slave-owning legacy before, but this film directed by black British artist Steve McQueen feels somehow different. Perhaps it’s because previous films have more blatantly pandered to liberal white guilt, with their narratives focusing on those opposed to its practice amongst the nation’s (white) lawmakers — a route taken on several occasions by Steven Spielberg in particular, such as with the long-winded Amistad (1997) or Lincoln (2012). Then there’s Tarantino’s recent (and, shall we say, morally dubious) Django Unchained which pushes its story of slave and master into hyperbolic fantasia. 12 Years is still a story of slavery as a system from which escape is possible — it’s based on a true story and I hope, given the title, you won’t be surprised if I reveal the title character gains his freedom after 12 years — but in its telling illuminates plenty of appalling detail to this once most pervasive of practices.

The title character is one Solomon Northup, a musician living as a free man in New York state, who on a visit to Washington DC is abducted and sent to the south to be sold as a slave by Paul Giamatti’s trader, who off-handedly gives him a new name. Solomon’s first master is the relatively benign William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), who works in the logging trade, and gives him a violin to play his music on. When Solomon provokes the ire of one of Cumberbatch’s (white) overseers, he is sold on to Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), a far more cruel man running a cotton plantation. There’s a brief season where Solomon goes off to a sugar cane plantation, before finally he is able to convince Canadian labourer Bass (played by a positively beatific Brad Pitt) that he is free and to get word to his friends in the north, thereby setting in motion the events that see Solomon released. The outcome of this story, though, is not really the key to the film (not least because the title reveals it), as it was hardly a turning point for the institution of slavery, and it’s that institution the reality of which the film is most at pains to get across.

It does this through the close focus on Solomon and those he works with, particularly the young Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), another slave owned by Epps, for whom, being born into slavery, there is little succour on offer. She does fairly well by her own wits at first, but the limitations of her severely curtailed position soon become clear — Epps’s fondness for Patsey is a source of discontent for his wife (Sarah Paulson), who ensures that Patsey is first in line for Epps’s rage. The film mounts up a series of disturbing punishments — whether the whipping of Patsey, or the attempted lynching of Solomon, who is left uncomfortably hanging by his neck in the mud, a scene which is drawn out to an almost excruciatingly degree.

I think it’s this scene that best shows off McQueen’s style, such as it is. It’s not a self-consciously show-offy directorial style (like that of Tarantino, say), but given the kind of story being told, that’s probably most appropriate. McQueen makes his point in this scene through a subtly shifting point of view over the course of just two sustained and carefully-composed shots. The first is a long take from in front of Solomon as he is cut down from the hanging tree, but only enough for his toes to be able to touch the muddy ground below. Slowly the other slaves start to come out from their huts and resume their work, all the time Solomon in the foreground is struggling to stay alive. It seems unconscionable, even within the context of their situation, but when at length (after a few minutes), McQueen cuts to a reverse view from behind Solomon, it becomes clear that the overseer is pacing watchfully about on the verandah. There are plenty of other scenes like this that make clear the slaves’ powerlessness; none of it is surprising of course, but the film’s tone doesn’t seem hectoring or angry — there’s scarcely any need to manipulate the audience’s feelings beyond merely depicting the circumstances of Solomon’s life. In this respect, the Hans Zimmer score is unusually underplayed, recalling some of the musical textures he explored in The Thin Red Line (1998).

It’s a serious film and, in its way, a beautiful one, though one wonders just what one should take away from it. The obvious fact of slavery’s reprehensibility as an institution is made here, and made well. Solomon may escape, but it’s as painfully clear to him as to us that most others in the situation do not share his circumstances or education, and have no hope for escape, just strategies for mitigating their suffering. Solomon is seen to draw on these during his ordeal, as his initially confident and headstrong demeanour is slowly ground down. However, it’s that very escape promised in the title that makes the film bearable to watch, though no less heartbreaking.


© Fox Searchlight Pictures

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Steve McQueen | Writer John Ridley (based on the autobiography by Solomon Northup) | Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt | Starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong’o, Michael Fassbender, Sarah Paulson, Benedict Cumberbatch | Length 134 minutes || Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Sunday 12 January 2014

My Rating 4 stars excellent

Homefront (2013)


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Director Gary Fleder | Writer Sylvester Stallone (based on the novel by Chuck Logan) | Cinematographer Theo van de Sande | Starring Jason Statham, James Franco, Izabela Vidovic, Winona Ryder | Length 100 minutes | Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Monday 9 December 2013 || My Rating 2.5 stars likeable


© Open Road Films

Jason Statham has been plugging away at playing the cinematic hardman in a series of taut if unchallenging action films (like this year’s Parker) for the best part of the last decade, and by this point largely exists in a separate cinematic universe where he is a major star. He may never trouble any of the backslapping industry awards for achievements in acting, but in his genre he’s a far more notable figure than, say, James Franco, which is why it’s rather a surprise to see Franco here. Then again, Franco has a notable sideline in taking roles for what I can only call the WTF value, so perhaps I’m overstating my case. At any account, Statham is the real draw and if the pleasures of this retrogressive B-flick are firmly in the right-wing vigilante-justice side of the ledger — Statham’s former undercover cop Phil flees the big city with his daughter after a big showdown with a gang leader to lead a quiet life by the Louisiana bayous, but trouble predictably follows him — it’s still enjoyable for what it is.

Continue reading “Homefront (2013)”