Black Nativity (2013)

I spoke in my review of Song One about what it is to watch movies on flights, and once again I find myself second-guessing my own response. Was I tired and emotional, did the altitude and atmosphere allow me to drop my critical guard? Because I really liked Black Nativity, and certainly outwardly it has a lot of elements that would usually ring major alarm bells. For a start, it’s unashamedly corny, but also unapologetically Christian — the title should make that much evident. It would be easy, in other words, to be cynical and dismissive. But however programmatic some of the character interactions may be — and this, being a morality play (and indeed, based on a play), leans heavily on allegorical characters grappling with moral choices — it frames them in such a way as to give them real force of conviction.

To a large extent, I think the film’s success is to do with the musical register (and I’m a sucker for a musical), a form which is very tolerant towards the melodramatic emotionalism the film strives for, as characters turn to song to work through their feelings. But it’s also to do with the performances, and you couldn’t really hope for a more accomplished company, both in terms of acting (Forest Whitaker and Angela Bassett play the central character’s estranged grandparents, a minister and his wife), and singing (Jennifer Hudson as the kid’s mother, and Mary J. Blige as a guardian angel), within which Jacob Latimore as troubled teen Langston holds his own very well. It hardly bears repeating the story, for as with many musicals (or indeed any opera), it cleaves to some fairly broad strokes: Langston and his mother Naima have been served with an eviction notice for their Baltimore flat, so Naima sends her son off to Harlem to stay with his grandparents, with whom she had severed contact when he was born for unclear reasons, the revelation of which is folded into the film’s denouement.

In pushing all its elements to a melismatic musical climax at the grandfather’s Harlem church, the film embraces the ideas of family, love, forgiveness, and just simple joy in boldly straightforward ways that had me caught up in tears, though I recognise that other responses may be available (especially if you are less forgiving of the story’s embrace of Christian spirituality). It also, not incidentally, testifies to a range of contemporary Black American experiences without lapsing into the overplayed cinematic terrain of gangs and violence, and celebrates a powerful history of cultural achievements — not least Langston Hughes, whose play the film is based upon, and after whom the central character is named (other characters’ names evoke Aretha Franklin, and Naima recalls for me John Coltrane’s standard of that name). Still, its critical reception seems to be largely middling to negative and that makes me wonder if we all saw the same film. The Black Nativity that I saw is a glorious achievement.


© Fox Searchlight Pictures

FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Kasi Lemmons (based on the play by Langston Hughes) | Cinematographer Anastas Michos | Starring Jacob Latimore, Jennifer Hudson, Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett, Tyrese Gibson | Length 93 minutes || Seen on a plane from Istanbul to London, Wednesday 9 September 2015

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Fast & Furious 6 (2013)

NB The eagle-eyed will note that I’ve decided to add half stars to my ratings scale. I will also be updating some past ratings to take this into account.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW: Fast and Furious Week || Director Justin Lin | Writer Chris Morgan | Cinematographer Stephen F. Windon | Starring Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Michelle Rodriguez, Dwayne Johnson, Tyrese Gibson, Sung Kang, Jordana Brewster | Length 130 minutes | Seen at Cineworld Shaftesbury Avenue, London, Monday 20 May 2013 || My Rating 3.5 stars very good


© Universal Pictures

Having now seen all five of the previous films in the space of a week, it’s hard to really be objective here. In some ways this sixth film in the series is less tightly structured and less single-minded (less good, in a word) than the one immediately preceding it, Fast Five (2011). And yet it can’t help now but be part of a richly-detailed world for those who’ve followed along, a world with its own skewed logic, its own laws of physics, and its own strangely touching code of honour. The film constantly slows down for moments of familial bonding that are at times brazenly sentimental, it mixes and matches settings, villains and languages in an almost arbitrary way, and it causes all kinds of (mostly bloodless) carnage in its wake, but it’s sort of sweet, and not a little bit thrilling too.

The fifth film set up the return from the dead of Michelle Rodriguez in its epilogue, and her character Letty here becomes the focus for Vin Diesel’s Dominic, her boyfriend and by now the emotional core of the franchise. There is of course a greater villain on the loose (Owen Shaw, played by Luke Evans) who has his own evil team, and they are on the hunt for some kind of superweapon, but though that motivates the reformation of Dom’s team and plenty of the action, it’s the relationship between Dom and Letty (and by extension, the team) that forms the film’s heart. There’s a strong familial ethos (Catholic, one presumes) that binds them, signified by the importance attached to Letty’s necklace with its silver cross, and this is even borne out by a prayer at the film’s close.

Yet the filmmakers are by this point fairly cavalier with most of the comic book circus surrounding this core. Continue reading “Fast & Furious 6 (2013)”

Fast Five (aka Fast & Furious 5, 2011)


FILM REVIEW: Fast and Furious Week || Director Justin Lin | Writer Chris Morgan | Cinematographer Stephen F. Windon | Starring Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Dwayne Johnson, Jordana Brewster, Tyrese Gibson, Sung Kang | Length 130 minutes | Seen at home (Blu-ray), Sunday 19 May 2013 || My Rating 4 stars excellent


© Universal Pictures

Of the five films in the Fast & Furious franchise so far, the fifth is certainly the best. That’s not to say it isn’t as loud and stupid as many of the others, and there are definitely caveats, but you have to look at films within the genres they inhabit. As a loud and stupid action film, it is triumphant.

There are probably several reasons for this, but for me the most successful aspect of the series is the comradely fellowship that the lead characters by now have with one another. There is more than one scene of various members of Dom (Vin Diesel)’s team hanging out, and though there are disagreements and sometimes fights, they are all ultimately respectful of one another. Probably the nicest example in that regard is when ex-cop Brian (Paul Walker) and his girlfriend, Dom’s sister Mia (Jordana Brewster), share some good news to this extended ‘family’.

Continue reading “Fast Five (aka Fast & Furious 5, 2011)”

2 Fast 2 Furious (2003)


FILM REVIEW: Fast and Furious Week || Director John Singleton | Writers Michael Brandt and Derek Haas | Cinematographer Matthew F. Leonetti | Starring Paul Walker, Tyrese Gibson (as “Tyrese”), Eva Mendes, Cole Hauser | Length 107 minutes | Seen at home (Blu-ray), Sunday 12 May 2013 || My Rating 1.5 stars disappointing


© Universal Pictures

If the first film was a bit perfunctory with its plot, this second instalment pushes it into the entirely forgettable. The villain here is an unctuous drug dealer Carter (Cole Hauser), whose shadowy trafficking ring Customs have been trying to infiltrate. It’s when they capture the first film’s protagonist Brian (Paul Walker) at an illegal street race in Miami, that their plans take a new tack. Since the first film, Brian has been on the run from the law, making ends meet via winnings from street racing (illustrated in a short film/teaser trailer, included as an extra on the Blu-ray). With the promise of a clean slate, he is now conscripted back into the crime-fighting cause, and must pick a partner. He chooses former friend and ex-convict Roman (played by Tyrese Gibson).

Questions of exactly why Brian needs to get a partner, and just what value street racers have to Hauser’s drug lord, are barely addressed. Maybe they were and I wasn’t paying attention (I concede my mind may have wandered during some of the early scenes), or more likely they just don’t matter. In any case, the film has plenty of ways to distract one’s attention from the gaping plot holes.

Eva Mendes plays the drug lord’s girlfriend — and is possibly a federal agent as well, though the possibility is held out that she may have gone rogue — who glamorously crosses the screen in a succession of flattering dresses. The street racing is still going on, under the auspices of local impresario Tej (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges), who has his own little tricks for making the race scenes more exciting (a spectacular and ridiculous bridge jump in the opening sequence, which one of the drivers wisely opts out of). There’s even an all-woman racing crew under his sidekick Suki (Devon Aoki); I am particularly fond of the scene where the various drivers are tinkering with their engines, cosmetically daubed with oil, except for Suki, whose blindingly white dress is entirely free from any kind of smudges.

I’d hardly want to be particularly strident in proclaiming the film’s progressive agenda, though: there are still plenty of scantily-clad women dotted around, even if a macho misogynist Spanish driver gets his deserved and amusing come-uppance at Suki’s driving hands. It is, however, worth pointing out there’s a fairer racial balance in the film from the first one, with more of a buddy-sidekick dynamic at play between Brian and Roman. Some of this may be down to the film’s director, John Singleton — still most famous for his debut Boyz n the Hood (1991) — and if this outing is the most blandly commercial of his films, it’s still put together with plenty of zip (as you’d hope for in a film of this title).

Ultimately, like the others in the series, 2 Fast 2 Furious represents a throwback of sorts. Thematically it’s not unlike a juvenile delinquency film of the 1950s (the title of the series is after all taken from one such), and in style like an buddy-cop action film of the 1980s. This, combined with the sun-blanched Floridian settings, call to mind the recent action of Parker (2013). Neither are particularly groundbreaking, but they do have their transient pleasures.


Next Up: The series gets back on track with a new director and a new location in The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006).