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.

Black Nativity film posterCREDITS
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.

Fast & Furious 6 (2013)

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. Tyrese’s character Roman gleefully points out that Owen’s team are the mirror image of Dom’s own, and indeed they are: they’ve even managed to find the one person who matches Dwayne Johnson’s Agent Hobbs in muscle-bound size. There’s an early scene set in Moscow, which is blatantly shot on London’s Lambeth Bridge with the onion domes of St Basil’s Cathedral superimposed in the background. One minor walk-on part is created solely to poke fun at the snobbishness of English people. There’s also a delightful fight scene where Roman and Han (Sung Kang) display the kind of hand-to-hand combat skills you’d expect of racing drivers — a scene which happens to be set on the London Underground, which they managed to get into by running through some doors from a nondescript underground lair. In fact, I could scarcely recount any of the action sequences without being compelled to add parenthetical exclamation marks (!!!) with every twist. There’s plenty of this kind of stuff, throughout the film, constantly. And it’s fine, though I might be biased because one of the chase scenes takes the cars right past the cinema where I was watching the film.

Added to this is the introduction of Gina Carano (last seen in the underrated Haywire) as Hobbs’ partner Riley, who uses her martial arts skills to good effect. The women in general get plenty of chances to take part in the action, though sadly Jordana Brewster still has to be largely ineffectual now that she’s a mother, requiring rescuing at several points.

On the whole though, this is an exciting action film that does all the important things right, and adds even more pathos into the mix thanks to the gravelly-voiced laconic Diesel and the sad-eyed Sung. In fact, the latter’s fate in the third film Tokyo Drift is revisited in this film’s epilogue, and just as Fast Five brought back Letty, so this film raises the stakes for the seventh in quite spectacular style (at least, for devotees of kinetic action cinema). There’s life left amongst the Fast and the Furious yet, and I entirely expect the franchise to have rolled up every major action film star by the time they get to double digits.


Next up: After the sad accidental death of franchise star Paul Walker, it looks like the seventh episode will be delayed, but watch this blog, as they say. I remain eager to see what happens with their new recruit… It arrived eventually as Furious 7 in 2015.


CREDITS
Director Justin Lin 林詣彬; Writer Chris Morgan; Cinematographer Stephen F. Windon; Starring Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Michelle Rodriguez, Dwayne Johnson, Tyrese Gibson, Sung Kang 강성호, Jordana Brewster; Length 130 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Shaftesbury Avenue, London, Monday 20 May 2013.

Fast Five (aka Fast & Furious 5, 2011)

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’.

Of course, the family business is still nefarious — conducting heists, stealing money, being chased by agents of the law (represented most forcefully by Dwayne Johnson’s Agent Hobbs) — but the targets are, in the grand tradition, even worse criminals. It’s fair to say the film doesn’t paint a particularly flattering portrait of Rio de Janeiro (its central setting), and I think anyone would be be disappointed were their city portrayed as one of corrupt police run by criminal businessmen, with plenty of drugs and guns amongst the abject poverty. It is in some senses a generic setting — there are many similar cities in the cinematic world, few of which compare to reality (I hold no hopes for the London of Fast & Furious 6) — though Rio provides plenty of local colour. Well, Rio and San Juan in Puerto Rico, where many of the scenes were actually shot.

What marks the film out as a departure is not the introduction of Dwayne Johnson as an archetypal hard man of the law (though he is suitably rock-like in his demeanour), but the clearer narrative focus on the dynamics of a heist film. While heists have figured in the earlier films, they have been more window-dressing to the car racing at their heart. There is of course still racing here, as well as that lingering obsession with automobiles, makes and models; in the obligatory petrolhead gathering scene, the type where women are draped in short skirts over all the vehicles, you know what the protagonists are really interested in. Yet all this remains in service to the heist, and that makes for a film that sustains its extended running time with some proper tension.

Like all the films in the franchise, the makers are generous with their supporting characters, and there’s a great diversity of actors and acting (not to mention languages) on show. The cast are sourced from all parts of the world, with a few returning from the earlier films (notably Sung Kang from Tokyo Drift, and Tyrese and Ludacris from 2 Fast 2 Furious). And unlike the previous film, the women again hold their own: not just Mia, who is seen behind the wheel once more, but Israeli actress Gal Gadot as part of Dom’s gang, and Spaniard Elsa Pataky as the only honest Rio police officer.

In a sense, all of this is just a distraction in an action film if the action scenes are not done well, but luckily they are. One could cavil at the ridiculousness of many of the setups, but unlike, say, Star Trek, such things are accommodated within the genre. It would be a mistake to focus too much on what is realistic, after all, as that would work against the film’s success (action films are the real science fiction, at least when it comes to the laws of science). This is a film in which drug lords take actions that make no business sense, where people can crash through windows and roofs sustaining only a few scratches, and where cars can drag huge metal vaults through the streets at high speed in defiance of the laws of physics.

If you can accept all these things, then it’s not unreasonable to accept that Fast Five is a masterpiece. Those others probably already know they don’t like it and never will. However, I plead a pure love of cinema as my defence.


Next up: I indicated in my review above a slight concern for Fast & Furious 6, but I need not have worried after all…


CREDITS
Director Justin Lin 林詣彬; Writer Chris Morgan; Cinematographer Stephen F. Windon; Starring Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Dwayne Johnson, Jordana Brewster, Tyrese Gibson, Sung Kang 강성호; Length 130 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 19 May 2013.

2 Fast 2 Furious (2003)

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).


CREDITS
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), London, Sunday 12 May 2013.