Saturday, October 15, 2016

CHI-RAQ - BFI LFF 2016 - Day 11

CHI-RAQ is Spike Lee’s most vivid, audacious and successful film since MALCOLM X. It’s a tour-de-force adaptation of Aristophanes Lysistrata set amidst the gang violence of contemporary Chicago - a place with a deal toll higher than that of US forces in the Iraqi and Afghan wars. Both that play and this film posit a world in which the women are so sick of war that they impose a ban on sex until the men make peace. Lee keeps the plays basic plot structure and somehow manages to balance the tonal shifts between raucous sex comedy and domestic tragedy with such confidence and success it makes the head spin to think of it. And so we have Samuel L Jackson cast as the narrator, dressed as a Harlem pimp, complete with cane and crocodile shoes, delivering rhyming couplets with such charisma, panache and, as appropriate, anger, as to make this almost a career-best performance. (It’s edged out for me by DJANGO UNCHAINED). And we have the Trojans and Greeks recast as rival gangs run by Wesley Snipes as Cyclops (a sadly relatively slight role) and Nick Cannon as Demetrius, the most recalcitrant gang member and lover to the modern-day Lysistrata - an outstanding and award-worthy performance by Teyonah Parris. Now wouldn’t that be something? If the Academy overlooked the more conventional dramatic performances that beg for nominations - Amy Adams in ARRIVAL I’m looking at you - in favour of something as balls-out brave, funny, and strong as this role? And while, we’re on the subject of adulation - how about awards for Spike Lee and screenwriter Kevin Willmott in what has to be one of the most intelligent and verbally dexterous modern day adaptations of an ancient text. To the point where I can’t wait to get a copy of the screenplay and indulge in all the in-jokes and clever rhymes I missed in the film because they were coming so fast. To be honest, there’s nothing to criticise in this film. Perhaps it could be a bit shorter in its middle section. But I can forgive a film almost anything if it features THE WIRE’s Senator Clay Davies uttering an on-screen personal best “sheeeeeet”. Thank god for Spike Lee still making films this visually compelling, intelligent, angry and emotional. How much more effective and entertaining to have John Cusack’s priest tell us that “mass incarceration is the new Jim Crow” than watching Ava Duvernay’s dry documentary, 13th. And how angry-making that it took a year for this film to be shown in the UK. If #BlackLivesMatter, can someone - anyone - get this film out there, NOW!

CHI-RAQ has a running time of 127 minutes. The movie was released earlier this year in the USA and played Berlin, Toronto and London 2016. It will be released in the UK on December 2nd.


ITS ONLY THE END OF THE WORLD is the least Dolanesque of all of Xavier Dolan’s films. Rather than a three hour epic of melodrama, often with extreme mummy issues and queer themes, set to an 80s synth-pop soundtrack, we get a relatively taught if no less histrionic 90 minute chamber drama. This is because the film is based on a stage play rather than Dolan’s own musings. The film stars Gaspar Ulliel as a famous author returning home to his estranged family after a 12 year absence to tell them he’s dying. But as the family bicker and fight and make-up over lunch, the tension mounts as to whether he’s actually going to do the deed. We sense that his tongue-tied sister-in-law (Marion Cotillard) actually figures out his news early on and tries to facilitate him telling at least his elder brother (Vincent Cassel). And it may be that the elder brother also figures it out near the end and tries to protect their little sister (Lea Seydoux) from the news. The mother (Natalie Baye) meanwhile - gloriously larger than life in typical Dolanesque form - seems to be utterly in the dark. 

A lot - then - is left unsaid, despite all the apparent swearing and emotional craziness that is on screen at all times. I left the cinema with more questions than answers, and also the sense of a lack of closure. This is presumably the point. But I wanted this film to be opened up by Dolan, both in terms of length, theme and shooting style. I wanted him to have had the artistic freedom to open the screenplay and really delve into those gritty emotional confrontations that are only hinted at in this film. I wanted him to expand on the beautifully shot and scored memories of the author’s teenage affair. And I wanted Dolan most of all to pull back his camera from the claustrophobic extreme close-up and give us more of his trademark framing and tableaux of New Romantic beauty and vividness. Sadly, without this trademark visual and aural flair, all we are left with is a vaguely claustrophobic dingy family drama in which much is left unanswered, and the viewer's interest in the underlying issues piqued but unsatisfied.  Not quite sure how, of all his work, this movie won Dolan the Cannes Grand Prix.

IT'S ONLY THE END OF THE WORLD has a running time of 95 minutes.  The movie played Cannes and London 2016 and was released earlier this year in Belgium, Canada, Farnce, the Czech Republic and Sweden. It goes on release in Russia on October 20th, in Spain on December 9th and in Germany on December 29th. The movie won the Grand Prize of the Jry and the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury at Cannes.


It appears that Tom Ford's sophomore film is controversial - with people either in love with it or damning it as dull and potentially misogynistic.  My view is that it's neither excellent nor terrible, but something far more unforgivable - boring.

Amy Adams stars as Susan - a bored rich Los Angeles art gallery owner who is growing cynical about her perfect life and the pretentious art she surrounds herself with.  Abandoned by her philandering fraudulent husband (Armie Hammer - barely used), she starts reading a manuscript of a novel her ex-husband (Jake Gyllenhaal) has written.  She basically left him because he was a romantic loser, and the novel he writes is essentially about an emasculated man who fails to protect his wife (Isla Fisher) and child from some violent slack-jawed yokels (Aaron Taylor-Johnson included).  I suspect that the point of this B-grade revenge plot is to prove that in life as in fiction, the husband was basically weak, but kind of over-came it, depending on what you make of the ending.

At any rate, I found myself looking at my watch a lot during this film. Everything was a cliche.  The bored rich housewife who dumped her arty boyfriend and regrets it is utterly banal.  The evil greedy capitalist bastard new husband.  The entire caricature of West Texan peasants as basically malevolent drunkards.   But I was particularly disappointed at the casual, quick way in which the "brutal" act Susan commits when she leaves her first husband is treated.  And even more disappointed in the fact that Ford didn't take more chances in merging her fictional and real life.  There's a flash of something Lynchian around half way through the film, but Ford doesn't follow through with a truly nightmarish living fictional blur that might have echoed Polanski at his most paranoid. 

Altogether, this is a desperately disappointing film. I didn't care about any of the characters. I wasn't swept up in any of the photography or design. Even Amy Adams clothes were underwhelming. This isn't the clever, slippery, psychologically fraught tale I was expecting. Or just a plain old-fashioned gruesome B-movie.  Move along - there's nothing to see here. 

NOCTURNAL ANIMALS has a running time of 116 minutes and is rated R.  The movie played Vence, Toronto and London 2016. It will be released in the UK on November 4th, in Greece on November 10th, in Italy and Portugal on November 17th, in the USA on November 18th, in Canada on November 25th, in Russia and Turkey on December 8th, in Germany on December 22nd and in Estonia on January 27th 2017.

Friday, October 14, 2016

BRIMSTONE - BFI LFF 2016 - Day 10

BRIMSTONE is a beautifully photographed and designed western thriller that features Dakota Fanning and Guy Pearce in fiercely committed performances.  However, it falls into the trap of seeking to portray and condemn sexual violence against women by basically showing us a lot of sexual violence against women, in such a manner and style that it almost seems to be enjoying it.  The result is a film that looks beautiful and is certainly fiercely focussed on what it wants to achieve, but which jumps the shark at several key moments, and left me wondering whether it was good with occasional misjudgments, or just plain objectionable.

The film is set in the American midwest in the mid 1800s and focusses on a young mute woman (Dakota Fanning) who is a wife and mother to two small children.  In the first of four chapters we see her incite the vengeance of a mean-spiritied judgmental preacher (Guy Pearce) out of all proportion to her apparent crime of having chosen to save a mother over her baby in a troubled delivery.  But still, in this chapter I was convinced this film was going to be a well-acted, tense, taut thriller. That is until a final act of violence so absurd it pulled me out of the film.  But that was ok, because we then moved into the second chapter, and an apparent re-set of the film, as we met a young runaway girl being picked up by Chinese travellers and sold to a brothel keeper.  This was by far the most interesting and successful segment of the film but once again utterly jumped the shark with violence by the end.  And it was notable that at both of these points in the film, a number of people walked out.  Bu the film got really problematic in its third and fourth segment, where the true nature of the relationship between the preacher and the girl is revealed in all its melodramatic, exploitative detail.

What can I say? If this movie had just exercised a little restraint and thought deeply about how to depict violence against women it might have been a really fascinating, genre-bending movie.  But the director, Martin Koolhoven, seems to have zero instinct about what's provocative and what's just offensive.  It's an enormous shame because Guy Pearce and Dakota Fanning are clearly going for something high quality here, but there's let down by a director with a tin ear. 

BRIMSTONE is rated R and has a running time of 148 minutes.  BRIMSTONE played Venice, London and Toronto 2016. It does not yet have a commercial release date.

THEIR FINEST - BFI LFF 2016 - Day 10

THEIR FINEST is a handsome and genuinely funny film that also - admirably - does not shy away from the darker aspects of life in London during the Blitz.  German air-raids kill friends - people whisper about the bad news from Poland - enemy citizens have been interned - and there's a desperation to get America into the war.  The war stirs up social conflict too - women have the opportunity to do jobs left empty by conscripted men, but not without causing resentment and facing opposition.  But the over-riding picture is one of a drab and deprived city, filmed and clothed in dingy colours, trying its best to keep its spirits up and win the war.

To that end, the Ministry of Information was charged with making not just informational films but also soft propaganda feature films - authentic and optimistic. And it's on the set of one of these that the events of this romantic comedy take place.   Gemma Arterton (GEMMA BOVERY) stars as Catrin Cole, a secretary turned screenwriter hired at a reduced wage to write "slop" - dialogue for the female characters. She's married to an artist (Jack Huston - BOARDWALK EMPIRE) who resents her financial success and finds herself drawn instead to her co-writer Buckley (Sam Claflin - THE HUNGER GAMES).  Together, they write the screenplay to a movie about Dunkirk - seeking to transform a story about an ignominious British retreat into one of wartime heroism by two plucky young girls who sail their tugboat to rescue British soldiers.  The movie catches the eye of the government who think it might appeal to American cinemagoers and so persuade them to enter the war. The only problem is, American audiences need an American hero, and a less reticent romantic ending.

The first thing to say is that this film is really very funny indeed.  Properly laugh out loud funny.  Bill Nighy is a scene-stealer as the ageing actor reluctant to play anything but the male lead. His arrogance and pomposity are a joy to behold.   He also does things with the word "semolina" when he sees an attractive woman (Helen McCrory - PENNY DREADFUL) enter a restaurent that will stay with me forever!  But Rachel Stirling is also very funny as the gay Ministry producer with some of the most acerbic lines.  Rounding out the comic trio, we have Jake Lacy (GIRLS) as the American pilot who can't act for toffee with some spectacularly good bad acting.  And then - there are wonderful one-liners or cameos from Richard E Grant and Jeremy Irons. Put them together and I laughed an awful lot at this film - maybe more than watching MINDHORN - and I laughed A LOT at MINDHORN!  

The second thing to say is that I do admire the movie's willingness to show the darker aspects to life in wartime, and indeed to tackle misogyny head on.  

But that's not to say that the film is without its flaws. The romance is a bit obvious and well-worn in its development.  The final act drags - the emotional beats are obvious.  But I can forgive any film its flaws when I can remember comic lines hours after watching it.  

THEIR FINEST has a running time of 115 minutes.   The movie does not yet have a commercial release date. 

Thursday, October 13, 2016

PLANETARIUM - BFI London Film Festival 2016 - Day 9

There once was a Romanian Jew called Bernard Natan who came to France and took over the legendary Pathe cinema studio.  He was the pillar of the movie industry - a man of power and taste. He even had an air of scandal about him - rumours abounded he had directed, and maybe even starred in, hardcore porn.  But when the Nazis came, power and influence did not protect him. He was accused of fraud, thrown into prison, and released only to be handed over to the Nazis and sent to Auschwitz. This could have made an exceptionally interesting movie, a little like CABARET in contrasting the carefree hedonism of the glamorous set with the rise of fascism just at the corner of our vision.  But that is, sadly, not the film that Rebecca Zlotowski chose to make.  Rather, she takes elements of Natan's life, recasts them, and mixes them in with elements of spiritualism and science for a film that contains far too many ideas and not enough focus.