Thursday, February 16, 2017

MOONLIGHT


In over a decade of watching over 200 movies a year, and trying to seek out independent movies, I've never seen a film about gay black men.  That's really quite something when you think about it.  And so it's deeply refreshing and heartening to see MOONLIGHT capture critical praise.  That said, while I found much to admire in its intent and some of its performances, it was a less moving and impressive watch than I had anticipated.  

The film is written and directed by Barry Jenkins, based on an unproduced play by Tarell Alvin McCraney and is based on their childhood experience of growing up gay in a deeply dysfunctional black community in Florida.  What's impressive is that they manage to subvert the stereotypes of the black drug dealer and the crack whore, and the entire concept of masculinity by showing us what they know. The result is a film that feels claustrophobic and melancholy - of a community that is fundamentally dysfunctional, in which its members feel trapped, but where there is some slight hope of escape. It's also a community that feels odd to English eyes insofar as it's so un-diverse - the only white face we see is a cop.

The formal structure of the play carries over to the film: we meet our protagonist at three ages, in three thirty-five minute segments.  In the first part he's a skinny schoolkid called Chiron (Alex R Hibbert), bullied for being camp, who finds solace from his crack addict single mother with a drug dealer called Juan (Mahershala Ali) and his girlfriend, Teresa (Jangle Monae).  Against all expectations, it's the drug dealer who proves caring, understanding and comforting - even going so far as to tell young Chiron that he doesn't need to figure out of he's gay yet, and even if he is, he shouldn't feel ashamed of it.  Moreover, Juan is morally complex, at once judgmental of Chiron's mother's drug addiction, but also conscious that he's the man selling to her.  The power of Ali's performance in this segment is quite dazzling, and I'm not sure the film ever really recovers from his absence.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

BEWARE THE SLENDERMAN


BEWARE THE SLENDERMAN  is an exceptionally well made documentary about two schoolgirls in Wisconsin who tried to stab a school-friend to death in 2014 because they thought this would please a mythic internet creation called The Slender Man.  The documentary has amazing access to the girls' parents, their friends, and uses footage of the girls being interviewed by the police and calling home from prison, resulting in an intense and provocative viewing experience.

As one would expect, Irene Taylor Brodsky's documentary spends a lot of time exploring how lonely children with access to the internet can find themselves sucked into online communities where fictional worlds become alarmingly real.  But she goes far beyond a simplistic media panic over unsupervised surfing time.  Because just as Slender Man - a modern bogeyman - did have a profound hold on the girls, we need to ask why they resorted to violence when thousands of other teens merely liked the youtube videos or read or created fanfic.  

The documentary gives us two potential answers. The first, is that the girls are mentally unwell. Morgan's father is dealing with schizophrenia and her parents and lawyers posit that she two suffers from hallucinations. It would be easy to understand how, for such a girl, the boundary between a fictive and real person instructing to prove herself and so become his proxy might be powerfully evocative.  And then there's Anissa's mother who suggests that she exhibited a psychopathic lack of empathy as a child, reacting in an abnormal way to watching the death of Bambi's mother.  The second answer is that these two girls were unusually isolated - picked on at school - playing almost exclusively with each other - so that there was no-one to counter their obsession with Slender Man or point out that he wasn't real. 

Friday, February 10, 2017

THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE


THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE is a consistently hilarious, smart and actually rather moving animated comedy from the team that brought us THE LEGO MOVIE. It's easily the best DC movie in the current reboot, and that includes the gloomily nihilistic Nolan films that it spoofs. To be sure, to get the most out of the film if you're familiar with many many iterations of Batman on screen - from the early Adam West TV show, through Michael Keaton to Nolan and the Battfleck.  But you don't need to be a fanboy - just someone who's lived through the last decades of pop culture enough to understand the tropes that this film is ribbing - the idea of Batman as a hugely egotistical psychologically damaged billionaire whose very existence requires the very supervillains he wants to protect his city from.  

In this film, Will Arnett plays Lego Batman as a lonely douchebag obsessed with his own abs, reluctant to let anyone into his life for fear of losing them as he lost his parents years ago. His deliberate isolation is broken when adopts a son (Robin - played by Michael Cera) while distracted by the pretty new Commissioner Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson) and butler Alfred (Ralph Fiennes) forces their intimacy by revealing to Robin that one of his two dads is Batman.  The emotional arc of the story is thus whether Batman can admit that he likes having a family of sorts - Albert, Robin and Barbara.  And that he even likes having the Joker around. Meanwhile, the plot sees the Joker abandon his usual band of Batman villains to recruit an even scarier evil army of assorted fictional villains (everyone from King Kong to Sauron) to force Batman to acknowledge that he's his arch-enemy.

Monday, February 06, 2017

LADY MACBETH


Nikolai Leskov's nineteenth century Russian novel about a bored housewife driven to an affair is given the big screen treatment in debut-feature director William Oldroyd's handsome and beautifully acted new film.  The story is transposed to northern England but kept in period and stars the charismatic and intense Florence Pugh (THE FALLING) as the titular wife, Katherine, married off to the son of a local landowner and expected to provide an heir despite his evident distaste for her.  Bored literally to sleep and sexually frustrated, she begins an affair with the groomsman, Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis), with a recklessness that draws the attention of the household staff and eventually her father in law and husband who return home in succession to restore discipline. So far so predictable - this is the stuff of Bovary and Chatterley. What's different here is that Katherine is an incredibly strong - perhaps controversially strong - character, who will not allow herself to be betrayed and tossed aside as Emma Bovary was.  And for those familiar with the Leskov text, or indeed the Shostakovich opera, screenwriter Alice Birch makes narrative choices that further emphasise the control and power that Katherine exerts.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

HACKSAW RIDGE


HACKSAW RIDGE is Mel Gibson's re-telling of the true story of Desmond Doss, a deeply religious US soldier who fought in the Pacific against the Japanese and won his country's highest military honour despite being a conscientious objector.  Doss refused to hold or fire a weapon but went into battle as a combat medic. And when his company was forced to retreat in ignominious circumstances, he stayed on top of Hacksaw Ridge and single-handedly rescued over seventy men.  He attributed his success and his survival to his faith, and overturned the prejudices of the men who thought him a coward.

It's easy to see why such material would appeal to Mel Gibson, a man whose faith is a quite extreme version of Catholicism, and whose films are obsessed with a close-up and cloying depiction of violence.   What Gibson isn't interested in are female characters or emotional nuance.  The result is a film, with a script by Robert Schenkkan (THE PACIFIC) and Andrew Knight (THE WATER DIVINER) that is heavy-handed, emotionally manipulative, and full of cliches and cheesy dialogue, and yet despite all this contains moments of great power and tragedy.

The first half of the film is a kind of PRIVATE BENJAMIN slash FORREST GUMP remake but with Andrew Garfield (THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN) cast as a kind of goofy simpleton.  He just wants to marry his gorgeous nurse sweetheart and protect his fellow soldiers in war despite his objections to holding a gun. We learn in flashback that this stems partly from a backyard scrap with his brother that nearly killed him, but also the example of seeing his father, traumatised by his experience of World War One, turn into a violent alcoholic.  In this section, Vince Vaughn gets to do his usual comedy schtick as the fast-talking mean Sergeant who wants to bully Doss out of the army.  Poor Teresa Palmer gets nothing to do as Doss' girlfriend except to look pretty and angelic and to be utterly supportive.  Indeed the only moment of real cinematic value is Hugo Weaving, who with his portrayal of the tortured ex soldier Papa Doss seems to be acting in another film entirely.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

LOVING


Richard and Mildred Loving were a mixed race couple from rural Virginia who fell in love and wanted to make a life for themselves surrounded by family, on an acre of land on which Richard intended to build Mildred a house.  But in 1958, inter-racial marriage was illegal in Virginia, so they had to get married in DC, and even then, were victims of local police who imprisoned them and ran them out of the state.  And there they could've stayed were it not for this quiet and unassuming couple's deep desire to raise their children in their home town - their quiet stubborn refusal to be denied their dream.  So they returned, in subterfuge, and Mildred, the more vocal and gregarious of the two, wrote a letter to Attorney General Bobby Kennedy.  This was then passed to the ACLU, who took up the case as a way of getting the Supreme Court to over-turn anti-miscegenation laws more generally.

The genius of writer-director Jeff Nichols' approach is to make a film that is an intimate portrait of a loving couple, and to follow their approach in being resolutely uninterested in the big courtroom drama that their marriage provoked.  There's a moment about half way through this film when the two young eager ACLU lawyers show up, full of glee and awe at being able to try what could become such a landmark case. But the Lovings themselves are uninterested even in attending the Supreme Court hearing.  They continue to do what they always wanted to do - just live a quiet married life in a quiet rural town.