Monday, February 10, 2020

HUSTLERS


HUSTLERS is THE BIG SHORT for working class women - a film about what happens when people dependent on the trickle-down effect of boom-era money turn desperate in the post-Lehman Brothers economy. It stars CRAZY RICH ASIANS' Constance Wu as naive Destiny, who is schooled in the art of making phat cash through stripping by smart, cynical Ramona (Jennifer Lopez).  The game is to target uber-wealthy Wall Street bankers and flatter and twerk them into spending big.  Then the crash happens.  Destiny tries marriage and motherhood but comes crawling back to New York and Ramona. Only this time they have to pro-actively fish for their prey - luring in men from bars with the promise of the night of their life. And when that proves irksomely slow-going, drugging them, stealing their credit cards, and threatening them with blackmail if they go to the police.  This being a morality tale, it isn't that easy, especially when Ramona starts taking chances of her accomplices and clientele.  But the provocative question this films asks is how far the women really deserve to be punished when the people they are ripping off already ripped off the entire economy?

The result is a film that is smart and thoughtful alongside it's dazzling dance numbers featuring an absurdly athletic J-Lo. In a performance to match her best, she and her colleagues show us the truth about stripping. Indeed, the first ten minutes of this film is one of the most depressing I've ever seen. And then we get a star-studded cameo of girls in a dressing room discussing the absurd expectations men who date strippers have - made all the more real by the fact that Cardi B used to be a stripper.  It's rare to see such an unflinching female-centric movie at all. And even more rare to have that truthfulness play out amidst enough glitz and glamour to leaven its political agenda. Nicely done, all involved. 

HUSTLERS is rated R and has a running time of 110 minutes. It played Toronto 2019 and was released last year. It is now available to rent and own. 

Sunday, February 09, 2020

UNCUT GEMS


UNCUT GEMS is perhaps the most unique and certainly one of the best films of 2019 - a surreal, 80s-vibe, darkly comic thriller, in which against all probability I became insanely invested in the largely self-inflicted travails of its hero Howard.  As played by Adam Sandler in a role reminiscent of his angry-loveable PUNCH DRUNK LOVE intensity, Howard has a life of unremitting stress. He's broken up from his wife (Idina Menzel) but still enmeshed in Jewish family dinners.  He's set up his mistress in a city apartment.  His diamond business is doing well thanks to the big music and sports buyers his middle-man (Lakeith Stanfield) brings in, and he's just been smuggled a super-valuable rock containing uncut gems. The problem is that Howard also has a massive gambling problem, and spends the entirety of the film's running time trying to fence the gems to pay the debt.  Oh yeah, and did I mention he finances his ever more gargantuan bets with mob loans?  

I was initially reluctant to watch this film because I'd heard such extreme reactions at the London Film Festival. People said it was nerve-wracking and intense - like having Adam Sandler just shout at you for two hours.  But I was pleasantly surprised at how funny the film was, and how the directors really did give the audience a chance to pause and recalibrate every once in a while - usually in a quieter family scene.  But the final act really is super-tense, and just phenomenally well crafted and I was literally on the edge of my seat. I was hugely invested in whether Howard would come through, despite his stupidity, because at the end of the day, the poor idiot is an addict, and actually he's not an idiot - there's something really impressive about his ability to keep spinning stories to keep his debtors at bay.  This is Sandler's best performance since PUNCH DRUNK and I was with him every step of the way. It's hard to think of anyone else carrying off this performance.

Phenomenal performance apart, everything about the production and costume design, the cinematography and the use of music is superb. Darius Khondji gives us  images that are at times gritty and urban-realist and at times claustrophobic and surreal and at times neon-lit 80s music video.  It's like being in a film that's at once recognisably the diamond district and at once something almost fairy-tale like.  Most of all, the Safdie Brothers have a confidence with tonal shifts that take us from casinos to auction houses and back again. This film is a tour de force and deserves to be seen. It also deserves far more awards love than it has been given.  

UNCUT GEMS is rated R and has a running time of 135 minutes.  The film played Telluride, Toronto and London 2019 and is now available to stream on Netflix. 

Friday, February 07, 2020

AMERICAN FACTORY


AMERICAN FACTORY is a chilling and provocative documentary, perfectly timed for our times.  It comes against a backdrop of a US-China trade war; suspicion of anyone who looks remotely Asian sneezing in earshot; and Andrew Yang running for President solely on the issue of the coming replacement of blue-collar workers with Advanced Robotics and white collar workers with AI and machine learning. More generally, we are living in a time where blue collar workers around the world are expressing their anger that they gained nothing from decades of globalisation other than lost jobs, stagnant real wages, and the contempt of the political parties that were supposed to be representing them. All of these issues and more are explored in this fascinating documentary - brought to us by husband and wife directors Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert, and the Obama's production company. The ironies abound in that. After all, Obama was a so-to-say left-wing president but he took globalisation for granted and did nothing to reverse the damage it inflicted on blue-collar workers.  And it becomes rapidly clear that this "American" factory is nothing of the sort - it's Chinese through and through.

As the movie opens, a Chinese global glass company called Fuyao re-opens a former General Motors assembly plant in Ohio.  The workers are happy. When GM closed during the Global Financial Crisis they lost their jobs, homes and dignity.  But the venture is a disappointment all around.  The Chinese are frustrated with the US workers apparent lack of work ethic and their constant need for praise. They seem to either be ignorant of, or have contempt for, local health and safety regulations.  And they take every action necessary to prevent the workers from unionising - from sacking the agitators, to hiring a lobbying company to persuade them to vote against unionising. Indeed the workers are dispensable: the most chilling final scene is one of advanced robotics replacing actual people. 

On the other side of the coin, the American workers are similarly disappointed.  They refuse to work the long hours and compromise their safety, or indeed environmental standards.  They want to understand the reasons for being asked to do something, rather than just following an order blindly. And they want to be in a culture where good work is rewarded - not just with a living wage, but also with simple thanks. 

This culture clash speaks to a deeper colonial racism, and the fact is that this is the first time in a long time when white people are being dominated by non-whites*.  All the racism that the European and North Americans expressed toward other races - all the economic exploitation - is now working in reverse.  So we are shocked to hear a Chinese manager say that American workers are like donkeys, and need to be placated to avoid them kicking - or that the Chinese managers have to benevolently steer the American workers because the Chinese are clearly wiser.  But this is no different to how American or European managers would've viewed Mexican or Indian workers in colonial times (and maybe not that different to how they view them today.)

I guess the real shock of this film for many viewers is that it's a really tangible example of how America is no longer the world's foremost economic power. And adjusting to being condescended to is a rather painful process for all involved.  But frankly, I found our new robot overlords far more chilling than the Chinese.

AMERICAN FACTORY has a running time of 110 minutes. The movie played Sundance where it won the Documentary Director award, Tribeca and Sheffield DocFest 2019. It is available to watch on Netflix.  *I'm thinking the Muslim conquest of Spain was the last time?

Sunday, January 26, 2020

HARRIET


Watching HARRIET a day after QUEEN & SLIM was quite the provocative double-bill. The former is a film about a true-life hero - a woman who escaped from slavery and then went back to free others - a woman who became a Union scout in the civil war, and led a military raid - a woman who campaigned for women's rights.  What would she make of contemporary America - the world where QUEEN & SLIM are forced to go on the run after facing a racist police attack?  Would Harriet feel her race had progressed at all? And what of her sex?  In HARRIET we see her under-estimated by Thomas Still - as just a petite illiterate woman who could never be an Underground Railroad conductor.  And we don't see it in this film, but we know she was never paid properly for her work as a Union Scout because she was both black and a woman. That misogyny is still present in QUEEN & SLIM - not least in the character that Bokeem Woodbine plays.  And what of the meaning of iconography and history?  Harriet Tubman's story is not often taught in schools - Steve Mnuchin resisted putting her on the twenty dollar bill, leaving slave-owning Andrew Jackson on there.  Neither the film HARRIET nor QUEEN & SLIM have had the award-season recognition they deserve. Heck, HARRIET took decades to even get made. Taken together, they make for deeply, provocatively, depressing viewing.  Slavery is illegal now, but we have a white supremacist president. A white man could walk with impunity into a rich, FREE, black woman's house in 1850 and brutalise her.  A white police offer shoots an educated, FREE, black woman in the leg in 2019 without impunity....

Anyway - let's get to the film review! HARRIET is a handsomely made biopic about a truly heroic woman. Cynthia Erivo (TV's THE OUTSIDER) plays Harriet with a fierce, earnest, anger and an almost disturbing religious certainty.  It's interesting to me that writer-director Kasi Lemmons' chooses not to interrogate how far Harriet's religious visions were just the product of being brutalised with a head injury.  In general, this is a film of earnest faith, and that may be off-putting to some. The only doubt shown that her visions are just brain damage is signalled by a character who is clearly sexist so we're being told not give them credence. I did however like how a preacher (Vondie Curtis-Hall) that we are led to believe is an Uncle Tom appeaser actually turns out to be a node on the railroad, showing us the difficult choices facing black people - having to show an outward face of conciliation while being subversive.  

Harriet never doubts herself, though, and that makes her an almost unapproachable, and certainly irreproachable heroine. Characters in this film are either all the way good or bad. The most interesting character is therefore that of Marie, played by Janelle Monae (HIDDEN FIGURES). She's an elegantly dressed free rich black woman who is roundly censured by Harriet for not being sympathetic for what it means to be a slave. But she shows her own heroism in the end. I also liked the character of a young black boy who starts off helping slave-catchers before finding his conscience.  It's also rather brave to show that black people and indeed native Americans were complicit in slavery. 

But as we rapidly move through Harriet's work on the railroad into the civil war, I did wonder at Kasi Lemmons omitting Harriet's involvement in the notorious and disastrous Harper's Ferry Raid by John Brown. Maybe this was too difficult and complicated to include - and it remains a rather controversial event. Brown was an abolitionist and so one of the good guys right! But then again his rogue militancy didn't help the cause - in fact in made it harder for the abolitionists in congress to deal with increasingly paranoid slave states. The problem is that if we don't deal with Harriet's controversial judgements, then we are left with nothing more than almost religious icon.  

Still, there's a magnetic fascination with Erivo's performance. And for those of us outside of the US who have little US history in our schooling, the film serves a worthy purpose of educating us. I hadn't been aware, for example, of just how many free blacks lived alongside enslaved blacks in Delaware, and the legal and emotional complications of mixed marriages. I also loved John Toll's cinematography.  There's a kind of cliche of the southern slave film, bathed in warm yellow light and the heat of the cotton plantation.  It's good to recognise how far north slavery went.

HARRIET has a running time of 125 minutes and is rated PG-13. HARRIET played Toronto 2019 and was released in the USA and UK last November and is now available to rent and own.  

QUEEN & SLIM


QUEEN & SLIM is a powerful and moving film - at turns hilarious and unbearably tense. It stars Daniel Kaluuya (GET OUT) and Jodie Turner-Smith as a young black couple who go out on a tinder date. He drives her home, a cop pulls them over, she tries to assert their rights (being an attorney) and ends up being shot.  He kills the cop in self-defense.  This is all done in the first fifteen or so minutes. The tonal shift is beautifully handled. We go from a beautifully observed first date between an odd couple so ill-matched that they barely occupy the same frame, to a moment of violence that's genuinely frightening.  We've all seen the video footage of real life policy brutality and racism. But in that slow build-up to the shooting I had a glimpse, for just a nanosecond, of what it must feel like to be pulled over as a black man.  It was terrifying and deeply affecting.

The rest of the film is a road movie, beautifully shot by cinematographer Tat Radcliffe.  The south has never looked so empty and so vivid and so gorgeous.  They visit with her uncle, hilariously played by Bokeem Woodbine (TV's FARGO), in a role that rises above absurdist pimp and hustler. We learn that he was deeply fucked up by Iraq and that their family history is deeply scarred. I also love the cameo role from Indya Moore (POSE) - who with barely a look can steer her supposedly macho lover into doing the right thing. It's quite the demonstration of power. 

Their journey continues. On the way we'll get one of the most sensuous joyous road-house scenes since Lynch - and it's worth saying that the music in this film is brilliantly chosen and even allows an hilarious Fat vs Skinny Luther Vandross debate. 

We also get to see both sides of the argument.  Screenwriters Lena Waithe and the notorious James Frey show us the true cost of being runaway heroes - the danger of inspiring young black kids to stand up to violence - that violence begets violence -and somehow in a world where there are black cops too, it always seem to be black people who end up dead.  

The screenwriters also pose provocative questions.  Should we really make an analogy between Queen and Slim and Bonnie and Clyde?  The movie does - riffing on the iconography of that movie - and in a meta way the kids in the film do too. But Bonnie and Clyde were genuine criminals.  Queen and Slim are law-abiding citizens in a world where the law has been made corrupt and racist. They are criminals because they are black.  

Another provocation is who we should trust.  There's a fantastic scene in a supposed safe house owned by Flea and Chloe Sevigny.  He wants to help them. She is more reluctant. Should we believe that she is tempted by the bounty on their heads? I love the ambiguity that the screenwriters are willing to make us endure.  We never know why the husband and wife are so well set up for smuggling. Or why the husband has a preternatural sensitivity to seeing the shadows of a SWAT team on his dining room wall. I almost wish that the screenwriters had left the question of whom to trust open at the end. 

Overall, QUEEN & SLIM is a truly intelligent and beautifully handled film.  Kudos to first-time feature film director Melina Matsoukas and to Lena Waithe and James Frey for their nuanced and challenging script. But most of all, kudos to Daniel Kaluuya, who goes from puppy-dog naivety and goodness to something wiser, tougher, and more fulfilled. It's an astonishing performance. First time feature actor Jodie Turner-Smith holds her own too.  But it's Kaluuya, and Woodbine in support, who really deserved the award-season recognition and I'm saddened this film hasn't received the marketing push to facilitate that. 

QUEEN & SLIM has a running time of 132 minutes and is rated R. The film was released in the USA last November and will be released in the UK on January 31st 2020. 

Friday, January 24, 2020

PAIN AND GLORY


Pedro Almodovar returns to our screens with a beautifully acted, deeply personal film about a director on the verge of a nervous breakdown. His avatar is Antonio Banderas - living in an apartment that exactly matches Almodovar's own clashes of bright colours and crazy patterns - wearing a frizzy spiky hairstyle that matches Almodovar's own.  In this most meta of texts, the director is struggling with psychological and physical pain. He is struggling to cope with the death of his mother, and suffering from tinnitus, chronic back pain, and god knows what else.  Foolishly, he decides to self-medicate with heroin, peddled by an old actor that he infamously fell out with over an early film.  When that film plays in retrospective, and the director runs scared from a Q&A this gives us one of the funniest and darkest scenes of the film.  Anyways, the heroin and the melancholy lead to flashbacks to the director's childhood - one of poverty and precocity.  He is pulled out of that poverty by an indomitable but bigoted mother (Penelope Cruz), and feels the first pangs of lust for the builder he teaches to read and write.  The final act twist takes this memory too far for my liking, but I love the idea that old love can force a reckoning, and an awakening.  In the director's case, he cleans himself up when he meets an old lover, who in turns contacts him when the old actor speaks a monologue inspired by their affair. It's telling that the director wants the play to be anonymous, but meeting the lover forces him to take ownership of his past. From then, reconciliation can begin.

The film is full of love, longing and sadness.  There are laughs, but far fewer than in a typical Almodovar movie.  The mother is not judged harshly - rather there's a lot of love and gratitude between her and her son. It's just that her religion cannot truly cope with her son's gay existence. They live in a kind of mutual lie, speaking openly but also not. Julieta Serrano, playing the mother in old age, gives the most wonderful performance of the film, second only to that of Banderas himself. It's a quiet performance. There's so much pain and fear and regret in a single sigh or look. And yet also the capacity for absurdist gonzo humour when called for. And finally, real joy. He is rightly being nominated for awards and it's a tragedy he's not winning them for a performance that's so moving, and so nuanced.

As for the film, I thought it clever and moving.  At its most meta moments it's quite audacious. But it suffers, as does 8 1/2 which clearly inspired it, for being a kind of portmanteau of memories and key moments and obviously symmetric confrontations.  It doesn't feel organic. It's not meant too. But that did make it feel a bit disjointed to me, and sometimes brought me out of my emotional response to the film.

PAIN AND GLORY is rated R and has a running time of 118 minutes. It played Cannes, Toronto and Telluride 2019 and is now available to rent and own.