Monday, April 05, 2021

MINARI


MINARI is a rightly critically acclaimed family drama from writer-director Lee Isaac Chung. He tells a highly personal story of a family of Korean-American immigrants struggling to make a living on a farm in 1980s Arkansas. The film is never sentimental but full of genuine heart. It is suffused with quietly powerful performances and complemented by a score and photography that give a feeling of melancholy but also hope. 

The movie stars Steven Yeun (OKJA) as Daniel, the paterfamilias who moves his nonplussed family to a scrappy farm and a new home that's basically a mobile home set up on bricks. His wife Monica (Yeri Han) tries to make the best of it and resigns herself to her miserable job checking the sex of baby chicks and perennially worried that her young son David's heart condition will worsen. For most of this film most of what she utters are warnings to David not to run. Big sister Anne (Noel Cho) is a similarly protective presence. 

The mood of the film takes a turn when grandma turns up from Korea laden with the comforts of home - chilli, Korean vegetables, and Minari seeds.  The most emotion we get from Monica is when she almost breaks down in tears at the prospect of being able to cook proper Korean food. Meanwhile grandma plants the seeds of her stubborn Koeran plant down by the river. 

For much of the film we watch Daniel act as a kind of force of nature, willing the farm into existence. He is sceptical of the local yokels who say he should trust to divination to find a source of water for irrigation: he sees himself as a man of science. But Daniel slowly learns to come to a kind of mutual dependence and respect with his fellow Arkansas farm-workers, as represented by a marvellous Will Patton (ARMAGEDDON) as Paul.

Ultimately this is a story of accommodation and reconciliation. The acts of racism are essentially ignorant rather than malicious. Paul thinks it's okay to introduce himself to Daniel by speaking about the Korean War without thinking how Daniel's family might have suffered during it. A little kid at Church asks David why his face is so flat before asking to play with him.  In this depiction of casual but not necessarily malevolent racism - in the role of the grandmother as a link to the old country - at the mother's exasperation and nervousness - at the sheer joy to have some chilli! - this film resonated with me as a second generation Indian immigrant. It feels as if Lee Isaac Chung has captured something very special, authentic and rarely told that is of real value. 

What is even more impressive is that he has achieved this is on such a small budget and quick shooting schedule and yet has managed to create such a beautiful evocative landscape. Credit is due to DP Lachlan Milne and especially composer Emile Mosseri (KAJILLIONAIRE).

My final comment is merely to note with sadness that this film has been placed in the ghetto of Foreign Language picture by the Academy, as if to say that multilingual tales of life of in America are somehow less valid or other.  In fact, they are a vital and important part of any country's story and should be seen as part of the mainstream narrative. 

MINARI has a rating of PG-13 and a running time of 113 minutes. The film played Sundance 2020. It is currently on release on streaming services.

Sunday, March 28, 2021

KISS ME BEFORE IT BLOWS UP - BFI Flare 2021


Writer-director Shirel Peleg's debut feature KISS ME BEFORE IT BLOWS UP is a hilarious and spiky romantic comedy about the unlikeliest of lesbian lovers.  Maria (Luise Wolfram) is a reserved German botanist whose earnest parents are all for peace and love and are liable to start crying at their inherited guilt over the Holocaust. Meanwhile Shira (Moran Rosenblatt - FAUDA) is an extrovert Israeli with a similarly supportive but stridently opinionated large family. The events of the film take place over a week or so in Israel as Maria is introduced to her fiancee's family, and soon her parents arrive too.

One of the joys of this film is that both families are completely supportive of their daughters being gay and wanting to marry. The issues come from the prejudices they carry outside of homophobia - whether the Israeli grandma holocaust survivor (Rivka Michaeli) who wants her daughter to marry an Israeli - but at the same time hides her relationship with an Arab man - to the American Jewish father (John Carroll Lynch - ZODIAC) who has the zeal of the convert and wants Maria to convert to Judaism so his grandchild will be Jewish - or the German parents aghast at the fact that their soon to be daughter-in-law's little sister is in the Israeli army, because they believe in peace and the two-state solution.

What I love about this film is that it never shies away from the real prejudices and obstacles facing a young couple who are deeply in love. The truism is that when you marry you also marry the family and no matter how far Shira tries to shelter Maria from the complications they are always going to be there - captured for posterity by her aspiring film-maker kid brother. The question is whether Maria is willing to accept it all because truly, they are meant for each other.

There were occasions when the script was a little too on the nose - a final scene on the Green Line comes to mind - but overall this is a really tightly scripted, brave, hilarious film that makes you laugh but also softens your heart with a really convincing depiction of love - whether between Shira and Maria - or between Shira and her siblings - or the crazy extended family. I had a really good time with it and can't wait to see what Shirel Peleg does next.

KISS ME BEFORE IT BLOWS UP has a running time of 101 minutes. It is not yet rated. The film opened in Germany last year and played BFI Flare 2021.

Saturday, March 27, 2021

TOVE - BFI Flare 2012


TOVE is a beautifully filmed, fascinating biopic about Tove Jannsen, the creator of the Moomins. We first meet Tove as young woman in bombed out post-war Helsinki, stifled by her famous sculptor farmer, so much so that she moves into a flat with no water or heat. Like her graphic artist mother, Tove has a talent for caricatures and cartoons, but has internalised her father's disdain for anything other than fine art. Nonetheless, she has courage enough to publish anti-Hitler cartoons, and to live her life in search of happiness and without concern for convention. Accordingly, when we meet her she is beginning what would be a lifelong friendship and a fairly long affair with a married Member of Parliament. And when she meets the talented theatre director Vivica Bandler, she doesn't hesitate to express her love for her too.  What follows is a passionate love affair but also one carried out in post-war Finland where the risk associated with it and the pressure to marry leave both Tove and Vivica ultimately unable to live together. But - by the end of the film - a Tove empowered by her financial independence and success and increasing self-confidence - does find her lifelong love.  Though it's testament to her talent for friendship that she remans  close to both Vivica and her Arno, the politician.

Alma Poysti is deeply affecting as Tove Jannsen in a performance that is brave and vulnerable and joyous by turns.  A good example of the power of the writing and performance is a scene late in the film where she starts dancing to a Benny Goodman dance number - it seems riotous and joyous but then turns almost violent and angry before ending in tears and an extreme close-up. I also very much admired how much the film-makers had done on such a low budget with sumptuously shot interiors and a fantastic swing infused score. 

TOVE has a running time of 100 minutes. The filmed played Toronto 2020 and BFI Flare 2021. It opened in Finland last year but does not yet have a commercial release date in the UK or USA.

SWEETHEART - BFI Flare 2021


SWEETHEART is the absolutely adorable and heartwarming debut feature from writer-director Marley Morrison. It stars Nell Barlow as AJ - a newly out lesbian teenager who dresses like Liam Gallagher's little sister; is acting out because she's confused by her parents separation; and is chronically shy around pretty women. At the start of the film she comes off as a spoiled smart-arse but we soon realise that all that self-conscious woke angst hides a really smart and sensitive girl. In fact, all of the main characters in this film are basically kind and earnest and just dealing with a lot of shit.

Principle among them is AJ's mum Tina, who is trying to be supportive of her middle-daughter coming out, but is worried about her getting into trouble at school and feels unappreciated for keeping the family together.  Jo Hartley (THIS IS ENGLAND) is so credible and sympathetic in this role.  Tina is backed up by peacemaking elder sister Lucy (Sophia Di Martino - YESTERDAY) and her wonderfully lovely partner Steve (Samuel Anderson).  All of them feel free to call out AJ on the worst of her pretentious nonsense, but also ultimately just want her to be happy. You really feel the warmth and support coming through even if the mum and sister don't always have the right language to express how they feel.

The action of the film takes place over a week at a beautiful English seaside holiday park, with the family living together in a chalet. Much of the plot is driven by AJ's tentative relationship with the park's young lifeguard Isla, played by Ella Rae-Smith.  This is so relatable - whether or not you're gay: we all know what it's like the first time someone touches your hand and you get butterflies - or the first time you make out with someone you care about. And the way in which Morrison observes how teenagers are around each other is wonderfully authentic and funny.  We've all been at parties where some dickhead boy is chatting shit! In these scenes, we're rooting for AJ - we want her to put the boy in his place - our stomachs fill with butterflies when Isla makes her move.  We're absolutely invested in AJ's story and that speaks to Nell Barlow's unaffected deeply sympathetic performance. 

Kudos also to DP Emily Almond Barr for capturing that clear crisp English seaside light and to the production designers for infusing the park with pastels and neons. I also loved Toydrum's score and use of indie 80s-synth infused music. 

SWEETHEART has a running time of 94 minutes. It is not yet rated. It played Glasgow and BFI Flare 2021 and does not yet have a commercial release date.

SUBLET - BFI Flare 2021


SUBLET is a quietly stunning film from Israeli writer-director Eytan Fox about the unlikely and transformative brief affair between an older American writer and a young Israeli film-maker.  

The entire film takes place over five days in Tel Aviv, where the somewhat haphazard but charming Tower (Niv Nissim) sublets his apartment to the New York Times travel writer Michael (John Benjamin Hickey).  For the first hour of its brief running time we think we have a certain perception of Michael as a rather timid man, dealing with the bombshell that his husband back in New York has approached a surrogacy agency without his knowledge or consent. But there are hints that his relationship toward parenting are more complex, and this opens up beautifully in the final third of the film. By contrast, Tomer seems to live entirely in the open - openly gay, sex-positive, unabashed to admit his lack of funds, even making films that are provocative and challenging but without subtlety or sub-text. Tomer is also a little lost, and again, in a pivotal late scene with his mum we realise that he too might be looking for something from Michael that is beyond a lover, and perhaps paternal. 

This quiet, drily funny film says so much without words and rests on the superb performances from Hickey (unsurprising - he is one of our finest stage actors) - but also in a debut performance from Niv Nissim.  The performances are complemented by incredible framing and lensing from DP Daniel Miller that lifts this film into something beyond just a beautifully performed romantic dramedy.

Most of all I love that the film resists cliche or lack of realism in its denouement. Rarely has an airport hug been so loaded with emotion, meaning and transformation - rarely has a shyly broadening smile on a young man on a bike been so full of promise. 

I feel I have taken both of these characters to my heart. I would love to see a follow up film five years ahead. This level of engagement and empathy speaks to the profound power of this film.

SUBLET has a running time of 89 minutes and is not yet rated. It also does not yet have a commercial release date. It played Tribeca 2020 and BFI Flare 2021. It will be released in the USA in June 2021.

JUMP, DARLING - BFI Flare 2021


JUMP, DARLING is a beautifully shot, deeply moving, darkly funny relationship drama about the unlikely friendship between a grandmother and her grandson. The grandma is played by acting icon Cloris Leachman, who sadly passed away earlier this year. She brings all of her steely dry humour to this role as a feisty 80-something woman called Margaret who clearly needs someone to care for her, but is resisting moving into an old age home. The grandson, Russell (Thomas Duplessie), is licking his wounds after a break-up and decides to stay with his grandma while tentatively dipping his toe back into the drag performance world.  

What I love about this film is its nuanced depiction of really tough topics with sensitivity but also humour.  To start off with Russell, he's clearly struggling with owning his choice to be a drag performer rather than a mainstream actor, and this ambiguity is partly forced by his boyfriend's contempt for his profession. Is he performing as a drag queen, OR is his narrative that he's just doing this while he tries to become a mainstream actor the real performance? 

We chart Russell's growing confidence via a scene where he uses a powerful drag performance to effectively shame the closeted guy he is currently sleeping with.  Again, the question of who is really performing is raised: is it Russell as a drag queen, or the gay guy pretending to be straight?

And in the final, most powerful and moving scene of the film, we see Russell respond to an almost aggressive interrogation by an elder in the drag scene - and admit he does drag because it's his vocation. That acceptance is something truly beautiful and powerful, especially becuase in both their stories we see the price he is going to have to pay - not least rejection by some in mainstream society.

There's a similarly impressive and nuanced approach to the theme of suicide and suicidal ideation.  The grandmother and grandson are both dealing with memories of the grandfather committing suicide and imagine themselves in his shoes in dreamy unnerving scenes.  One senses that the grandmother both fears the memory and works it into her nightmarish vision of what it would be to move into a nursing home. For Russell it feels more like an exploration. 

I'm not going to lie. Like many people I booked this film because of the legendary Cloris Leachman - and she is wonderful here.  But it's Thomas Duplessie who really impresses in a performance that is by turns vulnerable, powerful, bitchy, flamboyant, contained.  I also absolutely loved the music choices for the pivotal drag lip sync scenes and the neon-lit dance scenes shot by DP Viktor Cahoj. This really is a film that in its look, sound, style and performances punches way above its weight as a low-budget debut feature. 

JUMP, DARLING has a running time of 90 minutes and is not yet rated. It played the Toronto Inside Out Festival and is currently playing BFI Flare. It does not yet have a commerical release date.

Sunday, March 21, 2021

AIDS DIVA: THE LEGEND OF CONNIE NORMAN - BFI Flare 2021


AIDS DIVA: THE LEGEND OF CONNIE NORMAN is an absolutely fascinating documentary that restores one of the heroines of ACT UP and trans rights to our consciousness - the remarkable, smart, compassionate, charismatic Connie Norman. My only criticism of this intimate, tightly edited and well organised documentary is that I wanted more. I wanted someone to give the director Dante Alencastre more money to allow him to expand it to a 90 minute run time and to show us how Connie became the woman she became. What was it like to grow up trans in Texas and how did she maintain her confidence and self-esteem?  How did she know to listen to that still quiet voice inside of yourself and to be true to herself?  I would also like to have  seen more of her early days in California and battle with drug addiction. Again, to see where strength came from to overcome.

As it is, the documentary picks up with Connie already perfectly formed: living as a trans woman, recovered from her addictions, diagnosed with HIV in the early 1980s, married to her wonderfully supportive husband. In her words "I lived it. I got it. I'm dealing with it." She throws her energies into leading ACT UP Los Angeles - an organisation that lobbied for the LGBT community to have equitable access to healthcare resources. She quickly became well known in the activist and public health communities and helped push for help specifically for the trans community. Along the away she became educated about gender and how it is treated by indigenous communities and came to believe that rather than being polar it is actually a spectrum. So, she was decades ahead of us. 

What comes across from old video and TV footage is just how smart, sensitive and articulate Connie was. I could listen to her all day. Whether sensitively describing the spectrum of gender identities to students at UC Santa Barbara or angrily describing her frustration at the lack of movement in AIDS healthcare on TV - she is always captivating. Even at her most angry, she never loses her compassion. She always feels relatable and wise. Thank goodness this has been captured for posterity. After watching this film I searched the internet trying to find out more and to my shock, Connie doesn't even have a wikipedia entry! No offence to Larry Kramer and all the other famous heroes of activism but come on - let's see Connie take her place in the firmament. This film is - I hope - the first step in that mission to capture the authentic voices of that time - not just Connie but her fellow activists - so that we can all learn from their words and deeds, and continue that thread of progressive activism to the present day.

AIDS DIVA: THE LEGEND OF CONNIE NORMAN has a run time of 60 minutes and is not yet rated.

Thursday, March 18, 2021

CURED - BFI Flare 2021


The brilliantly constructed and vitally important documentary CURED epitomises everything I love about this genre of film. In its concise and beautifully organised 80 minute run-time - through newly unearthed historic footage and interviews with many of the major players -  I learned about a subject I had never even considered before, and felt its resonance to our contemporary lives.

Directors Bennett Singer and Patrick Sammon tell the story of the fight to remove homosexuality from the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. The activists were arguing the point that homosexuality is not a disease that has to be cured, but simply a sexual orientation among many that should not be used to restrict one's rights to equal protection under the law, or to deny people basic common decency and dignity in every-day life.

It is not a struggle I had considered before, and as much as I vaguely knew about the misuse of psychiatric confinement, shock treatment and conversion therapy it was deeply shocking to see the reality of it: homosexuality defined in a list of deviancies next to pedophilia; photographs of immense wards filled with lesbians as if they are long-term sick; and most movingly an interview with a man actually subjected to shock therapy.  The idea that this kind of idiocy - like something out of a dystopian horror film like CLOCKWORK ORANGE - was actually being practiced only shortly before my lifetime made me shudder. 

But among the horrors we have the most wonderful people to meet and admire. From Barbara Gittings - an activist who seems so vital and smart on the archive footage - to the first gay psychiatrist who had the guts to address the APA, though masked, his voice cracking with emotion. We get an interview with the first psychiatrist who dared to question the dodgy data upon which contemporary treatments were founded, at the risk of damaging his own career. And we meet the son of one of conversion therapy's loudest advocates, not knowing his kid was gay. There's a wonderful catharsis when we learn of the removal of homosexuality from the DSM in 1973 and when we meet the current APA CEO who is gay and is sponsoring this film's exhibition in schools.

But - sadly - there's so much resonance to the ongoing civil liberties fights around the world - whether the fact that conversion therapy is still legal in the USA - to the rise in homophobic legislation in Eastern Europe and Russia.  And make it wider - think of all the ways in which civil liberties are incomplete for women, people of colour, people of low caste, people of oppressed religions.  The language is usually the same - one of dehumanisation. We describe those people we want to other as different, animal, mad, diseased, and so deserving or ring-fencing, treating as less than human. 

What I took from the film is that it takes individual acts of bravery to inspire others and resonate and slowly make changes. We can't all be Barbara Gittings but we can all look at how we can help.

CURED has a running time of 80 minutes and is not yet rated.

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

FIREBIRD - BFI Flare Opening Night Film


FIREBIRD is an earnest but essentially plodding romantic drama based on the true story of two gay men who are not able to pursue their love in the Soviet Union. The best I can say about it is that the production and costume designers did a superb job of re-creating the kitschy low-rent costumes and interior design of the 1970s.  But sadly, the film suffers from a leaden script, no real sense of menace, uneven accents, and very little directorial flair. Let's explore each in turn.

The film is based on the memoirs of a Soviet actor who fell in love with a fighter pilot while conscripted in Estonia. Those memoirs have been adapted by director Peeter Rebane and actor-screenwriter Tom Prior (KINGSMAN). The story is intensely straightforward. The young conscript - Sergey - and the pilot - Roman - have a brief fling that ends when the career pilot is scared by an officer's suspicions. Sergey goes off to theatre school, and is reunited with the now married pilot and they have an affair. But confronted by the reality of his married life,  Sergey leaves Roman who then goes off to Afghanistan. 

We don't feel the force of the Cold War or any real menace of Soviet domestic espionage. Yes there's a sinister looking old soldier who threatens to expose the  protagonists but they seem to write each other letters and make phone calls without worrying about being spied upon. I felt no sense of oppression. Sergey and Roman seem to be able to conduct an affair in Moscow with no-one shopping them. This is hardly the atmosphere of THE LIVES OF OTHERS.

Worse still, the dialogue is very Basil Exposition. "Shit - border guards are coming!" "Shit - the fuse is blown!" And when not obvious it's hackneyed. "What do you want?!" Person attempt to answer. "No - let me dramatically interrupt you!"

Maybe I might have given myself to the film more had I not spent its running time wondering why it had a mixed Russian-Ukrainian cast speaking authentically accented English and then English actors speaking with really bad and varying accents. This is a real shame because Tom Prior, as Sergey, gives a good performance but I just couldn't get passed the bad attempt at an accent - especially notable when playing opposite the Ukrainian actor Oleg Zagarodnii (Roman) and the Russian actress Diana Pozharskaya (Luisa).

Moreover, there's nothing particularly exciting about the way the film is shot. It's just full of static camera with very little movement or energy. Was that a deliberate stylistic choice to show how static and trapped these people were or just a lack of visual flair? The only shot I thought was genuinely good was one of Sergey trapped in a tiny depressing bedroom crying on New Years Eve while fireworks go off outside his window - it's a beautiful and concise depiction of a man trapped on the outside of life by convention and bigotry.

All of this makes me incredibly sad because the world needs diverse stories and films that foreground queer love stories in particular. That's even more true of stories set in the former Soviet Union given the recent resurgence in homophobic legislation and persecution.

FIREBIRD has a running time of 107 minutes and has not yet been rated. It opens the BFI Flare Festival tomorrow. 

NOMADLAND


NOMADLAND is a truly beautiful, affecting and rightly award-winning film featuring a stunning performance from Frances McDormand. She plays a 60 something woman called Fern, caught like so many of her generation with insufficient savings to retire in the wake of the Global Finacial Crisis, and no job when the town's factory closes down.  No longer able to afford a home, Fern becomes a Nomad - a person living in their mobile home, driving from town to town looking for seasonal work, forming a bond of kinship with other nomads on the trail.

I had no idea that modern day Nomads existed, but their life is depicted here as a melancholy one. Aside from the financial stress and alienation from family members still living a conventional life, there seems to be the pervasive discussion of death.  Sickness has to be born without financial support or maybe even familial support. The people here are either grieving for the sick or dealing with sickness and death themselves - one describes movingly the impulse to suicide.

And yet there is much to be said for the community that the Nomads form. There's mutual support, care, teaching and companionship as they meet and part and meet again. It's interesting to see that while Fern's friend (David Strathairn) does choose a sedentary life when offered the chance, the choice is not so straightforward for Fern. There's a kind of impressive endurance and nobility to a life lived away from the constraints of the small town dominated by a single employer.

The nobility and resilience is expressed in Frances McDormand's moving and vulnerable performance as Fern as well as the real life Nomads she meets.  Writer-director Chloe Zhao's decision to foreground the real community, and to straddle the line between fact and fiction is an inspired one. It affords the marginalised visibility and dignity and McDormand is the perfect entry into that world given her empathy and curiosity as a performer. 

But I would also give special credit to cinematographer Joshua James Richard's beautiful depiction of the landscapes in which the Nomads live. The endless shifting-coloured sky - the feeling of fresh air and expanse. Maybe it's because I've effectively been at home for a year but I can see the appeal of a life of apparent freedom, if hardship, as so eloquently described by Nomad activist Bob Wells. 

NOMADLAND is rated R and has a running time of 107 minutes. It played Telluride, Toronto, Venice and London 2020.  It was relased in the USA in February and will be released in the UK on April 30th.

Sunday, March 14, 2021

THE MAURITANIAN


THE MAURITANIAN is the true story of a North African Muslim man called Mohamedou Ould Slahi who was detained, interrogated and tortured for 14 years in Guantanamo without ever actually being charged with anything. As such, his case serves as an exemplar of the horror story that acts as a sore on the American legal justice system. As the film so eloquently puts it, Guantanemo doesn't exist offshore so that the prisoners have no legal rights, but so that they cannot be legal witnesses to the crimes committed by their jailors. The film is also at pains to point out that his detention continued through both Republican and Democratic presidencies. Those lionising Obama and Biden would do well to ask why.

The film is directed by Kevin Macdonald - a film-maker whose career straddles both documentary and fiction, and who has tackled political subjects such as the life of Bob Marley and Idi Amin. He brings all of that skill and experience to bear in this film, a biopic that plays like a fairly straightforward courtroom drama but is interrupted by increasingly surreal flashbacks.  These are filmed by DP Alwin H Kuchler, who worked on Macdonald's Marley, in sepia-tinted square-framed, vignettes - like grainy super-16 memories from old cine-films. This works well for Slahi's childhood and experiences as a student in Germany and then fighting for the Mujahideen in Afghanistan.  Where they get surreal and truly impressive is when Macdonald and Kuchler are depicting the torture that Slahi underwent and how this distorted his psychological state as well as his body. Those scenes are a rightly tough watch but are also incredibly well put together. 

The cinematographic shifts are just one part of this production that tries to clearly articulate the Kafka-esque nightmare that is being a detainee at Gitmo. I loved the production design that saw lawyers on both send descend into a hellish claustrophobic series of concrete lined airless room to look at banal boxes of largely redacted documents. Everything about this case speaks to obfuscation and corruption of the very concept of justice.

The first hour is a slow-build and might test some viewers' patience. Perhaps this is the correct way to depict the slow build of frustration at a case that took 14 years to complete. But the second hour is transfixing. Jodie Foster's righteous outrage as the real life defense attorney Nancy Hollander is iconic. And as ever, Tahar Rahim really impresses, moving across time periods and emotions - from youthful exuberance - to naive trust of the American legal system - or his wary cynicism when Hollander first turns up to help.  His final speech in his own defense moved me to tears. And his experience when the verdict comes through - sharply cut off in his celebration by Macdonald - is such a strong ending to this film.

Elsewhere Benedict Cumberbatch is good as the prosecuting military attorney Stuart Couch but his role is thankless.  He comes across as wilfully naive if he doesn't realise before this case that confessions have been extracted using torture. For me the far more interesting characters are the torturers - what are their motivations and justifications? Are they just sadists, carefully selected? Or do they also have a conscience?  I am particularly fascinated by the female interrogator who raped the prisoner. Sadly this film does not extend to examining their motivations, but I guess that's only to be expected since it's based on the memoirs of Slahi.

THE MAURITANIAN has a running time of 129 minutes and is rated R. It is currently available on streaming services in the USA and will become available in the UK on April 1st. 

GREENLAND


Director Ric Roman Waugh (ANGEL HAS FALLEN) reunites with leading man Gerard Butler (300) for a surprisingly well put together disaster movie written by Chris Sparling (BURIED). I'm not saying that the film does anything radical or unique in its narrative structure. Rather it's surprisningly well crafted in its use of special effects and does a lot with a little.  There's something weirdly credible about the story and its plot twists, and I'm gonna lose all credibility by saying that the acting is GOOD!

As the film opens we meet Gerard Butler's structural engineer tentatively opening the door to his own house and having an awkward conversation with his wife (Morena Baccarain - DEADPOOL).  As the film goes on we'll figure out that he cheated and their marriage is hanging on by a thread.  Pretty soon news reports come in about a massive asteroid about to hit earth - starting with a mega fragment that takes out Florida.  We ramp up to the threat of an extinction event collision within about ten minutes.  

The plot mechanism is that certain Americans have been pre-selected to leave for a shelter in Greenland and can take their immediate family. Guess what - our hero is one of them. So the film is basically a race against the clock to get to the designated military base - get the wrist tags that get you passage on a flight - and get the frack out of dodge. The plot twist is that the parents are split up because the kid leaves his insulin in the car, and then he can't get on the plane because he's diabetic. 

What I love about this film is that as hokey as the narrative arc is - fragile relationship healed in crises; cute kid in peril; supermarket being ransacked; people turning on each other - it's filmed so very stylishly. The way in which the asteroids are depicted across the sky is stunning and the peril of the extinction strike is beautifully essayed. The story felt credible. Butler and Baccarin sold it to me. I actually cared about their fate and wanted to see what happened next. Honestly, this film is really really good!

GREENLAND was released in some countries last summer in cinemas but in the USA on streaming services last December and in the UK this February. The film has a rating of PG-13 and a running time of 119 minutes.

Saturday, March 13, 2021

MOXIE

 
MOXIE marks the second film that Amy Poehler has directed (see the risible WINE COUNTRY) that lacks energy and humour. It just goes to show that just because you are a wonderful comedic actress you don't necessarily have the chops to helm a film.  But MOXIE is worse than WINE COUNTRY because as well as lying on the screen like a damp squib, it's actually pretty offensive.  

The movie is meant to be an earnest and woke tale of a contemporary teenage girl who overcomes her shy nature to write an underground comic that slams the school's misogynistic culture and lead a student revolt. In doing so, the student (Hadley Robinson - zero charisma) is inspired by her mum's (Amy Poehler) vintage collection of punk music, clothes and fanzines. There's a scene early on in the film where Poehler's character gives the contemporary criticism of that wave of feminism - most notably that it wasn't intersectional. But then this film falls straight back into all the racist tropes.  The spiky, smart Lucy - the film's principal black/latinx character - exists basically to prompt a radical awakening in the film's white heroine.  The film's principal Asian character - the protagonists best friend - is the cliched second gen Asian oppressed by her demanding parents.  And at some point isn't it offensive to always - just always - depict the jocks (Patrick Schwarzenegger) as dumb, nasty bullies? Even the good guy in this film - played by a delightful Nico Hiraga (BOOKSMART) is too good to be true and has no nuance to his character. Once again he's just someone to hold the white girl to account.

MOXIE has a rating of PG-13 and has a running time of 111 minutes. It was released on March 3rd on Netflix.

Sunday, March 07, 2021

BILLIE EILISH: THE WORLD'S A LITTLE BLURRY


I'm clearly not the demographic for Billie Eilish's whispered teenage angst slash stomping jumping Gucci clad stage persona. But I was curious to watch R J Cutler's new two hour documentary and learn more about this teenager who is both a pop culture icon and has swept the Grammys. I was sceptical at the over two hour running time going into the film, but I have to say that the documentary did indeed hold my interest for two hours and I would recommend it as a sociological depiction of any young star catapulted to fame.

Billie Eilish comes across as a nice kid - talented? yes although her resistance to singing beyond a whisper makes it hard to discern how much.  I was actually far more impressed with her elder brother who evidently writes a lot of the music and produces it - and surely its the ethereal electro tone that's the real trademark here. I wonder if he resents her success as the face of his music?  The parents are a bit weird as is the whole home-schooling/ minor league actors/singers creating little talent show performers vibe. But you can see they really love their kids and are loved in return and that they have a justified fear about what happens to Billie now she's famous. The most moving part of the doc is when Billie passes her driving test and drives off, and the dad has this emotional moment where he's worried about her leaving but needs to let her - rationally he'd coddle her forever but knows he can't.

There's a deep foreboding throughout this film. Billie's insta-famous open-ness with her fans is concerning, and we see she clearly has issues with setting emotional boundaries in her relationship with her douchebag ex-boyfriend. And yes she has a close relationship with her family that's saving her but what happens when one day she falls out with her brother or her mum and is left vulnerable to the world? And how on earth is that relationship going to stay normal when the brother depends not his sister for employment and the mother's role is to coddle Billie with reassuring reviews of her performances? It's so telling that when Billie (totally justifiably) flips out at meeting endless studio hacks after a show, her mum's immediate response is "we failed you". This isn't a relationship of honesty but of keeping the bandwagon on the road.  Billie can never do wrong.

Maybe it's my recent viewing of Framing Britney Spears, but I just look at Billie Eilish and see an accident waiting to happen, and when it happens it's going to be worse because it's going to involve her family. Lets just hope that her body and mind hold up.

BILLIE EILISH: THE WORLD'S A LITTLE BLURRY has a running time of 140 minutes and is rated R. It was released by Apple+ in February.

MANK


When I first became serious about film, it was taken as given that CITIZEN KANE was the greatest film ever made and that Orson Welles was its single-handed auteur.  Great directors made great films. As I grew older and wiser, and thanks mostly to a second hand copy of Pauline Kael's Raising Kane, I realised that movies are the product of many diverse talents and that auteur theory is largely there to puff up the director's ego. In Kael's seminal essay, published orignally in the New Yorker in 1971 - 
link here - she explored the making of Kane and restored credit principally to its screenwriter, the legendary Herman Mankiewicz.  

Mank was one of the bright smart young jounros lured to Hollywood by the phat cash on offer. (Kael quotes the iconic telegram he was sent by the equally gifted screenwriter Ben Hecht.) Like Hecht, Mank held the industry that lauded him in no little contempt, always feeling novel writing or pure journalism were the higher forms of his craft. In particular, Mank was too smart not to see through the hypocrisy and cyncism of the studio system and hated himself for loving the luxury it brought him.  And this is why we find him, in 1933, in the first tiemline of this film, sitting in the palatial Xanadu of that nasty, jingoistic punblisher William Randolph Hearst, playing court jester. Mank knew full well what Hearst was, and how he and the studio system were undermining (yet another!) iconic writer - Upton Sinclair's - progressive bid for the California governorship. And he knew just what was going on between Hearst and his squeeze, actress Marion Davis.  And before long, his inability to keep on being court jester, to shut up and keep on cashing the cheques, got him into trouble. He became a nasty alcoholic, and sabotaged his career, coming up with the final act of revenge, a script for the thinly veiled attack on Hearst that was Kane. Hearst tried his best to keep it from being made, and went after Mank in the gossip columns. And that's how we find Mank in the second tieline of this film in 1940, drunk, cared for by a secretary, tussling with a credit-hogging Welles, being begged not to anger Hearst by his brother.

MANK is a cinematic tour de force and passion project for its director, David Fincher (FIGHT CLUB) based on the screenplay written by his sadly deceased father Jack.  Shot in sparkling, expressionistic Black and White by Erik Messerschmidt (TV's Fargo), Fincher gives us the movie version of Kael's essay, restoring Mank to co-credit for making Kane, but also as a hero to all of those on the progressive left who refuse to be bought. The film features another superb performance from Gary Oldman in the title role, a kind of grown-up self-righteous scabrous rogue halfway between Oldman's Sid Vicious and Churchill.  But there's a chillingly sinister cameo from Charles Dance, perfectly cast as Hearst and a wonderfully sympathetic performance from Amanda Seyfried as a remarkably self-aware Marion Davis to enjoy too. In smaller roles, I also liked Tuppence Middleton as Mank's wife Sara.  The result is a film that is in love with the golden era of Hollywood but has no illusions as to what it truly was - a film both cynical and nostalgic - dazzling and glamourous - but seedy and sinister. I found every frame ravishing and entertaining but worry it will not appeal beyond cineastes. Mank isn't the kind of activist hero we look for nowadays. He was too mean, too mired in the studio system, too ego-centric. But by god, what a man he was. 

MANK is rated R and has a running time 131 minutes. It was released on Netflix on December 4th.

WHAT MEN WANT


WHAT MEN WANT is exactly the kind of film you watch after a year in lockdown when you have no social life and nothing better to do. I knew the reviews were bad, but I had a genuine fondness for the 2000 original WHAT WOMEN WANT and saw Tracy Morgan on the cast list and thought, well, how bad can this be? 

The answer is very, very bad indeed. This film is so humourless, joyless, lacking in originality or surprise, that it genuinely boggles the mind. Adam Shankman (BEDTIME STORIES) directs like a hack. Scenes slickly move forward, but nothing coheres, nothing moves, whether to laughter or tears. It's all just deeply blah.

Taraji P Henson is utterly wasted in the Mel Gibson role. She plays a tough as nails sports agent raised by her single dad (Richard Roundtree). She fears she's being blocked from promotion because she's a woman. But one of the more troubling aspects of this film is that while she IS being disinvited from the boys' poker games, she's actually being blocked not because she's a woman but because she's just not very nice, and certainly not a team player. So essentially this is a film about how its progonist is a dick, and the men are actually okay. Weird. 

Also this may be one of the very few films in which Tracy Morgan - playing the dad of the young sports star the heroine has to sign to make promotion - is just annoying and unfunny.  What a crime against cinema! All of the scriptwriters -and there are many - need to go and sit in the corner and think very carefully about what they have done.

WHAT MEN WANT was released in 2019 but is now streaming on Netflix. This makes the marginal cost of watching it zero but that's still too much.  It is rated R and has a running time of 117 minutes. 

BIGGIE: I GOT A STORY TO TELL


BIGGIE: I GOT A STORY TO TELL is NOT, I repeat NOT, a film about his murder and the west coast-east coast rap rivalry that proved so fatal. Rather, its director Emmett Malloy pitches the documentary as a film about Biggie's life and work. The problem is, if you studiously avoid his death, and why it happened, you basically have to exclude a lot of what made Biggie (and Diddy) problematic people.  You exclude Diddy's ties to the Cripps - you exclude some of the nastier taunting diss tracks against Tupac - and you exclude ties to outright crime and corrupt police forces on both sides of the country. 

The result is that this documentary skates close to hagiography. Biggie is a ludicrously talented rapper, influenced by jazz improvisation. He is generous and loyal to his childhood friends and loves his moms. He loves his children.  To be sure, he's a drug dealer too. But he wants to leave that life and dedicate himself to music. Apparently. 

Still, I didn't regret watching this film. I learned a lot about Biggie and in the best way possible - watching candid home videos and behind the scenes footage of his rise to fame. We also get wonderfully honest and charismatic talking heads - from Biggie's no-nonsense mother to Diddy to childhood friends. I felt that I came out of the film with a better understanding of what life was like in that era of Brooklyn, pre gentrification - a slice of sociological history - and a new appreciation for Biggie as a rapper. His early death was a tragedy. But let's be honest, his hands were not entirely clean in the matter and neither were Diddy's.

BIGGIE: I GOT A STORY TO TELL is rated R and has a running time of 97 minutes. It was released on Netflix on March 1st.

PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN


PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN is the stunning debut feature from actor-writer-director Emerald Fennell. It's the darkest of dark comedy thrillers that impresses with how it manages to handle the nastiest of subject matter, to genuinely thrill, move and entertain. To direct something that manages such swift changes in tone and mood, but never felt jarring or out of control, is a skill and feat that has beaten many more seasoned directors. I simply cannot wait to see what Fennell does next, whether reprising her role as Camilla Parker-Bowles in the THE CROWN or creating her next movie.

The film casts Carey Mulligan against type (see review for the awful THE DIG) as a very smart but deeply damaged thirty year old woman who seeks revenge on the cohort of "nice guys" who think nothing of taking drunk girls home from bars and raping them. To do so, Cassie goes to bars, pretends to be drunk, waits for the inevitable to happen and then shocks her victims with her stone cold sober retribution.  Just what the nature of that retribution is, and the reason for Cassie's rage, are withheld for the first half of the film, creating a brilliantly intriguing and disturbing tension.  This is especially acute when Cassie's revenge moves beyond men to the women who have internalised misogyny and slut-shaming and enable the crimes to go hidden and covered up and the institutions (universities, psychiatry) that further victimise women. I genuinely gasped when Cassie involved the daughter of one of her targets in her deceptions and the idea that our hero-protagonist might actually be more evil than her targets was a nasty but brilliant tease.

What really impresses is how credible all of this is - from Cassie's trauma to the arse-covering excuses given to her by all involved (not least a great performance from Alison Brie as the most smug of middle class mothers who has a come to jesus moment). I really felt for these characters - not just Cassie, but even people like Alfred Molina's guilt-ridden psychiatrist. It's really testament to Emerald Fennell's direction that the film moves you even as it uses garish almost cartoonish visuals and music. I loved the chintzy overbearing interiors of Cassie's childhood home and the pop-coloured coffee shop run by her wonderfully sympathetic boss (Laverne Cox). I also loved the visual imagery that often sees Cassie depicted with angelic wings even as she does pretty nasty things. And the fact that the script is willing to go to an ending that is fittingly dark.  

Honestly, I cannot think of a single thing I didn't like about this film. Like it's heroine, it's smart and dark and thrilling, and it speaks to issues that need urgent attention. Kudos to all involved. 

YOUNG WOMAN has a rating of R and a running time of 113 minutes. The film played Sundance 2020 and was released on streaming services in January 2021.

MALCOLM & MARIE


MALCOLM & MARIE is the first film I've seen made completely in and because of Covid lockdown. When production on HBO's Euphoria was shut down, its star, Zendaya, and director Sam Levinson, came up with this film as a small contained project that could be completed with a skeleton crew. The result is a two-hander that takes place in a single location over a single night and is shot in black and white. That gives the film a necessarily claustrophobic, artificial feel, and I think that as an audience we have to commit to go with that or just not bother watching at all. The result is a film that sustains a highly dramatic, raw, nasty argument between a couple for over an hour and a half, with only flashes of levity.  That comes mostly in the form of a brilliant mid-film darkly comedic long-form tirade from John David Washington's arthouse film director as he takes aim at film critics. 

The performances are impressive if deliberately rather stagey, but this film really misses having another couple to play off, in the manner of WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF. We need some air in the room, and a route into the argument, but I guess that wasn't deemed possible given Covid restrictions. Still I loved the look, style and feel of the film - infused with a jazz heavy score - and it really works as a showcase for both Zendaya and John David Washington's acting talent. As a film - I dunno. Given that it was being funded by Netflix I might've shortened the running time to an hour.

MALCOLM & MARIE is rated R and has a running time of 106 minutes.  The film was released on Feburary 5th on Netflix. 

JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH


JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH is a stunningly made, deeply affecting, beautifully acted, chamber drama about the events that led to the real life assassination of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton in 1969 at the age of just 21. His age is startling when we see him portrayed with such power, conviction and charisma in an award-winning performance by British actor Daniel Kaluuya. His Hampton is thickly accented, profoundly articulate and rousing in his stirring message of black activism and social aid. We are carried away by his powerful presence, just as Dominique Fishback's quiet poetry-loving student Deborah Johnson is, and her subtle but profound performance is equally award-worthy.  She is swept up in Hampton's activism, falls heavily pregnant and has to look on in admiration but also fear as he becomes increasingly convinced of his forthcoming martyrdom. So much of her performance is wordless, and she manages to convey so much conflicting emotion through her eyes. It's deeply impressive. 

The third person in this four-hand psychological drama is LaKeith Stanfield's William O'Neal. When we first meet him he's impersonating a cop and boosting cars. The Feds hold the threat of jail time over him and force him to become an informat. Pretty soon he's Hampton's trusted head of security, and we feel that he absolutely believes in Fred's mission even while snitching on him. The deep tragedy of  O'Neal's situation - conveyed in a subtle and heart-breaking performance by Stanfield - is the counterpoint to the tragedy of Deborah Johnson's situation.  We know that she will have to raise her child alone as the widow of a slain activst. And we know that O'Neal's guilt at his role in that FBI assassination will lead to his suicide, despite his on-tape assertion that he just did what he had to do.  

The final player in this four-hander is Jesse Plemons' FBI agent Roy Mitchell. He is also an equivocal character. This is best summed up in the final scene between Mitchell and O'Neal in a restaurant peopled entirely by white diners and staff.  Both characters are ostensibly setting up an assassination and doing so willingly - Mitchell to serve the Bureau's political aims; O'Neal to secure financial freedom.  But each looks utterly uncomfortable. Mitchell knows the FBI is rotten and that this is unjustifiable extra-judicial murder but he's a career man. And O'Neal is just so far stepped in blood it would be as hard to wade back as to go forward.

The resulting film is a profoundly moving and important biopic that teaches us how impressive Hampton was, and how despicable was the plot to take him down, and the toll it took on those who did it, and those who were left behind. It cleaves as closely to the historical record as a work of fiction can. It is perfect? Not quite. A cameo from Martin Sheen as J Edgar Hoover was utterly unnecessary and cartoonish. But pretty much everything else is so beautifully rendered as to make this one of the most outstanding films of the year. I cannot wait to see what director Shaka King does next.

JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH is rated R and has a running time of 126 minutes. It played Sundance 2021 and was released on the internet on February 12th.

COMING 2 AMERICA


COMING 2 AMERICA is the feel-good, nostalgic comfort-watch we want and need right now. Released on the first anniversary of my personal Covid lockdown, at a time when we've all been deprived of friends, families and laughter, this movie feels like a personal gift from Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall to all of their fans.  And yes, I AM a fan of the original. I can't count the number of times I watched it as a kid, and on a recent rewatch I can attest that it holds up. The original was the story of a warm-hearted Prince and his rogueish sidekick going to Queens (pre-gentrification) to find a bride that will want the Prince for himself, rather than for his title. But along the way it poked fun at jheri curls, lascivious preachers, argumentative old black men in a barber shop and terrible pastiche bands. Let us NOT forget that Sexual Chocolate INVENTED the Mic Drop! Of course, it was a film of its time too. So my husband and I were wondering whether they'd keep the more luridly sexual stuff like the palace bathers or even the very concept of Murphy dressing up in Whiteface to play an old Jewish barbershop customer. Well, I am pleased to report that Kenya Barris' superb script keeps everything we loved about the orignal and doesn't water down the humour for a more PC time. The hat-tips and easter eggs are scattered liberally and really reward the ardent fan - from recasting Garcelle Beauvais as a rose-scatterer, to a rousing finale with Sexual Chocolate, to bringing back the rapping twins we met briefly at the bar. But best of all, we keep the foul mouthed My-T-Sharp crew, and dismiss any concerns of political incorrectness with a swift and brilliant short scene that neatly delineates the boundary between comedy and offense for us. 

So what's with the story? Decades after the original, Prince Akeem is happily married with three literally kick-ass daughters. The problem is that they cannot inherit his kingdom because they aren't sons. Accordingly, Akeem's dying father says he should find the illegitimate son he fathered in Queens after a quick drug-fuelled one night stand days before he met his still loving wife Lisa. We quickly bring this kid Lavelle (a rather anonymous Jermaine Fowler) to Zamunda, along with his mum (Lesley Jones) and uncle (Tracy Morgan) and most of the humour comes from these siblings from Queens getting used to the luxury of palace life.  The dramatic tension, such as it is, comes from Lavelle feeling he doesn't want to be a king in the mold of his grandfather, or to marry General Izzi's subservient daughter, much as his father before him. 

It's kind of strange to say but neither Murphy nor Hall steal the show in this sequel except in their prosthetic heavy avatars in the barber shop.  For me, Murphy and a old Jewish guy greeting Akeem and Semi after 30-odd years as "Kunta Kinte and Ebola" was worth the price of admission alone. Much of the comedy comes from Jones and Morgan as the Queens siblings. But all of them are thoroughly upstaged by Wesley Snipes as General Izzi, a neighbouring warlord who falls somewhere between kilt-wearing Idi Amin and Idris Elba in Beasts of No Nation, but with ALL the swagger. His costumes, dance moves, accent - it's all instantly iconic. And that's the key to why I found this movie successful - yes it's fanservice, and I was serviced - but there were enough fun new characters to make it feel fresh too. I couldn't have asked for more. 

COMING 2 AMERICA was released on Amazon Prime Video on March 5th. It has a running time of 110 minutes and is rated PG-13.