Tuesday, December 29, 2020

THE MIDNIGHT SKY


THE MIDNIGHT SKY is a deeply derivative, mediocre sci-fi movie that will be utterly predictable and unsatisfying to anyone even half decent with the canon. It stars and is directed by George Clooney. He plays a scientist on a future earth ravished by some kind of non-specific disaster. Naturally he's also dying because Pathos. As is the way with these sorts of film, scientific geniuses are self-involved dicks, so earlier in his life he has turned his back on the love of his life and his daughter. So when in old age this dying scientist starts seeing a young girl called Iris in his arctic base, it doesn't take a genius to figure out that he's hallucinating his little abandoned girl. Together they travel to a different arctic base to send a signal to some astronauts not to come home, but to go back to a moon that is capable of sustaining life. Why does George need to travel to another base? So that he can turn in one of those Man vs Nature performances (think Leonardo di Caprio in THE REVENANT or Tom Hanks in CAST AWAY) that Oscar voters love. Except Clooney's performance is mediocre at best and the stakes really don't seem as grave as in THE REVENANT. There is no doubt he'll survive if only to connect with the astronauts. Also it really pissed me off that Clooney as director doesn't obey the rules of hallucinated little girls. If Clooney's character can't see her, we shouldn't be able to see her. Come on Clooney you should know this - you did star in that piss awful remake of SOLARIS!

By far the more interesting part of the film takes place on the spaceship that has discovered the new life-sustaining moon, per Clooney's predictions. It's staffed by David Oyelowo and Felicity Jones as a pregnant husband and wife research team as well as sidekicks like Kyle Chandler. His character exists to show the dilemma the scientists face upon hearing Clooney's news. Do you return home to try and find and admittedly die with your family? Or do you go to the new moon and try to "do better this time"? But even in this strand it all feels like stuff we've seen before, and the way in which space and moonwalks are photographed just cannot compete with superior films like GRAVITY and FIRST MAN.

The bottom line is that you would be better off watching any of the other movies that I have referenced in this review. 

THE MIDNIGHT SKY is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 118 minutes.

Monday, December 28, 2020

AK VS AK


Anil Kapoor is the real life ageing former "hero" of Bollywood, scion of a famous acting dynasty and most famous for his role as Mr India in 1987. Think Bollywood's Tom Hanks, married forever to his wife, with two lovely kids. Anurag Kashyap is the self-styled Tarantino of Bollywood - the young upstart crafting gritty sweary gangster dramas - scion of no particular family with a car-crash personal life. 

This hilarious, smart, kinetic mockumentary begins with Kashyap insulting Kapoor as a has-been at a film-festival, resulting in a social media furore and his career nosediving. A year later, Kashyap decides to extract his revenge by kidnapping Kapoor's real life daughter Sonam and giving Kapoor till sunrise to find her. He can't call the police; he can't ask for help; all phone calls have to be on loudpspeaker; and Kashyap's camera has to capture it all. The result will be, per Kashyap, an amazing action thriller that catapults his career back to the A-list.

The result is one of the smartest, funniest thrillers ever made in India.  Kashyap perfectly portrays a kind of manic insanity and reminds us he's actually a very good actor as well as a pioneering director.  But it's Anil Kapoor who steals the show, shaking of his good guy image in numerous hilarious incompetent punch-ups with Kashyap. His real-life son Harsh Kapoor also gives a great cameo as an idiot fanboy describing his own potential action scene.

But there's a dark underside to this superb comedy-thriller.  It comments on the superficiality of selfie culture, with an increasingly beaten-up, bloody and desperate Kapoor being asked for selfies by seemingly oblivious fanboys.  And in the best scene of the film, a totally broken Kapoor is commanded to dance like a performing monkey, still bringing the crowd to cheering applause with a hit from 1987.  There's also a wry comment about the misogyny of Bollywood, but to discuss that is to spoil the superb end-reveal.

To be sure, you'll get more out of this film if you're cineliterate, and equally versed in Hollywood and Bollywood references.  Like Tarantino, Avinash Sampath's script is chock-full of knowing references. But Mr007 has no background in Bollywood and didn't know who either of the AK's were but thoroughly enjoyed the film on its own terms regardless. 

Highly recommended. 

AK VS AK has a running time of 108 minutes. It is streaming on Netflix.

Sunday, December 27, 2020

SOUL


SOUL is a deeply affecting and visually ravishing film from Pixar. It stars Jamie Foxx as a mild-mannered, warm-hearted jazz musician called Joe who never quite got that big break and has ended up teaching band class.  A grateful former pupil finally hooks him up with a big break but Joe has an accident and dies. He ends up quite literally on a staircase to heaven but fights to come back and play his big gig, meeting a little unborn soul called 22 on the way. So they get back to New York but end up in the wrong bodies - 22 in Joe, and Joe in a cat! And what ensues is your classic body mix-up comedy, along the lines of Freaky Friday or Big. The different perspective allows 22 to find joy in music and simply living, and allows Joe to realise that Jazz isn't what gives him purpose after all - it's acts of kindness and living each day. 

What elevates this film beyond the classic body mix-up comedy is its heart and its imagination. Speaking to its heart, I don't think I've ever seen a film portray the joy of playing music so beautifully, or the awe and joy that hearing someone lost in the moment can inspire. I'm not even talking about Joe here. The best moment is seeing a young girl called Chloe sit on Joe's staircase playing her trombone, and 22, in Joe's body, look on in awe. There's also something really wonderfully touching and joyful in how Moonwind (Graham Norton) is portrayed. Normally, hippies and kooks are portrayed as Goopy idiots, but here they are treated with affection. They also have a kind of wisdom and a part to play.

As to the imagination, this film pushes animation beyond anything I've ever seen before.  The beautifully re-created contemporary New York is sunlit and sepia toned and captures both its beauty and rambunctiousness - from the crazy soundscape of a New York pavement to the crowded jangling of a subway train. This would be achievement enough but it contrasts to brilliantly with the ethereal dreamworlds of the The Great Before, a strange in-between, and The Great Beyond. The Great Beyond is a stunning black and white abstract moving walkway with a strange electronic soundtrack that feels both odd and reassuring. The in between world is again monochromatic but drawn in 2-D and the most starkly abstract. And then we land in The Great Before which is all luminous pastels and fuzzy edges. I particularly liked the design of the wire-frame 2-D characters that shepherd the little souls. It's just amazing how much character and expression the animators managed to get into these simple abstract figures. 

The resulting film is a tour de force of visual imagination with a score as varied and wonderful. This is the best that Pixar has yet produced. 

SOUL is rated PG and has a running time of 100 minutes. It is streaming on Disney+.

Saturday, December 26, 2020

MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM


It's a searingly hot day in 1920s Chicago.  A black blues band is shut into a dank dark basement to rehearse for a recording session.  The session is run by rich white men.  The star is late. And she is well aware of the delicate power balance that lies between her - the moneymaker - and the men who control access to the record business.  She is Ma Rainey - the Mother of the Blues - a big butch black woman who wears greasepaint make-up and a horse-hair wig and sings and speaks with an authoritative growl. She knows what she wants - whether that's the complete devotion of her lover Dussie-Mae, or a cold coca-cola, or her stuttering nephew to speak on her track. She holds both her manager and the studio boss in contempt and with good reason. She knows full well how the North is just as racist as the South. Most importantly for the plot of this chamber piece, Ma Rainey has no time for the pretentious jazz stylings of Levee Green, or for his eyeing up her lover, or for any kind of destabilising of her core style when Bessie Smith is rising up as a rival.  Levee is, by contrast, a man who still thinks his talent will win him a fair shake by the recording studio. Although we realise as the film goes on just how angry, and damaged, and traumatised, and violent, he is. Because this is a film that does not shy away from describing and showing the most brutal forms of racism - whether rape and lynching, or the exploitation of black talent. Life is truly a brick wall behind a locked door.  Ma Rainey knows this from the start: Levee comes to a painful realisation during the course of the film.

The resulting film is good if you take it as it is - a filmed play.  As such the language (Ruben Santiago-Hudson adapting August Wilson) is stylised and the action largely confined to either the rehearsal room or the recording room.  We have moments of high drama in the form of powerful monologues by Ma Rainey and Levee, and a final act release of tension. If you take it as it is, this really is a powerful and moving drama. Viola Davis' Ma Rainey is an instant icon of queer and black cinema - a powerful and uncompromising figure who speaks honestly to the racism of her time. Kudos to the costume and make-up designers that gave her heft and sweat and revolting make-up - underlining the fact that she was not going to survive a more superficial mass marketing age. But it's Chadwick Boseman in his final role that steals the show, with his two powerful monologues. The latter is a violent indictment of an absent God, and given what we now know about Boseman's fatal illness, and can see in his thinner frame, it has an extra pathos. I suspect that he will be posthumously nominated for Awards and deservedly so.

MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM is rated R and has a running time of 94 minutes. It is streaming on Netflix.

Thursday, December 10, 2020

THE DIG


THE DIG is an incredibly earnest and prettily produced historical drama, but one that falls prey to lumpen dialogue, heavy-handed politics and cliched character development.  

It's a retelling of the discovery of an Anglo-Saxon burial boat and a cache of rare artefacts in an archaeological dig in Suffolk, in 1939.  The find is familiar to most British schoolchildren, especially if like me you grew up in the area, and many of us took school-trips to see the Sutton Hoo finds. They were revolutionary because of their rarity but also because of how they redefined how we considered the "dark ages".  Through the sophistication of the artefacts, historians could see that Anglo-Saxon culture was actually far more developed than had been presumed.  The film wants to tell us this too - and does so with Basil Exposition levels of clumsiness, usually taking the form of excited declamatory statements from Ken Stott's British Museum archaeologist. 

Archaeology being a fairly dull, painstaking exercise, the screenwriter Moira Buffini decides to add some excitement with a couple of action scenes and a hokey romance. The former take the form of a scene where the gifted amateur archaeologist Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes) nearly suffocates when the dig collapses on him, as well as a scene where a RAF pilot crashes into a nearby river.  The latter takes the form of Lily James' archaeologist Peggy Preston realising her husband (Ben Chaplin) is probably gay and at the very least frigid resulting in her having sex with Johnny Flynn's amateur photographer, Stuart Piggott.

Are these spoilers? No, not really. Everything in this film is so clearly telegraphed you can see the character arcs and plot twists coming as soon as the characters are introduced. Lest you ever forget, war is imminent! So we get RAF planes flying overhead at every moment, and this underscores the DOOM that overhangs Carey Mulligan's sick landowner. The inevitable battle between the amateurs and the institutional control freaks at the British Museum is, well, inevitable. And as soon as Lily James turns up in her scantily clad holiday clothes with her frigid husband you can see the affair coming a mile off. 

The politics is heavy handed too. There's a running thread of the Establishment not valuing outsiders - whether it's Mrs Pretty not being allowed to go to university, or Mr Brown not being given credit for the dig, or Peggy Preston being patronised by pretty much everyone except Cousin Stuart. And yet this comes up against an almost Downton Abbey-esque doffing of the flat tweed cap with Mr Brown and his wife grateful for any crumbs of praise from Mrs Pretty. 

What's so annoying about all this is that the film, directed by Simon Stone, is actually well made insofar as it has lovely lush British golden hour country landscape cinematography; a lot of care has been taken over period costumes and art direction; and the cast is first-rate (even in Mulligan is way too young to play Mrs Pretty). It's just all so wasted on such a twee pointless script. I would much rather have watched a doc on Sutton Hoo instead. 

THE DIG is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 112 minutes. It will be released on January 29th 2021.

Monday, October 26, 2020

BORAT SUBSEQUENT MOVIEFILM


In a world where large swathes of educated people wilfully believe that vaccinations cause autism; and that the Clintons and Bidens are part of an elite paedo ring; and that Covid is a hoax; I am was was really wary of watching a new BORAT film.  Isn't real life already filled with toxic racism, homophobia and misogyny?  How do you satirise bigotry when the entire political discourse of America in 2020 feels like it's gone through the Looking Glass?  But I am so happy that I watched this film, because it's really fucking funny, and really fucking horrifying, and both are important things to experience and acknowledge right now. Because whether or not the White Supremacist in the White House is evicted next January, the attitudes he exposed, the grievances and bigotry he unleashed, the lies he peddled will remain in the public discourse.  We need Borat to help us channel our anger into laughter, but we need to feel angry nonetheless.

Of course, if the world has changed for us, it's also changed for Sacha Baron Cohen. Borat is so recognisable he has a knock off fancy dress costume as seen in this sequel.  So Cohen couldn't actually use the Borat character to lure his bigoted marks into a false sense of security and expose their hatred.  Rather, he has to spend most of the film as Borat dressing up as someone else. And the real heavy lifting is done by the previously unknown but apparently comic genius Maria Bakalova, playing Borat's daughter Tutar. It is Bakalova that exposes the misogyny and sexual perversion at the heart of public life, not least in the coup de theatre that is the final scene where she plays a OAN-style news reporter in mini-dress and blonde wig, buttering up a lascivious Rudy Giuliani, who is all too ready to have a drink with her in a bedroom, let her take off his mike, lie back on the bed and apparently start to masturbate. What an absolute sleazebag. 

Which isn't to say that Baron Cohen/Borat doesn't have some phenomenal scenes himself.  In this sequel, we see Boart released from a long prison stint for embarrassing Kazakhstan's dictator, and sent to America to offer Trump a gift to make sure that he's seen as a friend of Trump in the same way that Bolsanaro and Putin are.  But Borat's daughter Tutar has contrived to be shipped to America instead, so that Borat has to offer HER as a gift. Cue some really queasy discourse about the pornification of young girls, and the appropriate role of women in modern life.  The most awful scenes are probably a tie between an anti-abortion pastor ignoring a case of incest and rape to focus on preventing abortion, and Borat in disguise singing a song to the delight of his bigoted audience as they chant along that their enemies should be given the Wuhan Flu while raising Nazi salutes.

Basically this is a film that makes you sick, but also makes you laugh in the way that maybe only Sacha Baron Cohen can. It's absolutely the film for this moment.

BORAT SUBSEQUENT MOVIEFILM has a running time of 95 minutes and is rated R. It is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

ON THE ROCKS


Laura is a thirtysomething young mother whose husband is always travelling with work. Her life has been subsumed by getting the kids from A to B, and as much as she loves them, she's struggling to create the mental space to focus on writing her new book. Even worse, rather than having a rich inner intellectual life, she's stuck listening to other mums complain about their dating lives.  And even when Laura's husband Dean does coming home from yet another travel trip, he's exhausted, she's exhausted, the conversation gets mired in the bureaucratic minutiae of family life.  Things hit a tipping point when Dean drunkenly starts having sex with Laura but pulls back when he realises it's her. And then she finds his hot colleague Fiona's beauty kit in HIS suitcase. Is he having an affair?

Laura confides in her father Felix who argues that Dean probably is having an affair, because heck, that's what men do.  Felix seems to relish spending time with Laura as they tail Dean through New York and even to Mexico to uncover evidence of his misdeeds. And all of this makes for a hilarious buddy comedy that could easily serve as a prequel for a detective duo TV show. Rashida Jones (Laura) and Bill Murray (Felix) have real chemistry and it's just an absolute blast seeing them slope around Manhattan together in his absurd red sports car just being charismatic and witty and rogueish in that Bill Murray way. And we also get a side order of comedic genius from Jenny Slate (LANDLINE) as the hilariously self-involved school mum.

But there's so much more going on in this film. It's almost as if Bill Murray is back in THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS but this time he's playing the Gene Hackman role.  Laura's willingness to suspect her husband of infidelity is clearly coloured by being raised in a broken home. Likewise, her father's willingness to think Dean is cheating is coloured by his own predilections.   It's clear that Laura feels lost and hurt.  But is any of that her husband's fault?  Or is this just motherhood damaging her sense of self, and thus self-esteem.  And is that lack of self-esteem in her marriage bringing up issues around her own childhood and her father's infidelity.  

So, from my perspective, this film isn't about whether the husband cheated or not at all. And that's why the Marlon Wayans character, Dean, is so vacuous.  We actually don't care about him, and maybe neither do the lead characters. In the words of Laura, "what if I'm just in a rut?" And also paraphrasing from Laura, what if her dad just wants to spend more time with her?  And from writer-director Sofia Coppola (THE BEGUILED), maybe the shadow Laura is trying to move out from under isn't that of motherhood but her larger-than-life dad?  

ON THE ROCKS is rated R and has a running time of 96 minutes. It is streaming on Apple TV+.

Sunday, October 18, 2020

AMMONITE - BFI London Film Festival 2020 - Closing Night Gala


AMMONITE suffers in my head from comparisons with the devastatingly brilliant PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE, which played at last year's festival and has a very similar story at its heart. In both cases a young girl trapped in either the reality or prospect of a loveless and controlling marriage meets a talented older working class woman with a professional skill.  In both cases, the meeting takes place in a geographically isolated and brutally beautiful place and the relationship that builds is a slow-burn to a physically passionate end.  But in the latter, I truly believed in the connection between the two women, and in the former I'm not sure I did.

Part of the reason for this is that it was 50 mins for the protagonists in AMMONITE to have an actual (if insubstantial) conversation and 1hr10m for them to have a kiss.  And the interest in the characters is deeply asymmetrical.  Kate Winslet's Mary Anning IS fascinating. She's so repressed and locked in - maybe as much by her consciousness of her poverty and working class status as by her homosexuality - and has a fierce pride that refuses to accept help.  By contrast, Saiorse Ronan's Charlotte is the typical silly Victorian woman, fit for nothing but to be admired for her beauty. This is not to victim-shame, but she is exactly the product of societal strictures and doesn't really display an inner life in the way that PORTRAIT's young woman does. There doesn't seem to be much under the surface.  I had the feeling in AMMONITE that I always get watching Brideshead Revisited. I can understand why Charles is fascinated by Sebastian but not why Sebastian wants to hang out with Charles!

So the relationship develops and is crystallised at a beautifully staged elegant supper party where Charlotte is immediately embraced by the ladies, and Mary is left sitting excluded at the back, full of jealousy and surprise at just how much she resents them taking *her* girl away from her. We then move to a hyper explicit sex scene.  Now, it's really great to see a no-nonsense depiction of lesbian sex on screen, but it did feel strange in a movie where so much is repressed and withheld. It just felt tonally jarring rather than a cathartic release and a meeting of bodies and souls.

On the positive side, this movie looks and sounds ravishing. The costumes and way in which Lyme Regis is depicted is as austere and fierce and unique as Mary, and the sound design batters our ears with gales and tides that hint at what Mary feels under her still surface.  The acting was also top notch as one might expect,  with Winslet giving a masterclass in facial acting where there is no dialogue.  I also loved the Fiona Shaw character Elizabeth and wanted to see more of her, because I feel so much of Mary's characters reticence is due to class rather than queer concerns and that plays into their former relationship. I also love that because Charlotte is so worldly she has only experienced love as a kind of material possession and so when she falls for Mary she also expresses that with a kind of material possession. Just as she, as a wife, was expected to be subsumed without objection into her husband's world, she now expects that of Mary.

I also love how male a space the British Museum is, and the power of these two women at the centre of it at the end - as though the director Francis Lee (GOD'S OWN COUNTRY) is finally re-centring women in British history. Here is a woman who's name is not mentioned on the fossil that's on display at the Museum, but she can reclaim it visually in this film. Truly, it has been a long time coming.

AMMONITE has a running time of 120 minutes and played Toronto and London 2020.  It opens in the USA on November 13th.

Saturday, October 17, 2020

LOVERS ROCK - BFI London Film Festival 2020 - Day 12


LOVERS ROCK is another of the five-part series of films that Steve McQueen (TWELVE YEARS A SLAVE) has made to be shown on the BBC as part of its Small Axe series of films exploring British Black history.  It couldn't be more different from the courtroom drama, MANGROVE, that opened the festival.  Rather, this is a celebration of a certain time and a certain style of home-made West Indian entertainment - the house party! As the movie opens in early 80s Notting Hill, some young boys are clearing out the furniture from a house, and some women are cooking up a storm while singing together.  Hours later young West Indian men and women don their finery and pay their fifty pence to come into an absolutely banging house party, with the most amazing music. The atmosphere is hot and sultry with dancing in the queue for the loo and people eating home-made food and making out in the back garden.  As with all parties, there are unwelcome attentions from men, but also more happy couplings, and evidently a copious amount of weed being smoked.  The best way to approach this film - with little plot or dialogue - is just to be carried along on the positive vibe. To become so absorbed, as the revellers do, that when the song Silly Games stops, you feel the music continue, with perhaps the most tuneful dancers of all time singing a cappella. The sun comes up and so does reality.  This safe and warm private space that celebrates West Indian culture is exposed for what it is.  An attempted sexual assault is thwarted.  And as a new couple leaves to make out in the workplace of the boy, his boss finds them and scolds them.  The black man puts on his cockney geezer accent that makes him less Other and threatening to the White man. The compromises of living as an ethnic minority begin again. 

LOVERS ROCK has a running time of 68 minutes. It is the second episode in Steve McQueen's Small Axe TV series.  It will air on UK TV on November 22nd and be released on the internet in the USA on November 27th. 

FRIENDSHIPS DEATH (1987) - BFI London Film Festival 2020 - Day 9


FRIENDSHIP'S DEATH was originally released in 1987 but has since been lovingly restored by the BFI and is playing in this year's London Film Festival. 

It stars a very young Tilda Swinton as woman who seemingly just shows up in Jordan in the middle of the Israeli-Palestinian war of 1970, and is befriended by a journalist played by Big Paterson.  The rest of the movie plays as a two-hander and takes place almost entirely within the confines of a hotel room in Amman. We hear the bullets and bombs firing and very occasionally see archive news footage but essentially this feels like a filmed stage play, albeit with some rather funky camera angles and some deeply cool outfits for Swinton.

The conceit of the film is that Swinton is actually an alien from a more advanced planet where the biological beings have long since died out and been superseded by cylons. She has been sent to Earth to make contact with the academic community and give them an axiomatic ethical system that can ensure humanity's peaceful survival.  She ends up in Amman by mistake, and seeing the brutality of war gives up on her mission, rather accurately predicting that if she did make it to MIT she'd just be turned over to the FBI for endless testing and exploitation - and that - in the funniest line of the film - if she went to England the authorities there would do the same but just more slowly.

Those looking for a sci-fi film will be disappointed.  This is actually a rather more philosophical film where two smart people - well one person and one robot -  debate the Singularity and ethics. The wonder of the film is that despite its short running time, we really believe in the friendship that has built up between the pair, and indeed delight in Tilda Swinton's delight at the absurdity of shaving, or at building things with Lego! This is - then - a beautifully acted chamber piece, remarkably prescient in its ideas and understanding of technology.

FRIENDSHIP'S DEATH originally played Toronto 1987 and Berlin 1988. It is playing in the BFI London Film Festival 2020 in a new restored version from the BFI National Archive.

Friday, October 16, 2020

NEW ORDER / NUEVO ORDEN - BFI London Film Festival 2020 - Day


NEW ORDER is a nasty brutal short film about social inequality, envy and corruption.  As the film opens, patients are being kicked off hospital beds to accommodate the victims of a brutal social uprising. We cut to naked cadavers splattered with green paint.  We then cut as brutally again to a wedding in a spectacular mansion where guests hand envelopes bulging with cash to the bride and her mother locks them in a safe.  Their old gardener interrupts the celebrations. His wife is desperately ill but was kicked out of the hospital and now he needs money for a private operation. Mother, father, brother all reject charity but the bride wants to help, and when the social justice rioters reach the wedding house and start shooting and looting, she flees with the gardener. A day later, the house is a scene of carnage and murder.  The bride, who had taken shelter with the gardener, is seized by armed militia.  She's rounded up with other rich people, brutalised, raped and then offered up for ransom.  As the movie ends, whatever this New Order is that has staged the coup has become as bad as the old regime - and may indeed be in cahoots with parts of it.  We end the film with extrajudicial killings.

What is director Michel Franco trying to do with this film?  He rightly shows how the politics of envy underlies a lot of modern political unrest. He rightly shows that rich people can be really self-centred. He rightly shows that there is brutality at the heart of humanity and in that sense, this film makes an interesting companion piece to SHADOW COUNTRY, also playing in this festival. But these are not especially radical thoughts, and I didn't care about any of these characters. The movie soon became a kind of thought exercise - what would happen if...?  And I would have liked more precision and clarity around the ending. 

NEW ORDER has a running time of 88 minutes.  It played Venice 2020 where it won the Silver Lion. It also played Toronto, San Sebastian and London 2020.  It does not yet have a commercial release data.

THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7


Aaron Sorkin follows up his directorial debut MOLLY'S GAME with a movie whose subject is far more in his wheelhouse, and what an energetic, pointed, anger-making film he has created in THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7.  Its concerns are those that Sorkin has explored throughout his career:  the liberal fight against injustice, corruption and political repression.  He cast these ideas in a warm-fuzzy light where optimism won in his hit TV show The West Wing. He was angrier and more cynical in The Newsroom.  And in the Trump era, the anger is rightly turned up, and the absurdity of a system wherein the rule of law has been bent out of all recognition fully explored.  

The film opens with a montage that takes us back to the 1960s and the potent combination of the civil rights movement and anti-Vietnam protests. We see RFK beg for calm after the assassination of MLK before himself being assassinated. We then zoom in to the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago.  Protestors flooded into the City hoping to protest Vietnam in front of the media outside the convention hotel soon clashed with the police brutally trying to keep them away.  Once Nixon is elected his regime decides to prosecute the so-called ringleaders of the riots for Conspiracy to Incite Riots and other charges, even throwing in iconic Black Panther Bobby Seale, who had no part of it, for good measure.  The charges were clearly trumped up, the judge (Frank Langella) was clearly biased and bogus, the jury was tampered with to ensure a friendly verdict, and the defendants were clearly there just to be made an example of.

Sacha Baron Cohen is absolutely note perfect as Yippie leader Abbie Hoffman. He gets all the funniest lines because he is most comfortable with showing the absurdity of proceedings.  But it's Eddie Redmayne that has the more interesting role as Tom Hayden - the apparently more sensible, less showy leader of a student protest movement who hates Hoffman's grandstanding. Much of the intellectual back and forth of the movie comes between them as they throw barbs about how best to serve the movement.  And they are joined in a kind of Sorkin Triumvirate of Repartee by Mark Rylance as progressive attorney William Kunstler. It's so clear that the prosecution is bent (despite an ill-conceived attempt to soften Joseph Gordon-Levitt's prosecution attorney) that all the real intellectual fun is to be had in the arguments WITHIN the defense.  

The result is a courtroom drama that is thrilling and rightly anger-making, and a movie where Sorkin's trademark razor-sharp combative dialogue is absolutely right for the job.  But he has also come on leaps and bounds as a director of action. The way in which he reconstructs the riot as he interrogates the version of events that Tom Hayden is telling himself is a visual and editorial tour-de-force.

THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7 has been released on Netflix due to Covid. It has a running time of 127 minutes and is rated R.

DAVID BYRNE'S AMERICAN UTOPIA - BFI London Film Festival 2020 - Day 8


David Byrne's American Utopia is the concert film we need right now.  It's hard to believe this guy is 68 years old. His voice is still so strong and his creative instincts still so full of energy and innovation.  A year ago he took his new album American Utopia to Broadway, mixing it up with classing songs from the Talking Heads canon.  But rather than have a flashy stage set-up or costume changes or a conventional band playing static on stage, he decided to strip everything back to 11 people, wirelessly hooked into a sound system, with the same grey suits.  The joy and excitement of the stage performance comes - then - simply from their movement, their music and a kick-ass lighting design.  I've never seen something so kinetic and organic and authentically brilliant.  The music and message speak to a kinder, more inclusive America.  And it's sheer joy just to see so much talent on stage.  Praise should also go to Spike Lee for knowing just when to show the choreography in full, or when to focus in on the artists, and for matching the energy of the show with his kinetic, flowing camera work.  

DAVID BYRNE'S AMERICAN UTOPIA has a running time of 105 minutes. It played Toronto and London 2020 and was released in the USA yesterday. 

ANOTHER ROUND / DRUK - BFI London Film Festival 2020 - Day 8


Four middle-class, middle-aged Danish men are living in the Talking Heads nightmare - is this my beautiful wife? is this my beautiful car? how did I get here?!  So on a night out they decide to follow some cockamamie theory that if they just keep their blood alcohol level every so slightly raised at all times, they'll be looser, happier, more confident and more engaged with their lives.  And indeed it seems to work! Mads Mikkelsen's high school teacher - previously so disengaged he got hauled up his students - is suddenly like something out DEAD POET'S SOCIETY!  But the boys don't stop there, do they.  They decide to keep on up'ing the alcohol levels - for science! And naturally, as they start showing up drunk to work and getting bladdered on a Saturday night they might look like they're having the time of their lives, but their families notice and it wreaks havoc on their personal lives.  And - of course - alcohol might take the edge off anxiety or boredom and help a transformation, but it can't solve deep underlying pain.  And the beauty of this film is that as much as it is a wonderful celebration of male friendship and the joys of getting slightly drunk, it's also not blind to the way in which some people cannot stick to a moderate high and for whom alcoholism will exacerbate their depression The result is a film that is beautifully balanced - showing the negative and the positive.  And when it ends with a moment of true physical and emotional catharsis that exploits Mads Mikkelsen's dance training (who knew?!) it doesn't feel cheap or twee but earned and glorious and liberating.

Kudos to all involved - not least director and co-writer Thomas Vinterberg for his elegant and intimate direction, as well as Tobias Lindholm for his truthful and deeply funny script - but most of all to Mikkelsen for a physical performance that is so finely calibrated that it once again impresses you with his control and mastery of the art. 

ANOTHER ROUND has a running time of 113 minutes. The film played Toronto, San Sebastian and London 2020. It will be released in the UK on November 20th 

AFTER LOVE - BFI London Film Festival - Day 9


Aleem Khan's AFTER LOVE, is a deeply moving drama that is told with a controlled, spare austerity and visual style that is truly impressive in a debut feature.  The film stars the superb Joanna Scanlan as Fahima - a white English woman who converted to Islam when she married her husband many decades ago.  As the film opens we see a scene of normal and apparently happy domesticity before the husband quickly dies. Fahima discovers an ID card and mobile phone among her late husband's effects with messages from a woman - Genevieve - in Calais. It soon becomes clear that her husband had another family a mere 20 miles away across The Channel.  Fahima takes the decision to go and confront this woman, but in a very telling moment, she is mistaken for a cleaner, and in a state of shock, assumes that role and discovers more about the Calais family. 

So much is said and left unsaid about the immigrant experience in that assumption that she's a cleaner, and in setting the film in Calais.  Indeed, in the film as a whole, there is very little dialogue. Scanlon shows Fahima's reactions through her physical and facial acting.  There's also something extremely clean and disciplined and austere about how Khan chooses to show her journey. A great example is Fahima's journey across the Channel is a bus, which is shown with three rather elegant  scenes of her sitting in exactly the same place on the bus and on our screens, cut to show the passing of time.  Khan also has a beautiful way of capturing still tableaux and landscape. When he moves his camera, it is with slow and deliberate intent.

In the other roles Nathalie Richard is a great foil for Scanlon as Genevieve, but it's really Talid Ariss who steals the show in a role I won't name for spoilers.  Both contrast nicely with Scanlon's Fahima in their ease with expressing their emotions.  By contrast, there's a moment near the end of this film where Fahima embraces someone but pauses beforehand, unsure about whether she's going to allow herself this moment of emotional catharsis. It's as though she's been waiting all film to exhale.  The power of the moment is intense. 

AFTER LOVE has a running time of 89 minutes. The film played Toronto and London 2020. It does not yet have a commercial release date. 

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

SHADOW COUNTRY / KRAJINA VE STINU - BFI London Film Festival 2020 - Day 8


Bohdan Slama's SHADOW COUNTRY is a devastating film insofar as it unblinklingly depicts the true pettiness, violence and bigotry at the heart of humanity, regardless of whether one has lived cheek by jowl with ones neighbours for decades. 

The entirety of his film takes place is a small village which is perhaps Austrian, German or Czech depending on which country is invading the other.  As a result, its inhabitants are a rich cultural mix of ethnic Germans, ethnic Czechs and Jews.  In such a place, the language one chooses to speak in becomes a political act and an ethnic or nationalist declaration. And with Nazis, Czech patriots and Soviets in power at various times from the 1930s to 1950s, allegiances shift under the exigencies of survival.

As the movie opens, the Germans are taking over.  One of the scenes that affected me most deeply was a peasant woman saying very simply that if she agrees to speak German it could mean a bigger allotment: she's not political, she just wants to eat. Of course others take a more proactive role in enabling the Nazis, with the mayor becoming Reich's Commissar, and a willing woman taking a Nazi to bed. One of the most moving stories is of a Czech man who has married a Jewish woman. He is asked to divorce her and refuses.  She and her father are murdered in the Holocaust and he barely survives a concentration camp. Returning to the village, he is seen as a kind of community hero, but he's so deeply embittered and vengeful that he stands by while the partisans round up and summarily massacre the Nazi collaborators.

Apparently this was a common occurrence in post-war Czechoslovakia, where there was no firm rule of law, and no-one knew who was in charge.  And this film shows very clearly and convincingly how it could happen that people turned against each other in vengeance.

The result is a film that is absolutely engrossing and horrifying and yet also provoked empathy and sympathy in the most unlikely of situations.  It really forces us to ask what we would do in such circumstances.  It reminded me somewhat of the iconic German TV show Heimat, which also focusses on the impact of war on a small town and at the individual level, and which was also shot in black and white. 

SHADOW COUNTRY has a running time of 135 minutes. The film is currently playing the BFI London Film Festival 2020. It does not yet have a commercial release date.

ONE MAN AND HIS SHOES - BFI London Film Festival 2020 - Day 7


Yemi Bamiro's documentary is a kinetic, well-constructed and insightful look at the marketing genius of Nike to find a young Michael Jordan and turn him into a global brand. Rather than marketing an entire basketball team with a sneaker aimed at active athletes, Nike marketed an individual and aimed at the wider urban i.e. black youth market.  They were targeting kids with little money and no real stake in the American Dream with a brand that personified achievement and excellence and, indeed, rebellion. For sure, it was useful that the NBA banned its first shoe. But Nike marketing execs had the balls to lean into that and get Spike Lee to direct some cutting edge black and white ads that leant into the Air Jordan's coolness.  Is it the shoe? Or is it Mike?   And thanks to Spike Lee, being a sneakerhead became a thing.

On the way, the documentary shows how the Air Jordan became one of the most must-have products of its time, with queues for the new editions reminiscent of how Apple markets its iPhones today. In a sense, Nike set the template for brilliantly successful marketing campaigns. The darker side is that poor urban kids were robbing each other for their trainers, and apparently this trend of violence continues today. 

I was with the documentary right up until the final ten minutes. I loved the access to the key Nike executives at the time, and I loved Jemele Hill* - a phenomenal sports writer and cultural commentator - as a talking head. But I missed some things. It would have been cool to get a Converse marketing exec on to explain how they felt seeing Nike just blow them out of the water in the early 90s. And it would've been cool to get Michael Jordan himself. Of course that wasn't going to happen because the final ten minutes criticises Jordan heavily for not being a political activist or at the very least for not publicly commenting on the violence committed to steal Air Jordans.

Now this took me back to my viewing of ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI... earlier in the festival where Leslie Odom Jr as Sam Cooke powerfully argues that if the aim of the civil rights movement is respect and economic freedom, well Michael Jordan leads by example. He doesn't have to do anything else.  On Nike, I just feel that you can't criticise a company for doing what it SHOULD do - maximise sales.  Where the criticism lies, for me, is the wider societal systemic issues and personal family structure issues that lead to young kids having a) access to guns b) such little self esteem that they think sneakers are worth killing for and c) such a lack of family values being instilled to know you don't rob and kill someone for sneakers.  Indeed, Jemele Hill speaks to the second point very effectively indeed. 

ONE MAN AND HIS SHOES has a running time of 83 minutes. The film was released on TV in the USA in June. It is currently playing the BFI London Film Festival 2020.

* Fans of The Wire should check out her podcast that deep dives into that show episode by episode alongside Van Lathan - The Wire - Way Down In The Hole.

Monday, October 12, 2020

SUPERNOVA - BFI London Film Festival 2020 - Day 5


Sam and Tusker have been happily married for years, and clearly still absolutely adore one another.  But Tusker has dementia and is deteriorating rapidly in ways that he's trying to hide from Sam: a novelist, he can no longer write.  Meanwhile Sam has his secrets too.  He has steeled himself to the idea of caring for Tusker whatever may come, but he's absolutely scared of it. 

And so this couple set off in a camper van for a holiday in the Lake District to visit family en route to a concert that Sam is giving.  We see them bicker and snuggle as couples do.  We also see them edge towards the truth in the confined space of the camper van.  Finally, we enter a beautiful and isolated house where they have to tackle the most profound questions of love and life: what does one partner do when another faces death.

I don't want to say more for fear of spoiling the carefully constructed emotional arc of this film. Suffice it to say that Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci as Sam and Tusker absolutely convince as a loving couple and it is heart-breaking to see them come to terms with what is happening. And all of this is set in the most beautiful of autumnal melancholy landscapes, captured by DP Dick Pope, and in a production design suffused with rich warm oranges, browns and teal. 

This is a deeply affecting film of quiet power.  It is likely to prove provocative for anyone in a loving relationship, or grappling with loved ones dealing with dementia. In my group of cineastes we are still debating the motives and meanings of the ending, and in the process examining our own attitudes to the issues raised.  That is the sign of an intelligent film that we have taken to our hearts. Kudos to all involved, but particularly sophomore director Harry MacQueen.

SUPERNOVA has a running time of 93 minutes.  It played San Sebastian and London 2020. It will be released in the UK on November 20th. 

Sunday, October 11, 2020

INDUSTRY - BFI London Film Festival 2020 - Day 5


INDUSTRY is a new HBO/BBC TV series that has been written by two people who apparently interned in the City in this millennium and no doubt did some research beyond watching WALL STREET and reading Liar's Poker.  They seem to ignore  the fact that most jobs in the City are just rather banal, mundane, desk jobs in an environment of heavy regulation of relationships, drug use and harassment. Rather, they create a show that depicts a contemporary trading floor that feels circa 1987 rather than in a world shaped by the fallout from 2008. So our brave interns are all sex obsessed, take copious quantities of prescription and illegal drugs, and have a tenuous grasp of ethics. I suppose it is at least refreshing that they aren't babes in the wood to be corrupted by their evil bosses.  In fact our lead protagonist, Harper (Myha’la Herrold) is as dodgy as they come, faking her college credentials and trying desperately to cover up a fat finger error.  It's as though the interns themselves are living in some post WALL STREET era where they assume this is how interns behave and ethics work in investment banking.

All that aside, the show is fine to watch - and weirdly we saw episodes 1,2 and 4 and missing 3 didn't seem to make much difference.  The big twist at the end of episode 1 was very predictable.  A lot of the language around trading felt mis-cast. But I did find myself wondering what was going to happen to the characters next although it might be problematic that I found all of the kids rather unlikeable and only really cared about Ken Leong's boss Eric, and the client Natalie.  Will I watch the series when it's on TV in November? No. I'll probably re-read Liar's Poker instead. Drink straight from the source, kids!

INDUSTRY is playing the BFI London Film Festival 2020. It will air in the USA  on HBO and in the UK on the BBC starting on November 9th.

ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI... - BFI London Film Festival 2020 - Day 5

 
ONE NIGHT IN A MIAMI... is a film that is transparently an adaptation of   s stage play.  Short of a couple of boxing matches at the start, almost the entirety of the film takes place in a crappy motel bedroom, where four powerful famous black men discuss how best to advance civil rights.  As a result, debut director Regina King (Watchmen) has little opportunity to show her visual flair.  But where  she excels is in casting her four protagonists and extracting performances of real force.  

As the film opens, we think it's going to belong to Muhammad Ali, as played by Eli Goree (Riverdale). He has the physicality and the speech pattern down pat in a way that Will Smith never did, and that has me begging for a full on biopic. But back to this film, it starts with Ali defeating Henry Cooper and then Sonny Liston against the odds.  He's on the cusp of converting to Islam and rejecting his slave name. But as the film will show, Ali's mind is already made up. He has already decided to become a civil rights activist thanks to Malcolm X's tutelage. So there's no discussion to really be had, other than a rather embarrassing admission from Malcolm X that he's about to leave the Nation of Islam because of its corruption.

Neither does the film belong to NFL player and wannabe actor Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge - THE INVISIBLE MAN).  He's the least famous of the four, his mind is also basically made up to leave the NFL and pursue acting, but he also seems quietly impervious to Malcolm X's recruitment drive.

No - this film belongs to Sam Cooke and Malcolm X and the long intellectual argument they are going to have with each other about how to advance the black cause.  As played by Kingsley Ben-Adir, Malcolm X is a far more familial, kindly and quiet character than Denzel Washington's version. In fact, it comes as no surprise that he played Barack Obama in The Comey Rule.  He castigates Cooke for playing in the South and spending his life drinking and having fun on the West Coast, as if he can somehow outrun racism. But Cooke has an equally powerful argument about the end justifying the means: after all, if the Nation of Islam wants the black man to be proud and economically independent, hasn't Cooke achieved just that?  

Leslie Odom Jr. (Hamilton) OWNS this film as Cooke.  The way in which he holds in his anger at Malcolm X's condescension is just masterful, and then when he finally lets rip his argument it's powerful and impressive. But there is nothing more impressive in the film that Cooke appearing on the Johnny Carson show at the end, and giving a performance of A Change Is Gonna Come. Not only does his voice match the silky power of the real Sam Cooke, but the emotion he brings to it destroys you.  Maybe that's because while the stakes of this film couldn't be higher, we are painfully aware that two of the four protagonists aren't going to be alive more than a year later. That all this talent and justified anger and desire for change was so stupidly wasted is as crushing as realising that the change that Cooke sheds a tear for has not yet occurred, 56 years later.

ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI has a running time of 111 minutes. The film played Venice, Toronto and London 2020 and will be released on January 15th 2021. 

Saturday, October 10, 2020

WOLFWALKERS - BFI London Film Festival 2020 - Day 4


From the directorial team that brought us the delightful children's animated films SONG OF THE SEA and THE SECRET OF KELLS comes the visually stunning and warm-hearted WOLFWALKERS.  

The film is about a friendship between two young brave girls across the lines the divide the seventeenth century Irish city of Kilkenny.  On one side we have Robyn, whose English father (Sean Bean) is part of Cromwell's occupying forces.  He's a lovely father, keen to protect his young daughter, but in a dynamic not dissimilar to that between Ned and Arya Stark, she just wants to have adventures in the woods. It's there that she meets Meabh, a young girl who lives with the wolves in the woods outside the city walls.  The occupying forces, led by Simon McBurney's leader, want to get rid of any of the pagan influence of nature, and to enforce strict Christian control. They are depicted in harsh angles and strong primary colours as they move through the densely packed, vertically imposing streets of the medieval city. By contrast, the woods are gloriously vividly warmly coloured and full of organic swirling shapes and movements.  The wolves aren't the evil nasty beings the townsfolk think they are.  They just act that way to try and scare off the people who are trying to run them off. In fact, the wonderful Wolf Mother, Maebh's mum, are healers who live in harmony with nature.

And so we set up this wonderful adventure story where Maebh and Robyn team up to try and rescue Maebh's mother.  On the way, Robyn realises that she too can be a wolf at night. I loved how the animators gave us a wolf-eye perspective, changing the style of animation to show us her stunning night-vision.  And the themes of the strength of female friendship - the importance of empathy and diversity and respecting the environment - resonate too.

WOLFWALKERS has a running time of 103 minutes and is rated PG. The movie played Toronto and London 2020 and will be released in the USA on December 11th.

I AM SAMUEL - BFI London Film Festival 2020 - Day 4


I AM SAMUEL is a brave and moving documentary about one young man's struggle to be accepted as an out homosexual in contemporary Kenya. It's a country I know well and it is indeed a strange mixture of the prudishness and legal oppression of the British Victorian colonial system overlaid with the feverish condemnation of an intense evangelical Christian contemporary religious culture.  As a result, homosexuality might not be illegal, but gay sex, and to be gay is to be punished by brutal beatings and shunning.  Over a period of years following this brave family we see Samuel struggling to explain his love for his boyfriend Alex to his family, who would rather live in denial. One of Samuel's friends is beaten up just for being associated with him.  People whisper about the true nature of Samuel's friendship with Alex.  Along the way we see the community of gay friends that he has had to take shelter in, and hear their own experiences of having to come out and face family and community shunning. The wonderful thing is that by the time we get to the end of this film, Alex' name is added to family prayers and Samuel's father has come to an uneasy acceptance.  But we are painfully aware that this is the exception to the rule, and of the difficult path that Samuel and Alex and now Samuel's whole family, will face.  

To me, this is the best of what documentaries can do: they take you into a world you do not know and make you empathise with a situation that is not your own. At the same time, my showing an extreme situation, they make you reflect on the difficulties that might be faced by your gay friends in your own, supposedly liberal, society.  Given the situation in parts of the USA today, how different would it really be to Samuel's predicament?

I AM SAMUEL played HotDocs 2020 and is currently playing the BFI London Film Festival. It has a running time of 70 minutes.

MOGUL MOWGLI - BFI London Film Festival - Day 4



What a steaming pile of horse manure this film is.  Filmed in 4:3 aspect ratio for no discernible reason, the movie opens on Riz Ahmed (ROGUE ONE) playing "Zed" rapping at a concert about the conflicts arising from being an ethnic minority in contemporary Britain. We then see the selfish and utterly unsympathetic Zed get dumped by his girlfriend Bina(!) before returning home from New York to his parents in London.  He's the kind of dick that patronises his first-gen immigrant parents - telling his mum he's going to unpack a washing machine so she can't return it, insensitive to the fact that economic disruption and trauma have made her thrifty.  Anyway, things take a turn for the worst when Zed is diagnosed with a debilitating illness that sees him dependent on his dad and the NHS. In fact, one of the best things I can say about this film is that's its a really authentic and damning indictment of the decrepit NHS estate.  But it's all okay because he has a miracle cure AND makes up with his dear old dad through rapping about Toba Tek Singh.  Of course, white folks aren't going to know who that is because the movie never bothers to explain. But those of us of North Indian or Pakistani descent or those of us familiar with the short stories of MANTO from last year's festival know that he was a fictional Punjabi man driven mad by Partition. And this is the thing that really pisses me off. Partition is about as serious and traumatic a topic as it gets for Indians and Pakistanis but this film picks it up and plays with it as an image of a railway train and as a sight of a madman but never really follows through with any kind of profound conversation about how it still resonates for us today. This is a film that WANTS to be about how hard it can be to reconcile your Asian and British identity - and the differing values and misunderstandings between first, second and third get immigrants - but it just doesn't do the narrative work of taking us there.

Final comment #one - there is one good thing about this film: that for the first time on film I have seen something that happens a lot in my community: a conversation between two people where the first gen immigrant speaks one language, and the second get immigrant speaks another, and they both understand each other and it's completely normal.  That was cool to see. I suspect the director and writer was using this to show how distant Zed is from his mum, but it felt just normal and value-less to me.  

Final comment #two - There are too many scenes on the toilet in this film.

Final comment #three - The only reason to watch this film is for the pastiche rap video by Zed's arch-nemesis RPG (Nathaan Rizwan - 1917) - with his song "Pussy Fried Chicken".  This Pakistani Ali G is absolutely fucking hilarious and I long for a spin-off TV-show - the Adventures of RPG! Come on BBC! Make this happen!

MOGUL MOWGLI has a running time of 89 minutes. It played Berlin 2020 where it won the FIPRESCI prize, and it is currently playing as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2020.  It will be released in the UK on October 30th. 

SHIRLEY - BFI London Film Festival 2020 - Day 3


SHIRLEY is the most remarkable film I have seen all year - as stylish, slippery and dangerous as the writer whose fictionalised inner life it portrays.  It's filled with riotous rebellious performances and deep empathy for smart women who just won't lie down. 

The centre of the film is a phenomenal performance from Elisabeth Moss (THE HANDMAID'S TALE) as the notorious, brilliant author Shirley Jackson (The Lottery, The Haunting At Hill House).  When we meet her, Shirley is already an infamous author of dangerously dark works, earning far more than her husband, Professor Stanley Hyman. But she's also undone by depression and writer's block - visibly dishevelled, scabrous and scared to leave the house.  Meanwhile her husband (Michael Stuhlbarg) is one of those aggressively extrovert characters who might seem charming at first, but is both supportive of his wife's brilliance but also capable of nasty jealousy-inflected put-downs. He also consciously uses his buffoonish behaviour to get way too close and handsy with other women. But the brilliance of this film is to show how the couple really does love each other and respect each other.  Shirley knows Stanley cheats, and even though she hates it, she'll protect him from others exploiting that fact. And most importantly of all for a couple who live by their words, it is HIS opinion of her writing that she respects most of all.  To that end, the relationship reminded me of Leonard and Virginia Woolf as much as of WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?

The fatal mistake of young Rose Nemser (Odessa Young) is to think that Shirley really does hate her husband and that she can drive a wedge between them. Poor Rose doesn't realise that while Shirley might be fascinated by her youth, and courage in sticking around despite the barbs, at some point she will force "the children" out because she has what she needs for her book. But then again, Rose also gets something out of the relationship.  When we meet her, she is a beautifully put together young wife of a young assistant professor (Logan Lerman) moving in temporarily with Jackson and Hyman while they find a place to stay.  Hyman begs them to stay longer rent-free and help look after his sick wife. Rose is pregnant and has dropped out of university and Shirley mocks her for it.  But as Rose wins Shirley's trust and they both start investigating the disappearance of a young college girl called Paula, we see the three ladies merge into one.  Shirley starts to become more put together - her hair less wild - and she starts to write again. She also imagines Rose as the disappeared Paula. And Rose becomes ragged, weighed down by pregnancy, heat, her husband's indifference and then infidelity. But she also knows more about herself and her husband and has found an inner strength and her own barbed tongue!  More profoundly, we realise that all three women are in the same position. All three have expectations of what they will be, how they will look, what barriers society will place on where and how they can be smart.  They are asked to live circumscribed lives, and is it surprising that this drives them mad?

The central performances are all stunning here, not least from Odessa Young as Rose who holds her own against Moss and Stuhlbarg.  But let's spend some time on how phenomenal Josephine Decker's direction is.  It's slippery and ambitious and deeply empathetic.  The camera is kinetic and intimate and seems to get under the skin of the characters.  For a film that's basically about four people taking around a dinner table in a single house, it never felt claustrophobic or static, unless it very deliberately wanted to be.  And kudos to the production designer too, for making a house that heaves and pens in and can feel sinister and prison-like. I loved everything about how imaginative this film was, and how the real and imagined were allowed to intertwine.  Finally, kudos to the costume designer Amela Baksic who so brilliantly uses dress and hairstyle to convey the expectations society had of women at this time, and to visually delineate each woman's state of mind as it evolves through the film.

SHIRLEY is rated R and has a running time of 107 minutes. It played Sundance, Berlin and London 2020.  It opened in the US this summer, and will open in the UK on October 30th.

Friday, October 09, 2020

FAREWELL AMOR - BFI London Film Festival 2020 - Day 3


FAREWELL AMOR is a quiet but brutal emotional drama about an immigrant family reunited after decades of separation. It resonated powerfully with me because it mirrors the story of my own grandparents and asked questions I have longed to ask.  As the film opens we meet Walter, an Angolan refugee who has established a life for himself in Brooklyn over the last 17 years, including a relationship with a woman.  He has to end that relationship when his wife Esther, and now fully grown daughter Sylvia, finally get their immigration status approved and arrive in New York to live with him.  What follows is a painful observation of an estranged couple.  Walter is utterly alienated from a newly religious Esther who seems to want to cling more to her old life and its values than embrace the new.  Sylvia is struggling with the weight of her mother's expectations and resentment that her father left her behind.  Dance is used as a motif.  Walter remembers when his wife was young and carefree and danced.  In one of the most finely observed exchanges in the movie he tells his daughter that as a black man he spends his life holding himself in and presenting himself in a way that won't scare white people. He encourages Sylvia to dance freely and true to her own style because dance is one of the very places that one can be oneself. I'm not sure if I bought into the final act of the film - and its resolution - but I very much enjoyed the journey and getting to know these three characters.

FAREWELL AMOR has a running time of 95 minutes. The film played Sundance and London 2020. It does not yet have a commercial release date.

THE REASON I JUMP - BFI London Film Festival 2020 - Day 3


In the early 2000s, a severely autistic Japanese boy call Naoki Higashida wrote a book about what it was like to live with his condition. It achieved success in Japan but found widespread global acclaim roughly a decade later when the author David Mitchell and his wife, parents to an autistic son, translated it into English.  The book was hailed as that thing most desired by parents of autistic children - a chance to understand what their kids were going through without the barrier of miscommunication. Indeed, the very format of the book fed a hunger to understand - answering discreet questions often posed to kids with autism - one of which is "why I jump".

Jerry Rothwell's film adaptation of the book is a not a biopic or an attempt to take each question posed but rather an illustration of the book's themes and concerns as well as its appeal.  Rothwell has a framing device where a young autistic Japanese child explores the world, coupled with a voiceover reading extracts of the book.  But this is not so much Higashida's story, or David Mitchell's child's story, but the story of a representative group of five children and their parents.  So we see a white English boy who loves the music that electrical wires make - an Indian girl who draws the most incredible pictures of urban life - a wonderful pair of American friends, one black, one white, who have found deep communion with each other - and a young girl in Sierra Leone whose parents founded a school for her in a society that thinks autism is a kind of curse.  

A common thread in these stories is that the children are - despite outward differences to the "neurotypical" - ordinary! - they aren't weird time travellers who just want to be alone, or whatever other freakish labels have been applied to autistic kids over the years.  Rather, they are intelligent, creative, articulate people who are struggling with sensory extremes and with communication. The joy is in seeing the American pair find a way to communicate with letter-boards that sees the most nuanced and profound ideas expressed despite apparently very limited ability to vocalise thought. The second common thread was just how wonderful the parents were and how moving their stories. The frustration at not being able to communicate - the wonder at the ways in which their kids have tried to express themselves and their creativity despite their autism - and the sacrifices they make to ensure them a place in this world - are all deeply admirable.

Kudos too, to director Jerry Rothwell, for going beyond these fascinating and insightful family studies to try to actually give "neurotypical" viewers a sense of what it might be like to be autistic with innovative visual and aural techniques. The result is a film that is often beautiful to watch (see the boy playing amidst the aqueducts at the end) - as well as being full of beautiful people.

THE REASON I JUMP has a running time of 82 minutes. The film played Sundance 2020 where it won the Audience Award - World Cinema. It does not yet have a commercial release date.