Sunday, January 26, 2020


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, January 24, 2020


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

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

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

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

Wednesday, January 22, 2020


It's been a while since I watched JUDY and my reluctance to review it has been the unwillingness to commit to paper what a truly mediocre film - what a hammy absurd central performance - is gaining such awards success. I cannot for the life of me fathom why Renee Zellweger is being heaped with awards for a performance that verges on pastiche and is never convincing. And the only answer I can find is that this is the ultimate awards season Mercy Fuck.  Hollywood loves a broken bird, especially a woman tormented by her own self-image, and in Renee they have found the bats-squeak whisper of an echo of Judy Garland's psychological trauma.  I feel they aren't so much praising Renee's performance as applauding her mere survival, albeit in a weird Jennifer Lawrence-lite post surgery existence and speaking with a bizarre southern drawl. 

But let's get back to the film. It focuses on Judy in the final years of her life - battling Sid Luft Rufus Sewell) for custody of the kids - broke - playing gigs in London to pay the bills.  She's a neurotic, lonely alcoholic, always vulnerable to a young charmer (Finn Wittrock) who'll promise her riches but usually ends up swindling her.  Judy has to be manhandled on stage by Jessie Buckley's sympathetic stage manager.  We're meant to recognise her as still capable of being a true star through the eyes of her adoring gay fans.  But really this is just a pathetic portrait of a broken woman, running several leagues below her peak power.

Renee Zellwegger doesn't look like Judy, despite the short brunette wig and the costumes that ape her London look.  She doesn't sound like Judy when she sings.  She adopts a kind of slanting, stumbling walk and inverted kind of beaten up posture that makes us think - wow - Renee is broken - rather than telling us anything real about Judy.  Worse still, the film just isn't that well directed.  Rupert Goold - a stage director best known for the recent TV version of the Henriad -THE HOLLOW CROWN - doesn't have any visual flair, and doesn't really bring any insight to staging the show tunes.  And the script is really workmanlike and cliched.  Do we really need to have a lonely Judy having supper with a fawning gay couple, who have no interior life or meaning other than to just be cliche fawning gay fans?

The only parts of this film that I thought had real truth to them were the flashbacks to Judy's childhood as an abused child star, forced to slim, put on pills, with every date stage managed.  But even here the movie doesn't have the balls to depict the sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of Louis B Mayer. 

JUDY is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 118 minutes.  The film played Telluride and Toronto 2019 and is now available to rent and own.

Sunday, January 12, 2020


Quentin Tarantino's ONCE UPON A TIME...IN HOLLYWOOD is a triumph.  Indeed it may be my favourite of his films since the superlative JACKIE BROWN.  It's a love letter to old Hollywood, and drips with compassion for fading stars, and indulges in nostalgia for the days when radio stations were the soundtrack of our lives.  The movie stars Leonardo Di Caprio as Rick Dalton  - a fictional TV star of the 50s and 60s whose career is in the doldrums because of his age and alcoholism.  As a portrait of the fickle callousness of the star system, it's a moving film. There isn't much that's honourable or likeable in Rick, but he's our idiot, and to see him bested in his art and conversation by a child star (Trudi - a scene-stealing Julia Butters) is to weep for him. To see him lured by the quick cash of Spaghetti Westerns and saddled with a young wife is to laugh at our own frailty. He's an idiot, but we care that he's okay.  And we care largely because of the most humanising thing about him - his long and loyal friendship to his stuntman/driver/buddy Cliff Booth. In a career-best performance from Brad Pitt, Cliff is just a decent no bullshit kind of a guy. He's tough.  We see him beat up Bruce Lee in one of the most hilarious scenes in the film, and we hear rumours about a potentially murderous past, so the final showdown is well within the realms of his capabilities, despite his being high as a kite. There's something so tragic about his life in a mobile van, heating up tinned food, and something so likeable about his seeming indifference to it.  He's just a good guy. We see this too in his care for Bruce Dern's Spahn - exploited owner of the ranch in which the Manson Family are living. Which of course brings us to the other story in this film...

I think a lot of us came to this film thinking it was going to be a film about the Manson Murders and it's kind of discombobulating realising that it isn't really. We only meet Manson in one scene, and barely see Polanski from a distance at a party.  Polanski and Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) live next door to Rick, but their lives are largely separate.   And what of Tate?  She's barely given the same screen time or depth of character as the two male leads. She's just a sunny happy dancing blonde, exciting to see herself on screen, in a scene that will give anyone who knows about Tarantino's foot fetish the creeps.  I felt sad for Robbie, who has nothing to do in this film, but really sad for Sharon Tate, who apparently isn't worthy of an inner life.  We do see the events of that fateful night play out. The way in plays out won't surprise people who've seen Tarantino's recent films.  It's really fucking entertaining.  But...

ONCE UPON A TIME...IN HOLLYWOOD is rated R and has a running time of 119 minutes.  The film played Cannes 2019 and went on global release last summer. It is now available to stream, rent and own.


World War One films are typically set in the muddy, fetid horror of the trenches - a dark and dank world of rat-infested boredom with the occasional "relief" of going over the top into barbed wire, decomposing horses and machine-gun fire. The typical theme is one of madness - both personal and of the entire enterprise.  And the style is static.  The war doesn't move.  In the words of the inimitable Blackadder:  "Field Marshal Haig is about to make yet another gargantuan effort to move his drinks cabinet six inches closer to Berlin."  Films of this type reach their apotheosis in JOURNEY'S END.

The innovation of Sam Mendes' new film is to set it in the final phase of the war, when the German's had retreated back to the Hindenburg Line, leaving miles of French countryside, previously so viciously fought over, empty. Of course, the Line was itself heavily fortified, and this sets up the plot of 1917.  Two young soldiers are selected by a general (Colin Firth) to get an urgent message to the new front line. The next morning, British forces will launch an offensive that will be a massacre: their commanders don't know about the fortifications. So these two lads have to cross No Man's Land, pass through the old German trench, get to a now destroyed French town, and down to the woods to the new Line.  

What this plot does is give us high stakes and fixed timeline, as well as - crucially - a dynamic style.  The entire film is a two hour journey against the clock, largely on foot.  And the emotional stakes are made even higher because of the boys, so carefully selected for the trip, has to save his own beloved elder brother, who is part of the new attack.  To give the movie an immersive and intensive feel, the director has worked with his DP, Roger Deakins (COEN BROS PASSIM) to make us feel as though we are with the boys every step of the way.   We never move away from their gaze - we experience the film as they experience the journey - in a simulated single-take movie. The result is absolutely impressive and emotionally involving.  But it doesn't feel like cinema in a way - more like playing Red Dead Redemption or Call of Duty, World War One edition.  That's fine - it just goes to show how influential video game style is in modern cinema.

There's much to love in Sam Mendes script (his first). By taking us over No Man's Land, and then into the French countryside behind it, he shows us the contrast between the rural paradise before the war and the bombed out nightmare after it.  He takes care to show us the better quality of the German trenches compared to the British ones.  And he doesn't shy away from showing us the devastation of the German razed earth policy - cities destroyed, livestock shot, a land made unfit for humans. We also see the change in landscape, from the mud of the old line to the chalk of the new line. It makes for an impressive visual contrast. 

His casting is also superb. Mendes even took care over the extras to show us that the war took really young men and made them weary and traumatised.  we see it in the faces of the men - in particular at a choral scene in a wood that's deeply moving. In the speaking roles there are some misfires.  Colin Firth is a bit pastiche as the noble, stiff-upper-lip British general who sets the film in motion, and Mark Strong's commander is similarly one-note - compassionate weariness. But I really loved Andrew Scott (FLEABAG) ias a cynical but actually helpful front-line officer. And the way in which Mendes overturns our view of Benedict Cumberbatch's front line commander in a very brief cameo is masterful. We start off thinking he's a gung-ho martial nut job but he's humanised very quickly.  However, it's GAME OF THRONES' Richard Madden who gets the best of the cameos - with a deeply moving performance all the more affecting because of the character's need not to fall apart. This is quite probably his best acting performance to date.  In the lead roles, I rather like GAME OF THRONES' Tommen (Dean-Charles Chapman) as the soldier trying to save his big brother, even if his accent does rather veer from cockney to posh and back again. It's George Mackay as his companion who really steals the show and epitomises that combination of youth and weariness I spoke of earlier. 

The result is a film that's technically impressive and deeply moving and largely well written and acted. It is, however, not without its flaws. First, there's a mid-film scene involving milk that jumps the shark in terms of schmaltz for me.  Second, there's a moment involving the Mark Strong character that had me almost yelling at the screen as to why he didn't do more practically to help.  And finally, while Mendes is to be applauded for showing the contribution of Imperial troops to the Western Front war effort (in sharp contrast to Nolan's DUNKIRK) he seems quite uninterested in showing the Germans as anything other than barbaric shits.  

1917 is rated R and has a running time and has a running time of 119 minutes. The film is on global release.