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I Am Not Your Negro

December 12, 2017

I Am Not Your Negro (2016)
Director: Raoul Peck

Synopsis: Black American intellectual, James Baldwin, and his unfinished manuscript ‘Remember this House’ become the pivot around which a kaleidoscopic panorama of American race relations is interrogated.

Review: Following hot on the heels of last year’s exemplary documentary on US race relations, Ava DuVernay’s 13th, comes another stellar dissection of the ‘Negro’ question in American socio-historical discourse, Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro. And, like with 13thI Am Not Your Negro cannot simply be explained away by the value and moral weight of its subject matter alone; it’s a highly skilled, cerebral example of sophisticated documentary storytelling too.

Selecting the film’s locus as erudite black intellectual, James Baldwin, proved a particularly sage means of probing the legacy of American race relations over the last hundred years or so. Not only because Baldwin was a historic witness to much of that history (he was associated with many of the famous figures of black political protest – Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr), but because his position as a marginally more detached, discursive voice seemed exactly the right proxy for this film’s balance between history lesson and impressionistic treatise on the African-American experience.

Baldwin is recaptured both through lots of documentary footage of his many interviews and TV appearances, as well as his unfinished manuscript ‘Remember this House‘ being narrated over some of the footage by a muted Samuel L. Jackson. Although Baldwin symbolises the film’s somewhat distanced, intellectual perspective on the subject matter, as with the politics of the film itself, don’t mistake Baldwin’s reserve for neutrality. Baldwin articulates acutely how the issue of the “African-American” hints at the malignancy of the whole failed ‘American’ experience. He highlights how the underbelly of violence and unhappiness at the centre of many American communities life is linked thematically to the fact that white America still hasn’t come to terms with its creation of the “negro” (the negro being a construct more than a specific racial epithet here).

Incidentally, away from politics, I Am Not Your Negro offers a lot for cinephiles to gorge on too. Baldwin filters a lot of the accounts of his growing awareness of the representation of the African-American through cinema. Alongside more obvious referents (Sidney Poitier), he even conjures a recollection of the lesser known screen version of Imitation of Life (1934) – a story which stands as emblem for the tragedy at the heart of American race relations that Peck explores so cleverly in this ingenious documentary. (December 2017)

T2 Trainspotting

December 12, 2017

T2 Trainspotting (2017)
Director: Danny Boyle
Actors: Ewan McGregor, Robert Carlyle, Jonny Lee Miller

Synopsis: Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) heads back to his native Edinburgh after a period of exile in Amsterdam. There, he confronts the ghosts of his past, including the “friends” he ripped off some two decades before.

Review: T2 never quite escapes the shadow of its culturally colossal predecessor, Trainspotting, and, to some extent, it plays almost too openly with that legacy in some of its discourse (even almost slipping into apologism for its nostalgic detours), but it does offer enough ragged moments of inspiration to warrant a visit from even the most doubting of Trainspotting acolytes.

The whole project does carry with it the whiff of a rebranding exercise (in terms of the previous film’s stylistics, iconography and overall cultural cachet) while searching vainly for a viable narrative, but some of those touches are little gems. The early skits reintroducing us to the four main characters honours the aesthetic of Trainspotting‘s iconic opening, while somehow feeling spot on in terms of where these people would likely be 20 years later in their lives. This sense of the weight of history being felt in the narrative occurs brilliantly when Renton returns to Edinburgh, from his Dutch exile, to be greeted by a Slovenian girl in a kilt wishing him a “Welcome to Edinburgh” while a Starbucks sign serenades him in the background.

Other great visual triumphs (and it’s always invariably the aesthetic that comes off best with Boyle) include a poignant scene of Renton returning to his family home. The way his parents’ dowdy inner-city house is framed simply screams pathos, and the shadow of Renton marking where his mother should have been (she’s now deceased) at his family table is ingenious, touching storytelling from Boyle. Robert Carlyle’s return as Begbie is another delight. One of the great successes of this film is the delayed gratification of Bebgie attempting to catch up with Renton. This, once again, occurs imaginatively with a split screen sequence of Renton and Begbie in adjacent toilet cubicles, slowly realising after an innocuous conversation who the other person really is. Equally funny is Begbie’s processing of the gentrified clientele around him in the Edinburgh nightclub – clearly signifying he’s a man out of time with the surroundings.

Talking about Begbie, Boyle and Hodge do saddle him with one or two unconvincing plot-hooks – the biggest of which is how he breaks out of prison but then seems content to stay at his wife and son’s house (despite that presumably being the first place the police would scope out). There’s also a deeply unconvincing plot tool of a sexy Bulgarian mistress who acts as the orb around which all the men conspire in the second half of the film.

Even if, ultimately, the film’s narrative whole fails to add up to the sum of its many stylistic parts, it’s still a more than reasonable stab by Boyle at bringing these iconic characters back to life in today’s post-globalist, post-Brexit social landscape. (December 2017)

Spider-Man: Homecoming

December 10, 2017

Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)
Director: Jon Watts
Actors: Tom Holland, Michael Keaton, Marisa Tomei

Synopsis: Peter Parker (Tom Holland) has a “Stark Scholarship” – a front for being on the radar to join the Avengers. While trying to prove his worth on the streets of New York, he becomes involved with stopping the criminal activities of a gang led by Adrian Toome (Michael Keaton).

Review: Spider-Man has always been by far my favourite superhero. He is the least portentous and most ordinary of fantasy characters, and the whole concept of Spider-Man seems to honour the “boys’ own” spirit of the superhero genre which is, after all, the essence of its inherent charm and popularity.

That said, the cynical trotting out of three separate iterations of Spider-Man in a decade (Tobey Maguire only hung his lycra up in 2007 after Spider-Man 3), has had even me sceptical and disengaged. Particularly as the Andrew Garfield/Marc Webb ‘Amazing‘ run was hugely substandard: Garfield is a decent actor per se, but his actorly faux bumbling was horrendously misjudged, and the plots were prototypical exercises in trotting out the usual superhero genre arcs.

Pleasingly, Tom Holland makes for a much more appealing Peter Parker/Spider-Man. He definitely plays up the plucky teen angle (his voice is, at times, ridiculously high-pitched, and he radiates a perpetual air of frenzy), but he is incredibly charming, and he genuinely convinces as someone who could inhabit all the different parts of the Peter Parker psyche. He is both nerd and boffin, but also has the physicality which makes his Spider-Man jaunts believable, and he has enough charisma that makes the interest from alpha-female, Liz, understandable.

Just once or twice, the sense that this genre, its connected universe and the whole Marvel brand, is slipping into tedious self-referentiality and gurning in-jokes grates, but once the story is allowed to relax into itself by about the 30-minute mark, it’s a funny and entertaining adventure with some good, but not overegged (as in other superhero movies), action sequences. Michael Keaton does a great job as the villain of the piece, and the scene where a twist about his character plays out, is actually quite gripping and well-acted by himself and Holland. (December 2017)

Manchester by the Sea

December 9, 2017

Manchester by the Sea (2016)
Director: Kenneth Lonergan
Actors: Casey Affleck, Lucas Hedges, Michelle Williams

Synopsis: Lee (Casey Affleck), a Boston janitor, is called back to his hometown of Manchester-by-the-sea when his older brother, Joe, dies from congenital heart failure. While there, Lee has to contend with managing his brother’s affairs, taking over legal guardianship of his nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges), and confronting a dark, repressed incident from his past.

Review: Kenneth Lonergan writes and directs with the precision of a neurosurgeon in this superlative study of a man existing in the aftermath of a cataclysmic life event. It is, in a sense, a story about a man, Lee, who has “outlived himself”, and the greatness of Lonergan’s study is not to contrive some pat redemptive arc for his protagonist, but to suggest that in his necessary involvement in the swirl of events that happen around him in this post-lapsarian state, he can at least experience little shards of cathartic radiance.

The beauty of Lonergan’s dramaturgical construct is that the film is warm, humane and compassionate – even deeply funny at times – offering a necessary counterpoint to the narrative’s weighty subtextual gravity. The early scenes depicting Lee’s routine as a Boston janitor are particularly wry. The scene where Lee purposely remains oblivious to a flirtatious women commissioning him for his toils is especially funny when she asks whether he accepts “tips” to which he purposely/innocuously replies, “what like a suggestion?” Lonergan also makes huge metaphoric import of the location of Manchester-by-the-sea being a chilled Massachusetts port in the grip of winter. This wintry feature even offers a nice subplot conceit whereby Lee has to stick around because his deceased brother cannot be buried until the churchyard ground thaws.

The film really is a work of deft narrative finesse. The use of flashbacks – often a syrupy or lazy trope – is expert from both a tonal and dramaturgical perspective. It reminded me of the skill of Arthur Miller’s mobile concurrency conceit in ‘Death of a Salesman‘, as the film frequently segues tenderly and utterly intuitively to a scene that contextualises what Lee cannot articulate in the present.

Lots of talk about Manchester by the Sea will rightly revolve around the story and Lonergan’s dramatist flourishes, but it is a work of real cinematic verve too. There is a beautiful pictorial quality at work – from the amazing vistas of the bay where Lee and Patrick take their boat rides in the past and present (symbolising the rare moments of contentment in Lee’s psyche), to the wintry canvas of Manchester-by-the-sea itself in the grip of an arctic-like tundra. It’s also cinematic because Lonergan moves deftly from intense, methody naturalism to an array of highly expressionistic, non-diegetic tropes (slo-mo and a soaring classical score during Joe’s funeral); again, this offers a necessary counterpoint to the stunted tyranny of Lee’s colossal grief.

Watching the film, it even seemed to veer close to that rare territory of a comitragedy (tragicomedy doesn’t feel quite right as this is, at its core, a tragedy). It certainly marks Kenneth Lonergan out as an American filmmaker of huge stature. It’s such a shame he’s only found the means to make three films in 17 years, but here’s hoping that the relative ‘breakout’ nature of this film, leads to greater funding and industrial support in the years to come. (December 2017)

Lady Macbeth

December 3, 2017

Lady Macbeth (2017)
Director: William Oldroyd
Actors: Florence Pugh, Cosmo Jarvis, Paul Hilton

Synopsis: A young woman, Katherine (Florence Pugh), is married to an older, wealthier man somewhere in the north of England in the 1800s. The marriage is loveless and sexless, but slowly Katherine begins to assert her power in the household through increasingly extreme measures…

Review: Judging by the reverence with which it’s been spoken about, Lady Macbeth is evidently a film that has conquered lots of hearts and minds. Its esteem, no doubt, has come from its proto-feminist slant, its seeming subversion of a well-worn genre (the British heritage film), and a certain painterly aesthetic.

Ironically, those very elements have the completely opposite effect. They smother the film, cultivating a narrative lacking any purpose, spontaneity or meaningful character development, due to these subtexts and, for want of a better word, pretensions, seeming to be the sole conceit of William Oldroyd’s directorial scaffolding.

The film is literally all style and no substance. Many of the frames seem to exist solely for their aesthetic purpose, and a lot of the sexual and racial politics appears ever so juvenile. This monotonous obviousness of intent comes across best in a scene where Katherine’s comically doctrinaire father-in-law makes the black maid, Anna, crawl around on all fours, when she takes the blame for Katherine’s rebellious swigging of all the estate’s wine.

In a film that’s all about character and plot, it positively necessitated an episodic, narrative-based piece. Instead it’s conceived in some sort of airless, film-school palette which drains the film of all momentum. It drags its burdensome conceit of profundity from scene to scene, and that leaden inertness hampers some of the performances too – namely Cosmo Jarvis’ “Mellors”-style farmhand lover who is the ultimately plot tool acting as the agent of Katherine’s rebellion against the patriarchy before having to finally call her out on all her muderous excesses in the film’s closing act. (December 2017)



November 25, 2017

Prevenge (2016)
Director: Alice Lowe
Actors: Alice Lowe, Kayvan Novak, Kate Dickie

Synopsis: Ruth (Alice Lowe), a heavily pregnant widow, embarks on a macabre murdering spree to punish those she deems responsible for her husband’s tragic death.

Review: There’s the germ of a good concept in Alice Lowe’s debut as writer-director, but the shoddy way she merges the different ideas and sentiments in that concept makes Prevenge something of a tonal disaster.

All at the same time, Lowe wants this to be a classic revenge drama, a mental breakdown piece, and a gallows social satire. In the end, it falls between all stools: at times, coming across as little more than a really bad sketch-show idea dragged out to feature length running time. Each of those three tonally disparate hooks undercuts the other. The fact that each of her victims is a lazily written, one-dimensional social stereotype (the sleazy store owner, the pathetic over-aged DJ, the defeminised corporate honcho, the fitness-obsessed female urbanite) leads to one or two nice jokes that would befit a cartoonish skit, but drains the film of all tension and any investment in its attempts at more serious psycho-social commentary. As a viewer, you’re always distanced by the fact you can whiff the singular conceit of the film at nearly every stage of its running time.

The best bit of the film is its decent synthesiser score, and when Lowe is confident enough to trust the darker, more atmospheric bent of the material. The montage where her character, Ruth, dresses up in Halloween regalia to embark on her final, and symbolically most important, killing, is quite chilling in the way that it taps into the more malevolent reality of her character’s psychosis.

The film ends disappointingly, with Lowe opting for a didactic end to explain the ‘Rosemary’s Baby’/mental illness hook, and a hackneyed coda on a windswept bit of coastline that reveals the end-game of her trauma. There’s clearly a talented writer in there (Lowe is also an excellent actress), but more focus on developing the scenario and perhaps recognising the need to flesh out sketch-show concepts to make them more cinematic, would be Lowe’s pointer for her next endeavour. (November 2017)

Scene Stealers: Martin Scorsese in Taxi Driver

November 18, 2017

It was Scorsese’s 75th birthday yesterday. Follow the below link to read my tribute to his incredible cameo in his own Taxi Driver.