Film

I Am Not Your Negro

19/04/17

In the late nineteen seventies, author and playwright James Baldwin began work on a memoir entitled Remember This House. He worked on it fitfully through the 80s and, by the time of his death in 1987, had only amassed some thirty pages. The piece was never published – indeed, the would-be publishers sued Baldwin’s family in order o to get back the advance they’d paid for the work – but, when director Raoul Peck chanced upon the manuscript, he realised that he had the basis for a powerful polemic.

I Am Not Your Negro is the resulting film – an extraordinarily excoriating and affecting documentary that looks at the treatment of black people in America over the centuries, focusing especially on the murders of three of Baldwin’s closest friends – civil activists Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jnr and Malcolm X. Baldwin’s original text is narrated by Samuel L Jackson and there are several filmed appearances of the author himself, an eloquent and erudite speaker, making clear the injustice and infamy handed out to people of colour on an everyday basis. These interviews are interspersed with a profusion of found footage: the homogenised depictions of black people in early Hollywood movies and in the advertising industry through the 50s and 60s; shocking newsreel footage of riots, where black demonstrators are being beaten and brutalised by the police; even hideous period photographs of lynch mobs in the deep South of America posing proudly in front of their victims.

This is by no means comfortable viewing. Indeed, I sat through the film’s duration feeling the oppressive weight of my privilege upon my white shoulders. At times I felt close to tears and I couldn’t help thinking that this film ought to  be mandatory viewing for all those white people who complain that the whole race issue is ‘overdone,’ that there are more important issues on which to concentrate. Peck’s film makes a mockery of that claim. It also shows that Baldwin was way ahead of his time, a lone plaintive voice crying out to an indifferent world.

Thank goodness we now have the opportunity to consider his words in all their wisdom. I would urge you to go and see this important documentary. I’ve rarely seen a more affecting piece of cinema.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

Their Finest

16/04/17

Ah,the British movie – still out there and still fitfully showing occasional signs of life, thank goodness. And trust me, films do not come much more British than Their Finest. (Terrible title, by the way, but based on a book called Their Finest Hour and a Half, which frankly isn’t very good either). However, the resulting film is much better than either title might lead you to expect.

It’s the early 1940s and London is suffering the worst excesses of the Blitz. Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) arrives for an interview at the Ministry of Information (Film Division) thinking that she’s applied for nothing more than a secretarial post, but she soon learns that she will be expected to write the ‘slop’ for the informational films the unit is currently producing. Slop, by the way, is the far from sympathetic term for anything uttered by the female actors in the films. Furthermore, Catrin is told, she obviously can’t be paid the same money as ‘the chaps in the unit’, but £2 a week sounds attractive to her, because she’s currently paying the rent on the flat she shares with her partner.

Ellis (Jack Huston), is a struggling artist who was badly injured in the Spanish Civil War and who moonlights as an (unpaid) ARP warden. The problem is he doesn’t much like the fact that Catrin is the money earner.  She finds herself seated at a desk next to opinionated young writer, Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin) and she’s soon caught up in the struggle to get across a woman’s point of view into the scripts they are producing. It’s clear too that Catrin and Sam are probably made for each other, if they would only realise it. Then, the unit’s boss, Roger Swaine (Richard E Grant), announces that a more ambitious project is in the pipeline – a true life story set against the turmoil of the evacuation of Dunkirk…

OK, there’s nothing particularly ground-breaking about this film, though it does have some decent ammunition in its armoury, not least the presence of Bill Nighy as over-the-hill actor, Ambrose Hilliard. Nighy’s scenes are probably worth the price of admission alone. He is fast approaching the role of National Treasure, an actor for whom the term ‘louche’ seems to have been specially created. His outrage at being asked to play the role of alcoholic old timer, Uncle Frank, is a joy to behold.

There are other pleasures too. The recreations of London during the blitz are nicely done, Arterton is as charming as ever and the film excels at demonstrating the arbitrary nature of life during wartime. A scene where Catrin chances on the aftermath of the bombing of a department store is very affecting. To lighten the mood, there are hilarious clips from the feature film that the unit is making, complete with dodgy miniature boats, unconvincing glass paintings of the evacuated troops and even the terrible acting of American war hero, Wyndham Best (Hubert Burton), drafted in to the movie to try and encourage the Yanks to engage with the war, raised a chuckle to two. And, just in case I’m in danger of painting this as a total laughter fest, the film also manages to lob in an unexpectedly heartbreaking emotional grenade that consequently had me in floods of tears.

All in all, this is a delightful film, well worth seeking out.

4.3 stars

Philip Caveney

The Handmaiden: Director’s Cut

14/04/17

The term ‘masterpiece’ is often used but I’ve rarely seen a film more deserving of that word that Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden. It’s a sumptuous, sensual and occasionally audacious slice of melodrama, a loose adaptation of Sarah Water’s novel, Fingersmith. That book, of course, is set in Victorian London, but here the story is transposed to Korea in the 1930s, when the country was under Japanese occupation. To say that the adaptation works well, would be an understatement. It’s an inspired idea that plays like a dream.

Sookee (Tae-re Kim) is hired to be the handmaiden to reclusive Japanese heiress, Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim) and the two women quickly form a powerful bond, one that develops into a full-blown relationship. To say any more about the plot would do the film a disservice; suffice to say, that some way into proceedings, we flash back to scenes we only glimpsed in the film’s opening moments and are given more information – Sookee’s employment, it turns out, is not as innocent as it might at first appear. From this point, Park Chan-wook seems to delight in constantly pulling the rug out from under us. No sooner have we begun to accept a new tranche of information, then we are obliged to rethink it as earlier scenes are revisited with the addition of a few small points we missed out on first time around. It’s a brilliant technique and, despite this being the extended Director’s Cut, nearly three hours in duration, the film never loses momentum, but holds you spellbound for its entire run.

Those of a prudish persuasion should be warned that The Handmaiden is an unashamedly erotic movie – there are explicit sexual scenes here that fully test the boundaries of that 18 certificate, but it’s important to say that this aspect of the film never feels prurient – indeed, the relationship between Sookee and Hideko is perhaps the most joyful and ‘pure’ aspect of the story. Contrast it with the conduct of the male protagonists: the cunning and deceitful Count Fujiwara (Jung-woo Hah) – who weaves a merciless tangled web in order to enrich himself – and the frankly repellent Uncle Kouzuki (Jin-woong Jo) – a man who has devoted his life to the pursuit of printed pornography and who has made his niece, Hideko, do unspeakable things from childhood; the true love the women share is something to be celebrated.

And this sensual quality goes further than just the sex scenes. It’s in pretty much every frame of the lush cinematography, the gorgeous period costumes, the musical score. Korean movies are currently making waves across the film industry, but The Handmaiden has everything it needs to create a real tsunami. And a masterpiece? Oh, yes, most assuredly. If this comes to a big screen anywhere near you, don’t miss it.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

Beauty and the Beast

13/04/17

We’re a little late to the party on this one, finally sitting down to watch Disney’s live action remake of Beauty and the Beast almost a full month after its UK release. Still, even without our patronage, it’s been a rip-roaring success, and so we’re able to pick from a plethora of performance times at our local Cineworld, despite the passage of time.

And it’s easy to see why this film has been so well-received. It’s lovely. Emma Watson is a perfect Belle for the modern age, conferring a sense of agency and autonomy without undermining the source material. And the CGI animations are just so very Disney – cheeky and cute and oozing personality. Sure, there’s an enchanted castle full of emotional manipulation here, but would we have it any other way?

I can’t compare this new version to the much-loved cartoon, because – gasp! – I’ve never seen the earlier incarnation of the tale. Philip tells me that it’s pretty much a frame-by-frame copy, with only subtle changes applied to reflect twenty-first century ideologies. For example, the much-vaunted ‘openly gay character’ turns out to be Le Fou, whose homosexuality is a lot less ‘open’ than I’d imagined from the on-line fervour it elicited (admiration for Gaston, and a flirtatious glance during the finale dance). I guess it’s a step in the right direction, but it seems unnecessarily restrained. This is 2017. LGBTQ characters don’t need to be so hidden and covert, do they? Still, even baby steps move us forward – and this is a film with a good heart.

Dan Stevens imbues the Beast with a deep humanity; Luke Evans relishes in denying Gaston has a heart at all. Both male leads are played with real aplomb, nimbly treading the fine line between stock-character and depth. I’m particularly fond of Kevin Kline’s bumbling Maurice; he’s just so incredibly appealing despite his neediness – no wonder Belle feels so responsible for him.

The music is great – memorable and catchy and beautifully performed (is there anything Watson can’t do?). And the choreography of the crowd scenes is truly breathtaking. This is Disney doing what Disney does, with such confidence and assurance that success was always inevitable.

4.2 stars

Susan Singfield

Raw

07/04/17

Raw is a feminist cannibal movie – not an overpopulated genre, but one which, on the basis of this little gem, can certainly bear fruit.

OK, so the metaphors are not exactly subtle. The sadistic initiation rituals imposed on teenage ‘rookies’ at a prestigious veterinary college are compared – quite explicitly – to the rites of passage girls endure as they enter womanhood. Star student Justine (Garance Marrillier) soon finds that her academic excellence is of very little importance here: “I like the average students,” says her professor, “People like you make them feel bad.” Fitting in, becoming ‘average’ does not come naturally to Justine: she has a strong sense of her own identity and beliefs. But, adrift in a strange and hostile environment, she attempts to conform to these new norms, aided and abetted by her sister, Alexia (Ella Rumph), who is a year older and fully assimilated into the social mores of the veterinary college/womanhood. Alex mocks Justine’s hairy underarms, gives her an (unsuccessful) bikini wax, kits her out in a short dress and high heels. The sight of Justine tottering uncertainly in her sister’s shoes, literally hobbled by her need for acceptance, is a sad moment indeed.

A lifelong vegetarian, Justine baulks at the thought of eating what she is told is a raw rabbit kidney but all the rookies have to do it and Alex tells her it’s a deal-breaker. Justine forces herself to swallow the meat, but such self-betrayal is not without consequence. Her inner frustrations manifest themselves in true ‘madwoman in the attic’ form; she can’t contain her anger and starts to devour those who’ve made her change: her sister, her classmates, and even herself.

This is a smart, engaging movie with lots of blood and gore, as well as a mesmerising soundtrack and some stellar performances, particularly from Marrillier. While its message may be conveyed a little heavy-handedly, it’s astonishingly assured for a debut; writer/director Julia Ducournau is definitely one to watch.

4.3 stars

Susan Singfield

The Lost City of Z

06/04/17

Colonel Percy Fawcett was the quintessential ‘Boy’s Own’ hero. When he went missing deep in the Amazon jungle in 1924, along with his elder son Jack, he became a cause celebre. Many rescue attempts were mounted, resulting in the deaths of over a hundred men and there has been untold speculation ever since about what might have happened to them. James Gray’s film is an attempt to give us a fuller picture of Fawcett and his extraordinary life. It’s an unapologetically old fashioned movie, one that takes its own sweet time to tell its complex story.

When we first meet Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) in 1912, he’s an ambitious army officer, stationed in Northern Ireland. His attempts to further his career are constantly dogged by the bad reputation left by his dissolute father, but he is ably supported by his incredibly pragmatic wife, Nina (Sienna Miller). When Fawcett is approached by the Royal Geographical Society to helm an expedition into uncharted Bolivia, he sees an opportunity to advance his fortunes and readily accepts, even though it means he will have to leave Nina and his first child, Jack for what could be years. On route to Bolivia, Fawcett meets the man who will be his assistant, the taciturn Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson) and together they set off into the heart of the jungle. It is just the start of a whole series of explorations into the Mato Grosso and as time goes on, Fawcett becomes increasingly obsessed with the idea of a lost ancient civilisation, the titular Z – but all attempts to find it seem doomed to failure and his speculations about it are greeted with general ridicule by everyone back in England, who cannot bring themselves to believe that such ‘primitive savages’ could ever have been so sophisticated.

The film lovingly recreates the era of intrepid exploration and Hunnam is an appealing Fawcett, but the slow, at times almost hallucinogenic nature of the proceedings certainly won’t be to everybody’s taste. Furthermore, though the film sticks closely to the facts for the most part, it cannot help but slip into the realms of speculation in the final furlong. The truth is we do not know (and almost certainly never will know) what actually happened to Fawcett and his son – indeed it is this very nebulous quality that has contributed to the legend.

Nevertheless, though far from perfect, this is an intriguing and sometimes enthralling production that deserves your attention.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Life

29/03/17

A spaceship visits a distant planet and discovers an alien life form. At first the crew are delighted, and they bring it aboard to study it in more detail. But as the creature begins to grow in size and cunning, they realise that they have invited something deadly into their midst. Pretty soon, they are involved in a desperate struggle for survival as the alien begins to pick them off, one-by-one…

Okay, who thought I was talking about Alien? There are startling similarities here and with Alien Covenant soon to hit big screens across the country, I can’t help feeling that Daniel Espinosa’s film, Life, has chosen a really unfortunate release date. Handsomely mounted though it is and blessed with considerable star power, it nonetheless can’t help but invite comparisons with its more famous cousin.

Here, the space ship in question is the International Space Station and the extraterrestrial life form (dubbed ‘Calvin’ by some well-meaning kids back on earth), has come via a soil sample from Mars. At first, it’s an innocuous scrap of fluff that responds weakly to heat and light. Science officer Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare) quickly falls in love with the thing and starts conducting a few casual experiments on it. Before you can mutter ‘bad idea,’ it’s free from its incubation pod and is growing bigger and more vicious by the second. Captain Miranda North (Rebecca Ferguson) is faced with the daunting task of trying to contain it aboard, rather than let it escape to earth where it will wreak untold havoc. She’s aided and abetted by Jake Gyllenhaal, Ryan Reynolds, Hiroyuki Sonada and Olga Diovichnaya as the other members of the crew. Clearly no expense has been spared here. The space vistas are  superbly rendered and the constant gravity-free environment is convincingly conveyed – apparently they used wire work rather than the infamous ‘vomit comet.’

I’ll be honest and say that there’s quite a lot to admire here (not least an unexpected switcheroo, that actually has me shouting out loud at the screen), – and Calvin is undoubtedly his own beast, with a particularly revolting method of seeing off his prey – but try as I might, I can’t rid myself of the notion that a salivating xenomorph might lurch out of the shadows at any moment. If the Alien franchise didn’t exist, I’d doubtless be upping the stars on this a couple of notches, but as it stands, this feels like an unfortunate rerun of a good idea. And no matter how polished it is, that’s never quite enough.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney