Gugu Mbatha-Raw

Misbehaviour

15/03/20

Misbehaviour chronicles the true-life weirdness of the 1970 Miss World pageant, notable both for being disrupted by the Women’s Liberation Front and for celebrating its first ever black winner. This tension between different types of progressiveness keeps the film interesting as it explores the nuances inherent in trying to effect change.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw plays Jennifer Hosten, ‘Miss Grenada,’ who made history by placing first in the contest. For her, Miss World is all about representation and opportunity: there are little black girls, she tells white activist Sally Alexander (Keira Knightley), who will see her on TV and know that they can be successful too. And she’s hoping that the exposure will give her a chance to achieve her dream of becoming a broadcaster. She’s composed and dignified, utilising the competition for her own ends. It’s difficult to argue with her point of view.

But that’s where this film succeeds: it doesn’t try to argue with her. It allows for the fact that competing narratives can be simultaneously true. Because Alexander and the rest of the Women’s Libbers aren’t wrong either: it is appalling to see women weighed, measured, paraded and graded. It is appalling that this is what women have to do in order to succeed.

But even within the activists, there is space for difference. Jo Robinson (Jessie Buckley)’s direct action mantra is a world away from Alexander’s ‘get a seat at the table and fight from within’ approach. As writers Rebecca Frayn and Gaby Chiappe make clear, there is no one path to righteousness. But one thing is certain, the Miss World pageant is an outmoded model, and casually misogynistic men like organiser Eric Morley (Rhys Ifans) and Bob Hope (Greg Kinnear, on fine form) are going to have to face the fact that their time is up.

Misbehaviour is a gentle film, despite its themes of outrage and activism. There’s no post #MeToo hint of inappropriate sexual attentions being foisted on the contestants; instead, director Philippa Lowthorpe concentrates on the insidiously benign sexism that pervaded the era, and on the bravery of the women who called it out, on whose shoulders today’s young feminists stand.

Thank you.

4.3 stars

Susan Singfield

Motherless Brooklyn

13/12/19

Motherless Brooklyn, based on the novel by Jonathan Letham, has clearly been a labour of love for actor, Edward Norton. He’s been trying to put a movie version together for something like fifteen years now and, finally, here’s the result. As well as starring as lead character Lionel Essrog, Norton has gone ‘the full Orson Welles,’ serving as screenwriter, executive producer and director. He’s transposed the novel’s setting from the 1990s to the 1950s, an astute move, as the look and feel of the film is most definitely noir. Dick Pope’s bleak cinematography evokes memories of some of the great movies in this genre, particularly Chinatown.

Lionel is working for a small-time detective agency in New York. When we join the action, he and Gilbert (Ethan Supplee) are watching out for their boss, Frank Minna (Bruce Willis), who has an important meeting with some powerful people and has asked his employees to covertly back him up. 

The meeting goes spectacularly wrong and Frank winds up with a bullet in his gut. As a result, Lionel finds himself following up on Frank’s recent cases, one of which has him following Laura (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), an activist and daughter of a local jazz club owner. Lionel is able to call on some pretty special skills, as he has an uncanny ability to recall everything that’s ever been said to him. He also has a tendency to blurt out seemingly unconnected utterances at random moments – it’s probably Tourette’s syndrome but, this being the 1950s, his condition doesn’t yet appear to have a name.

As Lionel digs deeper into the case, he comes up against ruthless property developer, Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin) and also Randolph’s mysterious, down-at-heel critic, Paul (Willem Dafoe). But what do these two men have to do with Laura? And will the unravelling of the case prove dangerous for both her and Lionel?

Motherless Brooklyn is a curiously old-fashioned concoction, one that takes its own sweet time to roll out its labyrinthine story, but Norton, in what is only his second attempt at directing a movie (his first was Keeping the Faith in 2000) has done a pretty good job of pulling the various narrative strands into a satisfying whole. His performance is pitch perfect and he’s helped by a stellar supporting cast. Baldwin is particularly good as the decidedly Trumpian Randolph, a dead-eyed, frost-hearted megalomaniac with no scruples whatsoever, while Mbatha-Raw dazzles like an orchid in the drab heart of 50s America. I like the way Lionel’s disability is handled (it feels very convincing, just a part of who he is, ordinary to those who know him) and I also enjoy the film’s refusal to tie its storylines up with easy resolutions. Finally, it’s worth mentioning that the jazz score, a style of music that usually repels me, works brilliantly here, as does a haunting piece by Radiohead’s Thom Yorke.

This won’t be for everyone, but those with an enduring love of film noir will find plenty here to savour – and Norton deserves much credit for his tenacity in seeing this slow-gestating project through to the end.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

 

The Cloverfield Paradox

08/01/18

J J Abram’s Cloverfield franchise has always wielded an element of surprise as part of its arsenal. The first film, a compelling ‘found-footage’ creature feature, directed by Matt Reeves, was sneak-released to cinemas in 2008, and was, in this reviewer’s opinion, a low budget masterpiece.  Its 2016 successor, 10 Cloverfield Lane was a tense, claustrophobic thriller that initially appeared to have nothing whatever in common with its predecessor; until, that is, you reached the film’s final third and everything went completely (and satisfyingly) berserk.

And now, here’s The Cloverfield Paradox, directed by Julius Onah and somehow released direct to Netflix with hardly anyone (including the cast!) aware that this was going to happen. As a means of grabbing attention, it works a treat – but there have already been many voices on social media branding the new release as a complete dud – and news that a fourth instalment, with a Second World War setting, is already in the can have led many to believe that Abrams has, quite literally, lost the plot.

The opening of Paradox certainly grabs the attention, playing like a lost episode of Black Mirror. It’s the year 2028, the earth’s energy supplies are rapidly dwindling and the world teeters on the brink of nuclear war. Ava Hamilton (Gugu Mbatha Raw) is poised to leave her partner, Kiel (David Oyelowo) to go on a mission into outer space. She and the rest of her crew intend to use ‘The Shepard’ – a particle accelerator – to provide the earth with an artificial power supply – but they are warned from the very beginning that in so doing, they risk inadvertently opening portals that will allow alternative realities into existence. Well, they can’t say they weren’t warned.

The story now leaps forward to the mission itself, where Ava and her companions are trying to initiate the ‘Shepard.’ At first, they appear to have been successful – but then some very strange things start to happen… for a start, they can’t seem to find any trace of the earth. Then, they find a woman, Jensen (Elizabeth Debicki) trapped behind the walls of the spacecraft. She claims to be a trusted member of the crew, but they have never set eyes on her before. Meanwhile, engineer Volkov (Aksel Hennie) starts having some very nasty digestive problems and as for Mundy (Chris O’ Dowd)… what exactly has happened to his left arm? Meanwhile, back on earth, Kiel is having some pretty intense problems of his own…

And that’s pretty much it. The film cuts back and forth between its two locations throughout. It’s nicely shot and for the most part, it galumphs along engagingly enough, even though it soon becomes apparent that this is not so much a Cloverfield film as something else that has been slyly retrofitted to slot into that cinematic universe. Indeed, apart from a couple of subtle visual references, you’ll have to wait until the film’s closing moments to make any real connection with those illustrious predecessors.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, in an age where film fans are more polarised than ever before, some viewers have excoriated Paradox, blasting levels of vitriol in its general direction that seem somewhat excessive. It really isn’t that bad – just a bit mediocre and nowhere near as good as its progenitors. And of course, the convenient thing about Netflix is, if you don’t like what you’re watching, you can always reach for the ‘off’ switch.

3.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Free State of Jones

free-state-of-jones

08/10/16

Free State of Jones tells the almost unbelievable true story of the lengths the Confederates went to in order to protect their interest during the American Civil War.

Confederate army nurse Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey) realises he is a pawn in a rich man’s game and, after his nephew (Jacob Lofland) is killed in battle, he deserts. “It’s not my fight,” he says, noting that he has more in common with the black slaves than he does with the white elite. And so, he bands together a group of runaway slaves, fellow deserters and poor white women and, from their base deep in the swamps, leads a rebellion against the plantation owners, asserting their right to reap the crops they sow and live their lives as free humans, eventually establishing Jones County as a free state and seceding from the Confederacy.

It’s an undeniably important story, highlighting the the vile racism at the heart of American history, and showing how this echoes through the ages with sequences that flash-forward eighty-five years, where Knight’s descendent, Davis (Brian Lee Franklin), is put on trial and eventually jailed for failing to disclose, when marrying, that his great-great-great-grandmother – Newt Knight’s second wife, Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) – was black.

There’s plenty to admire in this film: it’s a story that needs telling; we need reminding that the Black Lives Matter movement has deep roots, and that racism is firmly embedded in American society. The rich still work hard to protect their own interests, turning the poor against each other to deflect attention from their own excess. And it’s beautifully acted, creating a clear sense of the times; it’s unflinching in its portrayal of the brutality of war and the harsh conditions endured by all.

A shame then that the narrative lacks pace. There’s no clear story arc, no real climactic moment, no drive propelling us to the end. It’s almost dull at times: a series of ponderous moments that don’t quite engage, that keep us at arm’s length. Terrible things happen but I’m never emotionally involved; my reactions are all intellectual.

It’s a good movie and worth seeing, but it’s hard to escape the notion that it could easily have been so much more.

3.9 stars

Susan Singfield