13th (US, 2016)

Black voices matter

Black voices matter

13th refers to the 13th amendment that abolished slavery and, at the same time, stripped criminals of their rights. An improvement you might assume but as Ava DuVernay’s brilliant documentary shows the inhumanity of slavery is now enacted upon those who are incarcerated (and not necessarily guilty of a crime). Disproportionately the criminal population of America is made up of African-Americans and the first striking thing about this documentary is the preponderance of talking heads ‘of colour’. The fact it is striking emphasises the white hegemony of mainstream media.

DuVernay’s history of prisons in US shows how they have increasingly become profit centres and how lobbying groups have been successful in creating government policy to facilitate their money-making. It’s a judicious mix of library footage and interviews, including some right-wing pundits, culminating in the ‘Black Lives Matter’ campaign that was created from a reaction against police violence against African-Americans (the actuality footage is truly distressing). Included is the Fruitvale Station shooting.

This is a Netflix original that received some cinema showings and so qualified for an Oscar nomination; I hope it wins.

 

The Past (Le passé, France-Italy-Iran)

Temporal triangle

Contemporary triangle

Asghar Farhadi’s profile rose recently as he became a victim of Trump’s bigotry when he was (temporarily for now) unable to travel to America for the Oscar ceremony because he happened to be Iranian (and Muslim). Such crass prejudice exists because many people cannot deal with nuance: vast groups of people are consigned to the Other to confirm supposed superiority. In contrast, Farhadi’s films (that I’ve seen: The Separation and About Elly) focus on the entangled dynamics of relationships showing  complexity without crass judgement about who’s to blame.

In The Past, Ahmad (Ali Mousaffa) returns to Paris to finalise his divorce from Marie (Bérénice Bejo) who’s in a relationship with Samir (the brilliantly bewildered Tahar Raham). The film progresses with a series of changes of perspective; just when you think you understand the dynamics of the relationships new information alters our viewpoint. It’s as if the narrative is a series of frames of reference that are added as soon as we think we know what is going on. The growing complexity beautifully portrays the mess, and excitement, of human relationships.

The victims, as far as there are any when couples fall apart, are the children. The teenager, Céline, (Aleksandra Klebanska) is particularly vividly drawn as she torments herself with guilt because of her (imaginary?) role in the destruction of the relationship between Ahmad and Marie.

Superb acting and thoughtful direction, windows and doors obstruct communication, as well as humour (Ahmad’s discussion with Marie is interrupting – in editing – by Samir’s drilling), make this a gripping film.

 

La La Land (USA, 2016)

Not a do-do

Not a do-do

‘Don’t believe the hype,’ rapped Chuck D, in the eponymous song, which is good advice because hype is about selling and the need to sell is often corrupting. Indeed, such is the effect of selling that I suspect most people treat hyperbole, especially if written by an estate agent or spoken by a politician, with scepticism. Film fandom tends to be resistant to scepticism, indeed it fuels the hype so, for example, all things Star Wars and Marvel are wonderful.

La La Land has been buzzing for months and is typical of the hype surrounding a film that’s unusual for mainstream cinema (in this case a musical) and yet is still (surprisingly) entertaining. For some the ‘surprise’ can make it the ‘best film I’ve ever seen’ (to quote a student) simply because they haven’t seen anything like it before. This isn’t to patronise as the ‘awe and wonder’ of discovery is the essence of film watching; if only I still had it!

So my expectations for La La Land were resisting the hype but my renaissance of enjoying film ‘insisted’ I go and see it and, I’m afraid, you need to believe the hype (in this case). The film is a tribute to ‘50s Hollywood musicals, through narrative (Singin’ in the Rain) and form (Vincente Minnelli’s cinemascope framed long, flowing takes) but doesn’t forget it’s in the 21st century in its clever narrative resolution.

A distinct difference from Golden Age musicals is the limited, if perfectly utilised, song and dance talents of Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone; they ain’t Astaire and Rogers, but that is of no matter. I even enjoyed Gosling’s taciturnity for once and Stone is entirely engaging.

Will La La Land lead audiences, not in the know, to the classics musicals or will it remain an exciting ‘one off’?

Jackie (Chile-France-USA, 2016)

Blood and detachment

Blood and detachment

The buzz around Jackie has been about Natalie Portman’s fantastic performance as Kennedy in the moments between JFK’s assassination and his funeral. And she is brilliant. However, this has meant the contribution of Pablo Larrain’s direction and Stephane Fontaine’s cinematography (and his colorist Isabelle Julien) hasn’t been acknowledged to the extent it should have been.

In an excellent interview, in No Film School,  Fontaine explains how Larrain shifted the script’s emphasis from the story to Jackie’s interior world. Hence the preponderance of close ups and handheld shots that follow her grief stricken wanderings around the White House. This stylization contributes to the arthouse feel of the film which is no doubt contributing to the relatively low key box office performance. It’s not that it’s a difficult film to follow but it’s a little off-kilter for mainstream audiences.

The film’s shot on super 16mm, giving a noticeable graininess, and looks fabulous. The colours, very subdued for many of scenes with Jackie, reminded me of the iconic look of Time Life magazine in the 1960s. The shot of Jackie, in full funeral dress, standing at the graveside, where her pallour makes her look like a ghost, is stunning. Similarly, in the late night walks around the White House, the setting has a steely sheen that reminded me of Kubrick’s hotel at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey. A suitably otherworldly place reflecting Jackie’s dislocation from the world in her grief.

Portman’s performance anchors this technical brilliance, along with the pin point costume design; she also mimics Jackie’s eccentric pronunciation which adds to the eeriness of the narrative world. The support is superb, though John Hurt’s Irish accent should have discounted him from the role; Peter Sarsgaard as Bobby and Greta Gerwig’s assistant stand out.

Writing this coincided with Hurt’s death and it would be invidious to mark that with a criticism as he’s been such a superb actor for decades. Although I found his accent distracting, his craggy, worn out features, and intelligent demeanour made him perfect for the role of Jackie’s confidante.

This is the third film I’ve seen in the cinema this year and the others were good too: A Monster Calls (US-Spain, 2016) and A United Kingdom (US-UK, 2016). Add the fine Arrival (US, 2016), which I saw at the backend of last year, maybe I’ve rediscovered my love for cinema (‘Yeeeeeesssssss!’).

Jackie is likely to be one of the best films of the year.

Walesa: Man of Hope (Walesa. Czlowiek z nadziei, Poland, 2013)

Man for the people

Man for the people

Andrzej Wajda died last year having directed some of the greatest films ever produced; Walesa: Man of Hope was the last he completed. Appropriately for his oeuvre it is historically informed: a biopic eulogising the leading force of Solidarność (Solidarity), the union that led to the downfall of the Soviet-backed government in Poland in the 1980s. It was a strange at the time to see mainstream media  celebrating a trade union instead of demonising them.

Wajda’s first four films, including the famous ‘war trilogy’ (see Ashes and Diamonds), focused on the Second World War but he didn’t always deal in history – his Innocent Sorcerers tells a charming tale of ‘first love’. In my Innocent Sorcerers post I complained about the lack of availability of Wajda’s films in the UK; I particularly would like to see Landscape After Battle (Krajobraz po bitwie, Poland, 1971) again if only for its hallucinatory opening sequence. I’ll try not to bang on again about how the BBC is abnegating its Public Service responsibility by virtually ignoring film culture. Although I saw Walesa on BBC4, where’s the career retrospective and documentary on one of the great artists in cinema history!?

I really enjoyed Walesa partly because it reminded me of my introduction to Wajda’s films, Man of Marble (Czlowiek z marmuru, Poland, 1977) and its sequel – that dealt with the same events as this film – Man of Iron (Czlowiek z zelaza, Poland, 1981). It’s a sign of my age that these events, which were gripping viewing via television news at the time, are now history and no doubt part of Walesa‘s purpose is to educate young Poles about their recent past. Focusing solely on the figurehead Walesa necessarily limits the focus and it may be difficult to completely follow the story if you had no knowledge of the events of the time. However, the film brilliantly brings to life the historical moment through the fabulous performance of Robert Wieckiewicz as Walesa, an ordinary man of great strength and charisma. Wadja, however, does not neglect Walesa’s wife, Danuta (Agnieszka Grochowska), who might have been simply a domestic adjunct to the hero. In fact, the last shot of the film is of her suggesting that Walesa would not have succeeded without her support.

Come on BBC, where’re the retrospectives of Wadja’s films? Although we have more films available to us, including the more obscure, than ever a curated free-to-air presentation of cinema history is required or many people will never come across the gems of the past.

Review of 2016

Politically a shit year which probably had nothing to do with me falling out of love with film. There’s hope, for me, in that I’m managed to watch, and enjoy, a few films recently. However, not enough for me to declare with a scintilla of sincerity that I can judge the year’s top movies.

Top TV

  1. The Bridge – series 3
  2. The Night Manager
  3. War and Peace
  4. Undercover
  5. Happy Valley – series 2
  6. In the Line of Duty – series 3
  7. Marcella
  8. The A Word
  9. Follow the Money
  10. Trapped

Top live

  1. Anna Meredith – Belgrave Music Hall – Leeds
  2. Melt Yourself Down – Wardrobe, Leeds
  3. A Night at the Museum – Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Wakefield
  4. Orff: Carmina Burana – RLPO, Liverpool
  5. The Bad Plus – Howard Assembly Rooms, Leeds
  6. Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra – Vladimir Fedoseyev, Leeds Town Hall
  7. Rachael Yamagata – King’s Head, Salford
  8. A Streetcar Named Desire, Tennesse Williams, Royal Exchange – Manchester
  9. Laura Cortese and the Dance Cards, The Live Room – Saltaire
  10. Making Mischief, The Other Place – Stratford

Top books

  1. Satin Island, Tom McCarthy
  2. Olive Kitteridge, A Novel in Stories, Elizabeth Strout
  3. The Establishment, Owen Jones
  4. Prodigal Summer, Barbara Kingsolver
  5. But You Did Not Come Back, Marceline Loridan-Ivens
  6. The Rest is Noise, Alex Ross
  7. The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, Maggie O’Farrell
  8. The Other Hand, Colin Cleave
  9. A Whole Life, Robert Seethaler
  10. 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare, James Shapiro

Top albums

  1. Shostakovich: Symphones 5, 8 & 9 – BSO -Nelsons
  2. Laura Gibson, Empire Builder
  3. Maarja Nuut, Une Meeles
  4. Melt Yourself Down, Last Evenings on Earth
  5. Rachel Newton, Here’s My Heart Come Take It
  6. Christian Scott, Stretch Music
  7. Phronesis, Parallax
  8. Ruby Hughes and Joseph Middleton, Nocturne
  9. Lisa Hannigan, At Swim
  10. Auntie Flo, Theory of Flo

I, Daniel Blake (UK-France-Belguim, 2016)

21st century penury

21st century penury

I was aroused from my film stupor by Ken Loach’s latest socialist message which is as devastating as Cathy Come Home (UK, 1966). The latter was a TV play which was apparently watched by 12 million people (there were only three channels to choose from) and led to the Britain taking the homelessness seriously. Although I, Daniel Blake is doing good business for a Loach film, in the UK (he’s more popular in France), nowhere near as many people will see this masterpiece.

It has rattled the right wing though. In attempt to discredit the truth of what’s happening to the benefits system influential idiot, Toby Young, has picked (health warning: the following link takes you to the Daily Mailflaws in the film, ably taken down by Mark Steel.

It’s a typical Loachian (and scriptwriter Paul Laverty) melodrama that focuses on individuals rather than the system. But who can watch the film and not realise we are turning the clock back to the Victorian values of penury for the poor? Young and his ilk choose not to believe it is happening. Others are happy for the working class Other to be degraded. We are living in an increasing divided society; we are living in an increasingly divided world.