Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Black man's burden: "I Am Not Your Negro"

Somewhere deep down in the rightly glowing reviews for Raoul Peck's documentary I Am Not Your Negro, there may be an acknowledgement that this is, among other things, a rediscovery of a vital and compelling critical voice; and that, as such, the film makes the case for us almost as well as it does the case for James Baldwin. Peck's hybrid - part biog, part rumination - takes as its raw material those notes and letters Baldwin penned in advance of Remember This House, the project the writer began in late 1979 but left behind as an unfinished manuscript upon his death eight years later. The book was commissioned as a memoir in which Baldwin would cast his eye back to mid-century America and reflect upon his relationships with the late Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X; while addressing the civil-rights era those men embodied - the struggle for recognition and parity, the pushback against hidebound institutional racism, the sight of young black men being shot down in the streets - Peck also elects to cast an eye forwards to the present day, the fallout from Ferguson and the first stirrings of the Black Lives Matter movement, and in so doing, he invites us to weight up how far or little we've travelled in the past fifty years.

For the most part, the film is conventionally composed: Baldwin (as voiced by Samuel L. Jackson) talks us through his ideas and observations over a variety of footage pulled from the archive. Peck has one popcultural advantage, though, in that Baldwin was a particularly astute viewer of the movies, capable of taking down such putative landmarks as The Defiant Ones and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? - or allowing them to take themselves down simply by setting them against a commentary on the harsher realities of their times. This tension between idealised image and imperfect, deleterious actuality runs throughout the film. In a televised 1965 debate at the Cambridge Union - a fascinating scene in itself, with the great black intellectual surrounded by white scions of privilege, and no less an adversary than William F. Buckley lurking in the wings - we witness Baldwin elucidating the Eureka moment he experienced upon watching a Gary Cooper western and realising that, culturally, he had more in common with the defeated injuns than he did with the white-hatted hero.

The collage approach ensures I Am Not Your Negro tesselates appreciably with Goran Hugo Olsson's The Black Power Mixtape 1967-75 and Concerning Violence, themselves potent documents of that post-war period of reconstruction when all the old issues of colonialism and hegemony were suddenly up for discussion again. Yet the Baldwin of the late Seventies is clearly speaking from the perspective of a battered and bruised survivor of that tumult, one of the few who lived past forty to patch together and pass on the sorry tale that the likes of Evers, King and X couldn't. Certainly, Peck's film never lacks for explosive, blood-spattered footage drawn from the fractious frontlines of the civil-rights battle: here is history being made before our eyes, with a cordon of scowling or smirking white supremacists doing their damnedest to stop it. All of which can't help but make you wonder: are we just going round in circles nowadays? And is there any way out of the cycle?

Given the gestation period of the average documentary, it's possible Negro was pitched and developed as one film - straight-up Baldwin biography - before shapeshifting into another as events beyond the editing suite developed. The biggest indictment Peck makes of our time is formal: it is genuinely shocking just how seamlessly the archived, Kodachromed images cut together with that footage sourced from, say, 2014's Ferguson unrest. Baldwin's words continue to resonate when set to news coverage of those 21st century youngsters shot down by police, or of America's rapidly swelling, increasingly black prison populations (subject, of course, of Ava duVernay's recent 13TH); when he identifies an "unfeeling white majority" who consider him inhuman, the accusation chimes with certain Brexiteers' (and certain Brexit-supporting newspapers') attitudes toward migrants of any shade. Cultures infantilised by capitalism seek solace in fantasy and reassuring self-images; within those cultures, minorities have tended to be recast as boogeymen bringing chaos in their wake. 

It may have required a storyteller to finesse this point, and it becomes an obvious problem when violence - the right to bear arms - is as much part of your culture as cherry pie. As Baldwin is heard to argue at one point, the treatment of the negro shows up the American Dream - freedom and good times for all - as the sham it might well be. Race remains the most complex of issues, as the film that beat Negro and 13TH to the Best Documentary Oscar (O.J.: Made in America) demonstrates at length, and if there are no easy answers or quick fixes here, the Baldwin we encounter proves as good a guide as any: supremely eloquent, invariably sober, he's a paragon of thoughtfully channelled anger, chastened by events while remaining quietly hopeful we might see better down the line - in our lifetime, if not his. You emerge from this thoroughly energising film burning to know what he would have had to say on the Obama era, the success of Get Out, the Rachel Dolezal saga - for, like the very best critics, Baldwin makes us a sharper, more engaged observer of both the world and its people.

I Am Not Your Negro is now playing in selected cinemas.

Monday, 24 April 2017

1,001 Films: "Killer of Sheep" (1978)

Charles Burnett's debut film Killer of Sheep fell between Shaft and Wild Style on the timeline of landmark moments in black cinema, but it looks to be taking place somewhere else entirely: during a never-ending depression on the other side of the world. In beautiful monochrome images, we observe a working-class family interacting with their environs, the rundown Watts district of Los Angeles. At first, the focus is on the family's youngsters: its kids-at-play sequences remained the best up until David Gordon Green's George Washington, on which Burnett's film clearly had a considerable influence. The protagonist, though, turns out to be their father Stan (Henry Gayle Sanders), who rejects the easy money offered to him by a pair of gangsters to earn an honest living hosing the shit and blood off a slaughterhouse floor. In the course of the film, Stan has to perform several near-Sisyphean tasks: trying to fix up a house in a neighborhood beyond repair; carrying a car engine down several flights of stairs only to see it fall out the back of his pick-up truck. The film is so rooted in its particular place that it has secondary value as a discourse on the architecture of the ghetto, and sets one to wondering just what became of LA in the 1980s. 1991's Boyz N The Hood, perhaps the next great 'hood drama, would play out on flat suburban spaces, but the Watts of Burnett's time is all steep inclines and jagged descents, closer in look to the favelas of City of God; for its inhabitants, everything's a slippery slope or an uphill struggle. 

This is a place of violence and impotence: practically everyone on screen gets beaten up one way or another, while literally dirt-poor kids, who may just have had the (mis)fortune to survive long enough to witness or participate in the Watts riots of the early 90s, throw rocks at one another, because there's nothing else for them to play with. There's something particularly disconcerting in Stan's inability or unwillingness to make love to his wife (Kaycee Moore), which suggests a pent-up frustration that never quite finds release. Even at the last, a flat tyre thwarts his efforts to take family and friends on holiday; there's just no escape from it all. For all this, the film preserves more poetry than suffering, and details at least as much good cheer as it does degradation. Burnett's young performers are tremendously funny and expressive, while the soundtrack (ranging from Paul Robeson to Earth, Wind & Fire via Dinah Washington) remains both pointed and pleasurable. It has more to do with documentary or photography than the blaxploitation of its decade, and in Stan, Burnett bequeathed us one of the great characters in cinema, an African-American Tom Joad: a decent man bearing the immense weight of a broken-down world on his shoulders, but still trying to raise his children right on the limited means available to him. Despite - or perhaps because of - its roughness, its authenticating texture, this is unforgettable filmmaking.

Killer of Sheep is available on DVD through the BFI.

Sunday, 23 April 2017

1,001 Films: "Taxi Driver" (1976)

Funny old time for Travis Bickle to raise his ugly mohawked head once again. Here is cinema’s original angry white male, stepping out of the sewer smoke as the midpoint of the BFI’s Martin Scorsese retrospective, at a time when angry white males have seized control of public discourse. Back then, Bickle looked very much a product of his circumstances: post-Nixon, post-Vietnam America, pre-gentrified New York. Watching him in 2017, the mind boggles: would Bickle feel vindicated by our world? Would he be gunning for or supporting the President? Would he be even angrier for seeing Uber devouring his client base?

By all accounts, this was Scorsese and his collaborator Paul Schrader writing what they knew. Most male filmmakers craft flattering self-images within their early features; Scorsese and Schrader, by contrast, punched up their own neuroses and hang-ups into a portrait of lethally toxic masculinity. They found a willing ally in Robert de Niro, at that stage where he was willing to push and pull his body every which way: here, warming up for Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull, he transforms the boyish, shy-smiling Bickle of the early scenes into the shaven-headed loon who stalks through the unforgettably bloody finale.

In showing how one Travis becomes the other, no film has better captured a certain kind of masculine solitude: the loneliness, the boredom, the growing entrenchment that follows from Travis driving around in his yellow Checker cab, fantasising and projecting (many have noted the parallels between screen and windscreen), becoming ever more detached and alienated from the world outside. There’s a marked contrast between him and those civic-minded individuals (Cybill Shepherd, Albert Brooks) observed trading quips in scenes suggestive of a “normal” movie of the late 1970s.

But then Taxi Driver is far from a normal film. This viewer has always been a touch resistant to claims for its greatness: nothing about it seems especially healthy, and the sense of men egging one another on towards vileness hardly relents with Scorsese’s cameo as a racist creep. (He looks like Manson.) You wonder how many fanboys have forced their girlfriends to squirm through it, like Travis forcing porn on Shepherd’s Betsy. Still, it endures as the furthest studio movies were permitted to descend into the mire; the following year, George Lucas made Star Wars on wipeclean sets, and the rest was movie history.

That isn’t to deny Taxi Driver’s occult power. It is superlatively performed by character actors who didn’t care for being likable: there are brilliantly uneasy encounters between De Niro and Harvey Keitel’s pimp, the awkward silences allowing us to hear the tin cans and other trash blowing down the street. And Bernard Herrmann’s score sneaks up behind you, places its hands over your eyes, and eases you back into the darkness: the film should be a bumpier ride than it is, but this was Scorsese – on that trajectory that took him from Mean Streets to GoodFellas – learning how to seduce the viewer with violence.

That had consequences: part of Taxi Driver’s legend is that it inspired John Hinckley to take a pop at Ronald Reagan in a bid to impress Jodie Foster, as Travis sought to woo Foster’s child prostitute Iris. Somewhere in here, alongside the useful skewering of white knight syndrome, is a beginner’s guide to becoming an assassin. It is, however, Travis’s insular worldview that now appears most terrifying, and most familiar. In ’76, that bicentennial year, this guy was surely a lone face in the flagwaving crowd; nowadays, whether lurking on the Internet or in the halls of highest office, he seems to be everywhere.
(Reader's Digest, February 2017)
A 40th Anniversary Special Edition of Taxi Driver is available on Blu-Ray through Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.

Saturday, 22 April 2017

1,001 Films: "The Travelling Players/O Thiasos" (1975)

The players in Theo Angelopoulos's The Travelling Players are stand-ins for the Greek people, and they travel - or, rather, they wander, while the camera travels beside them in directorial solidarity - back and forth through the first half of the 20th century, attempting to perform an old standard of the Grecian stage (Golfo the Shepherdess), all the while being whittled away, by time and by circumstance. At the head of this troupe sit the left-leaning manager and his errant wife, playing away with another actor known for his fascist sympathies; the married couple's son is a soldier dispatched to various fronts as war and civil unrest break out, interrupting his own romance with the company's leading lady. The film's unifying theme is that very unrest, disruption: in a subversion of the theatrical maxim "the show must go on", these players barely get beyond the first scene of their chosen text. As the curtain of each new dawn rises, they're obliged to start all over again - often from a worse place than before. First, the leading man is pursued offstage (and arrested) by government agents; after a brisk spot of recasting, the next show we see them perform is cut short by an air raid. It's hardly a surprise that the story becomes scrambled, achronological, as though losing its thread: the camera pans one way, across a road as observed in the run-up to the 1952 elections, then pans back, without cutting, to show the same thoroughfare as it was under the Nazi occupation - the idea being that this tumult and turmoil was ever thus.

Watched from the perspective of the early 21st century, The Travelling Players makes sense of almost everything that has followed: it's a fulsome introduction to a society that considers it standard operating procedure to smash the plates at the end of every meal, a culture with drama in its blood. In a scene that seems crucial to what the film is getting at, an officer steps onto the stage to shoot yet another of these accursed thesps dead, only for the onlooking audience to break into applause, having long since learnt to accept such violent ruptures as part of the scenery. No film has engaged more with the political ramifications of what it is, and what it means, to act: whether that means to give in and become a plaything, something to be molded by firmer hands, stripped and sent to wardrobe to come back with a new uniform, or conversely to hold out, to resist, and in doing so, to begin to assert one's independence as an individual. Angelopoulos regards history as a crowd scene, an epic swaying to-and-fro, with all the internal tensions that implies: the characters are identified less by their given names than by what they chant or sing, the flags they carry and discard. 

This makes Players sound demanding; in fact, it's an unusually absorbing watch in its feel for cold, wet, quiet (often port or hillside) towns - the kind of place at the furthest reaches of the rep circuit - which suddenly find themselves invaded or bombarded. If it's not the fascists entering stage right, it's the Communists charging in from the left, and it's all the actors can do to hit their marks, remember the roles they've been handed, and try not to be too distracted by what may be lying in wait for them in the wings - nor, indeed, by the threat of dying on their backsides. The film has a lofty reputation as Angelopoulos's masterpiece: at almost four hours, it's certainly a considerable benchmark against which to set all this director's subsequent examinations of Greek history. But don't let the running time put you off: essentially, we're watching history played out in one take as farce, in the next as tragedy, and then over and over again until it really does begin to take on the weight of history - something complex, alive, and (the real liberator, once you come to accept it) hard to pin down while you're milling around in the very middle of it.

The Travelling Players is available as part of Artificial Eye's The Theo Angelopoulos Collection vol. 1. 

Friday, 21 April 2017

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office   
for the weekend of April 14-16, 2017:
1 (new) Fast & Furious 8 (12A) [above]
2 (1) The Boss Baby (U)
3 (2) Beauty and the Beast (PG) ***
4 (3) Peppa Pig: My First Cinema Experience (U)
5 (6) Going in Style (12A)
6 (new) The Handmaiden (18)
7 (5) Get Out (15) ****
8 (7) Smurfs: The Lost Village (U)
9 (4) Ghost in the Shell (12A) ***
10 (new) The Sense of an Ending (15) **

(source: theguardian.com)

My top five:   
1. Mulholland Dr.
2. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
3. Neruda
4. I Am Not Your Negro
5. Their Finest

Top Ten DVD rentals:  

1 (1) Rogue One (12) **
2 (2) Moana (PG) ****
3 (3) Arrival (12) ***
4 (8) The Magnificent Seven (12) **
5 (4) Doctor Strange (12) **
6 (5) Trolls (U)
7 (6) Bridget Jones's Baby (15) *
8 (9) Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children (12)
9 (7) Inferno (15) *
10 (10) A Street Cat Named Bob (12) **
(source: lovefilm.com)

My top five:  
1. Moana
2. Catfight
3. It's Only the End of the World
4. Tanna
5. Adult Life Skills

"Their Finest" and "Rules Don't Apply" (Catholic Herald 21/04/17)

Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be. The spectre of the “well-made British film” – well-cast, well-acted and well-dressed, yet so emotionally hemmed in as to pack all the wallop of a damp handkerchief – hangs heavy over Their Finest (***, 12A, 115 mins), Lone Scherfig’s take on Lissa Evans’ WW2-set bestseller. It’s certainly well-cast and well-produced, lining up its national treasures like mantelpiece tchotchkes. There’s a self-reflexive curl about its stiff upper lip, however: Gaby Chiappe’s script maps the progress of screenwriter Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) within the wartime propaganda industry.

21st century career women will recognise elements of Catrin’s predicament: territorial male colleagues, limited pay, a wider institutional sexism that dubs women’s dialogue “the slop”. Why, then, is Their Finest but mildly stirring? Partly, it’s the drab grey fug Scherfig shrouds scenes in, constantly obscuring her more colourful features: amusingly vain lead Bill Nighy’s double-act with schnauzer-toting agent Eddie Marsan, Rachael Sterling’s no-nonsense producer. Partly, it’s self-satisfaction: each wry snipe at thespian ways removes us only further from anything like real pain or sacrifice.

Their Finest instead emerges from that keep-calm-and-carry-on mentality determined to recast WW2 as a jolly, best-of-British romp: it’s fish-and-chips in newspaper wrappers, pretty girls on bicycles, and a pantomimic rendering of Dunkirk spirit via a caricatured crew (plucky heroine, square-jawed Yank) forming their own cosy platoon. At the outset, Henry Goodman’s Korda-like bigwig lists a successful picture’s key ingredients as “authenticity, optimism, and a dog”. Scherfig’s film can claim two of these three, enough to provide genteel matinee distraction – but it’s barely more sophisticated in appealing to a modern audience.

Hollywood, meanwhile, is harking back to that late Fifties golden age when rich white men might still present as romantic mavericks. Warren Beatty’s Rules Don’t Apply (**, 12A, 127 mins), American cinema’s biggest financial flop of 2016, deploys a juicy Howard Hughes quote (“Never check an interesting fact”) to justify its entirely fictional love triangle between ageing satyr Hughes (Beatty himself), a self-improving starlet (Lily Collins), and her designated driver (Alden Ehrenreich), played out as a Kodachromed cruise down a Sunset Strip converted for the occasion into an erratic memory lane.

Familiar faces (Ed Harris, Annette Bening, Alec Baldwin) prove subservient to the dominant creative force: Beatty-as-Hughes emerges from the shadows after a half-hour, and begins pawing Collins in a manner that might well put you off the movies forever. Poignant flickers arise in its trade-off between innocence and experience, and its nostalgia feels more sincere for emanating from someone who actually lived through the mythmaking. Yet as Rules rambles on, it becomes clear it’s been funnelled into a pretty fitful vehicle: a misfire caught between lavishly expensive folly – a silver-screen Spruce Goose – and the year’s best-appointed dad joke.

Their Finest and Rules Don't Apply open in cinemas nationwide today.

Monday, 17 April 2017

Soft diplomacy: "Letters from Baghdad"

Letters from Baghdad is an excavation of sorts: an attempt to return to plain sight a figure who, while not necessarily forgotten, may have become obscured over the past century. That figure is Gertrude Bell, adventurer, mapmaker and contemporary of T.E. Lawrence, and we know full well how the cinema's idea of British involvement in the Middle East has been shaped by that very white male romantic. Here, then, is a counterhistory, striving to pin down a woman who occupied much of the same space as Lawrence, yet was more often than not behind the camera rather than before it, and thus never appeared on David Lean's radar. The directing partnership of Sabine Krayenbühl and Zeva Oelbaum set out their case in much the same fashion as 2014's The Decent One, Vanessa Lapa's documentary on Heinrich Himmler, layering readings of their subject's diaries and correspondence over photographs and archive footage. Thus are we carried from an idyllic Home Counties upbringing to fin-de-siècle Oxford, thence a series of expeditions into the wider outposts of Empire: one moment Bell finds herself in newly liberated Tehran, the next this professional migrant is making herself entirely at home in Syria, in a way that can only seem poignant indeed to onlookers in the year 2017. Here is a woman determined to go her own way.

It makes sense that the directors should have asked Tilda Swinton to provide the contours of Bell's voice in adulthood: as we learn more of her assignments for the Foreign Office, she emerges as a restless, idiosyncratic soul, not terribly interested in settling down - Lawrence, we learn, described her as "not like a woman" - yet bound by a sincere wonder at and love of the region to which she was dispatched. Her personality, arguably, registers rather more forcefully than the film overall, which finds a groove early on and never deviates from it. The Himmler doc deployed its handwritten notes to investigate the discrepancy between its subject's reputation as an architect of evil and the banal reality of a petty-minded bureaucrat permitted to give free rein to his prejudices. Clearly, there is no comparable discrepancy here, though Bell's correspondence grants us an inside line on her experiences, a sense of the high esteem she was held in by her employers and many of her contemporaries, and of the huffy-stuffy patrician forces whose clumsy attempts to divide up the ground she was standing on resulted in several still ongoing conflicts in the Middle East.

Set side-by-side without any further context or deeper analysis, however, all they amount to is a naggingly flat chronology: a series of wish-you-were-heres, pins on a map, names, dates and times - which, for all Krayenbühl and Oelbaum's evident facility and dexterity with archive images, never really come to life as compelling cinema. "It's strange to be treating all these tragic places as stages in a journey," Bell confesses in one of her missives, suggesting a degree of self-awareness that exists just beyond the film's reach. Every now and again, something pops up to catch and hold the eye: you can't help but struck by the few surviving photographs of Bell, where she cuts a spectral, Zelig-like presence - as though she wasn't meant to be there, as doubtless some in high office would have insisted, or simply as if she didn't want to impose herself upon the environment in the same way the men of the party clearly did. Yet almost the entirety of the second half is turned over to the kind of diplomatic minutiae that, while historically revealing, makes for a perilously dry sit. For all that Krayenbühl and Oelbaum have succeeded in bringing Bell back to the surface, they immediately entomb her in what feels often like an exhibition projected vertically - and one that allows scant room for the viewer's imagination to truly roam.

Letters from Baghdad opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

Friday, 14 April 2017

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office   
for the weekend of April 7-9, 2017:
1 (new) The Boss Baby (U)
2 (1) Beauty and the Beast (PG) ***
3 (new) Peppa Pig: My First Cinema Experience (U)
4 (2) Ghost in the Shell (12A) ***
5 (4) Get Out (15) ****
6 (new) Going in Style (12A)
7 (3) Smurfs: The Lost Village (U)
8 (5) Power Rangers (12A) **
9 (6) Kong: Skull Island (12A)
10 (8) Logan (15) ***

(source: theguardian.com)

My top five:   
1. Mulholland Dr. [above]
2. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
3. Neruda
4. The Lost City of Z
5. The Salesman

Top Ten DVD rentals:  

1 (new) Rogue One (12) **
2 (1) Moana (PG) ****
3 (2) Arrival (12) ***
4 (3) Doctor Strange (12) **
5 (new) Trolls (U)
6 (4) Bridget Jones's Baby (15) *
7 (5) Inferno (15) *
8 (re) The Magnificent Seven (12) **
9 (7) Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children (12)
10 (8) A Street Cat Named Bob (12) **
(source: lovefilm.com)

My top five:  
1. Moana
2. Tanna
3. Adult Life Skills
4. The Birth of a Nation
5. Revolution: New Art for a New World

Thursday, 13 April 2017

On DVD: "The Birth of a Nation"

Rarely can a film's stock have fallen quite so sharply in the course of a single calendar year. The Birth of a Nation, Nate Parker's thumping biopic of the rebellious slave Nat Turner, left audiences and critics reeling at its Sundance premiere last January, and sent Fox rummaging for a record sum to acquire global distribution rights, convinced they had the next 12 Years a Slave on their hands. If ever you needed more reason to distrust the glowing reviews and reactions routinely bounced back from the festival circuit, this would be it. First, there came the critical backlash, as sober, better-slept observers spotted the crudeness of the film's technique; there then emerged details of a troubling case from 1999 in which Parker and his co-writer Jean McGianni Celestin, at that time college sophomores, were accused of (and, in the latter's case, convicted of) sexual assault. Celestin's conviction was overturned in 2005, only for the new trial convened to rehear the charges to be cancelled due to the absence of witnesses; his accuser would commit suicide in 2012, a tragedy too great for anything so flimsy as a mere movie to bear. A century on from the contentious D.W. Griffith epic from which Parker has co-opted his title, it's almost as though the practitioners of cinema haven't got anywhere or learnt anything - although I suppose you could say the rest of us are getting much more efficient about applying the hashtag #problematic.

The film itself, for what it's worth, turns out to be a markedly different beast from 12 Years, which was ultimately the work of an outsider-artist alert to the gruelling rituals of slavery and the power structures that sustained it. An actor-turned-director, Parker has grown up within the business, and his film is couched very much along the lines of conventional Hollywood biopic fare, existing somewhere between Hallmark Channel history lesson and Mel Gibson's Braveheart, a comparison Parker has happily received. In short, Birth was clearly made to be sold for a high price (where the McQueen film, stars aside, was in theory a tough sell), and we should probably note in passing the irony of Parker citing the deeply problematic Gibson as an influence. That influence is most strongly seen and felt in Parker's liberal application of blood. The first time the young Turner (Nat Espinosa) is taken out into the cotton fields, he pricks his finger; corncobs ooze crimson in a dream. Slavery here equals perversion of nature. Parker's older Turner is, much like that cotton, notable for his absorbency: the film is structured as a series of vile abuses its hero must soak up before his rage spills over in the head-smashing, throat-slitting finale. These include: witnessing the beating of a puppy; seeing one slave owner chiselling out the teeth of servants who've gone on hunger strike; seeing his own owner (Armie Hammer) selling his services to a less scrupulous honky; and, finally, a gang rape that ensures everyone in the auditorium is hollering for payback.

This gives Birth undeniable punch and momentum, but equally leaves it feeling predetermined where 12 Years felt genuinely shocking, prone to montages that ease us past the humiliating rituals and repetitions of the McQueen movie. Everything feels very carefully controlled and packaged: the framing of the hero's swelling anger as righteous (justified three times over, by first a Biblical quote, then a Godly solar eclipse, and finally his good lady wife's approval), the elaborately choreographed wedding party song-and-dance by which a ragtag bunch of field workers are momentarily transformed into the cast of Hamilton, the romance that develops between Nat and the new girl (Aja Naomi King), with her unerring knack of sitting exactly where the most brilliant rays of the Sun hit the Earth. (On the couple's wedding night, their bodies are positioned in such a way as to rhyme symmetrically with a pair of candles leaning into one another on the windowsill, an especially chintzy touch.) Where McQueen evoked slavery in scenes that were angry, ragged or sad, Parker seems to sense his position within the system all too well: his film has many of the trappings of those A-pictures that seek to tell Important Stories and thereby win awards, but it gets there via the methods of those B-movies that grab our attention with dollops of gore, setting us to endure and then cheer sights we would surely run or look away from in the real world.

Birth has just enough social-historical heft to cover its ass against charges of exploitation - charges that damned such films as Mandingo and Drum on their first release: it does look like an expensive (therefore respectable) studio release, making Fox's financial investment seem like a no-brainer at the time. Yet within that framework, Parker insistently selects the most obvious tactic with which to drive his points home: casting rent-a-hick Jackie Earle Haley and the ever-dissolute Mark Boone Jr. as landed locals, having Turner attacked by a white dog, putting the slo-mo on the lash such that it extends the agonies for an extra second or two, or simply just organising all the characters in such a way that they're entirely subservient to Turner - and thus the actors to Parker, the first-time multihyphenate striving to make an impression within a ruthlessly competitive (and - Moonlight schmoonlight - minority-blind) industry. The result can't help but have some impact - as Griffith's film, "history written with lightning" etc., did way back when - and particularly so among viewers desperate to see a greater number of black stories up on screen. Yet there are surely more artful and sensitive ways of telling these stories: even as Hacksaw Ridge muscles its director and prime mover back onto the fringes of awards consideration - and Hollywood redemption - we might ponder the wisdom of Parker adopting "Mad" Mel Gibson as a career role model.

The Birth of a Nation is available on DVD and Blu-Ray through 20th Century Fox from Monday.

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Period pains: "The Sense of an Ending"

Perhaps this was inevitable, but here we are: Liberal Elite - The Movie, a film commissioned in Bloomsbury from a book that set a few square miles in Islington chattering, about a Jeremy Corbyn-alike dithering towards the realisation that he was wrong to raise his voice against representatives of the landed gentry. By rights, The Sense of an Ending should play matinee screenings at the Hampstead Everyman until the end of time, and precisely nowhere else. A sense of irrelevancy spirals out from protagonist Tony Webster (Jim Broadbent), a physically spry yet curmudgeonly old cove who spends his afternoons in semi-retirement, repairing Leica cameras. It isn't just that Corbynesque facefuzz that gives him the air of a man out of time and touch: a habitual letter writer - taking particular delight whenever one of his missives graces the pages of his beloved Guardian - he has to be handed an iPhone by his heavily pregnant daughter (Michelle Dockery) in case of a birthing emergency. Still, life has a way of coming out of the blue at you, be you seventy or seventeen.

Those who've read Julian Barnes' Booker-winning novel will already have some indication of the blasts from the past heading this codger's way. Yet the film, adapted by emergent theatrical star Nick Payne (Constellations) and directed by Ritesh Batra (The Lunchbox), treats them more like mildly awkward interventions: a series of lawyers' letters promising to bequeath Tony odds and sods from his younger days (never delivered), dozy memories of his time as a lovestruck teenager, prompted by leisurely lunch conversations with an altogether too patient and forgiving ex-wife (Harriet Walter). Very quickly, we get a sense of a bungee-cord structure that would serve readers rather better than it does cinemagoers: every time Tony seems to be heading towards some realisation about the events of his past, we're tugged back to the present day, a withholding technique that notionally underlines Barnes's theorem that we can never fully grasp the whole truth of another person's life.

Batra has ways of finessing Payne's approach in the editing suite. As one door in the present closes, another opens in the past; a cut unites the older and younger Tonies shaving at the bathroom mirror. Yet for at least an hour, the film is tryingly underdramatic: a petty administrative squabble that sets its characters to waffling whenever they're not going round and round in judiciously furnished circles. Here, Batra is no help whatsoever. The restraint he displayed in his first feature - thereby distinguishing it from the ranks of blood-and-thunder Bollywood melodrama - now feels like nothing more than placidity or timidity, born of the desire to impress his new BBC Films paymasters: he's getting everybody to hit their marks without once threatening to frighten the horses. You might give him credit for having developed a stiff upper lip in record time, but it gets in the way of the character revelations here. A suicide barely puts a ripple in the film's haut-bourgeois surface; a scene of confrontation - in Foyles' cafe, natch - peters out with a cutesy punchline involving the pregnant lesbians at the next table; a pursuit along the Bank branch of the Northern Line is shot with all the urgency of an afternoon TV spot for incontinence pads. 

Maybe that's all the Silver Screen crowd require: something genteel to nod off in front of before Escape to the Country comes back on. Yet the approach entirely shortsells Broadbent's willingness to play less than sympathetic: he gives great resting sourpuss face here, and has a way of delivering a banal line like "whenever suits" that is almost perfectly pushy and passive-aggressive. Barnes was writing to expose a particular, emotionally frozen kind of Englishness - one happier around inanimate objects than people, and perhaps not uncommon in certain literary circles - yet that inquiry surely demanded a far tougher film than this effete middlebrow construction, one that was prepared to get its hands dirty and mix it up a little (rather as, say, 2006's Judi Dench psychodrama Notes on a Scandal did). Whatever knotty intellectual life and raw human truth the author first put on the page - elements the inquiring Payne would have been well placed to extract, were he too not looking to make friends and influence people - it's been comprehensively flattened out to provide the basis of yet another fustily pretty, inertly functional, stiflingly well-made British picture. 

The Sense of an Ending opens in cinemas nationwide from Friday.

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

At the BFI: "Kapoor & Sons (Since 1921)"

Despite the nod to tradition in its title, Kapoor & Sons (Since 1921) forms an eminent example of New Bollywood: a dysfunctional family affair, now played out without a single sulphurous whiff of that thunderous melodrama enacted in the likes of Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham. Two brothers - the straight-laced Rahul (Fawad Khan) and the wilder Arjun (Sidharth Malhotra) - are recalled from overseas by news their grandfather has succumbed to a heart attack; upon returning to the family home, however, they find the stout old rogue (veteran Rishi Kapoor, having a whale of a time) more or less fine and the household beset by a different kind of cardiac crisis - the apparent foundering of their parents' marriage. What follows risks becoming Sundance-schematic, but writer-director Shakun Batra ensures that everything up to the shouting fits develops organically: pleasingly low-key location shooting helps, while the musical numbers tend more often than not to be treated as tipsy singalongs. Just as these are the squabbles real families might get into from time to time, these are the moves you and I might bust several glasses of prosecco into any other fraught reunion.

A major character revelation (and source of minor controversy upon the film's Indian release) comes to be granted no more fuss on screen than, for example, gramps' potsmoking and porno habit - because, as the underlying assumption would have it, it's not the sort of thing any truly enlightened and forward-thinking people should be making a fuss about in the first years of the 21st century. Trying to get the Kapoors to assemble for a family photo turns out to be a far bigger deal, and when a rainstorm hits, just as these blood relatives are starting to look at one another as though they were complete strangers, you can sense a certain conventionality creeping into the film's thinking: we're headed towards another affirmation of the family unit as profoundly flawed yet still the best social model we've got. The relaxed air and lightness of touch Batra demonstrates in socking home this message really do feel new, however, and he's found strong allies in Malhotra and Khan, capable young actors who make the disparate siblings' relationship both recognisable and finally very touching.

Kapoor & Sons (Since 1921) screens in NFT3 on Fri 14 at 8.20pm, and again on Mon 17 at 2.15pm.

Monday, 10 April 2017

At the BFI: "Shahid"

The Anurag Kashyap revolution - nudging Indian cinema towards a consideration of trickier-than-usual subject matter - continues unabated. The shaded biopic Shahid, produced by Kashyap for writer-director Hansal Mehta, serves as a memorial for Shahid Azmi, the skilled human rights lawyer who emerged from the Mumbai slums only to be shot dead in February 2010, reportedly in retaliation for his work on behalf of those Muslims left to languish in the motherland's prison system. As incarnated by the boyish Rajkumar Rao, Azmi is presented as a figure motivated by his own early brushes with the law: he's shown being jailed midway through his studies as a result of having briefly attended a jihadist training camp. Briefly is perhaps the operative word here - it's a knotty biographical detail, skimped over during a song in the opening credits - but we do come over time to gain a sense of a man who was gentrified (rather than radicalised) by his time behind bars, learning to channel his burning sense of injustice into other, more socially beneficial activity.

If Azmi's progress through the legal ranks at first appears a touch too steady and straightforward, destiny carries him into several flashpoints in recent Indian history, not least the aftermath of the 2008 Mumbai bombings: here, our hero will find that in this altogether fraught age of terror (and draconian responses to terror), simply hearing out a Muslim's story leaves one at risk of being labelled a traitor, a terrorist sympathiser or an enemy of the state. Mehta's theme is the haphazard modernisation India is undergoing in the first decades of the 21st century, a process evident as much in the form of the country's cinema as in the altogether more adult and challenging content of these films: the fresh-faced Shahid strides into the dusty, darkened, cluttered corridors of power (not unlike those navigated in the recent indie success Court), raises his voice, and - case by case - begins to make a difference, pushing back against decades, if not centuries, of hidebound prejudice.

The Kashyap influence means Mehta is allowed newish ways of showing this: immediately evocative location shooting that captures something of the push and the pull of modern India, and a properly sophisticated dramatic technique that, while allowing room for genuine dissent (as one of Shahid's fellow prisoners bluntly puts it, "this country doesn't give a shit about us"), doesn't just bash the viewer over the head with the issues under discussion. That much can be parsed from the trial sequences, conceived as credibly petty squabbles rather than the series of grandstanding speeches courtroom cinema traditionally reaches for. Much about it remains low-key, as modest as its protagonist; Shahid's romance with Mariam (Prableen Sandhu), the client who became his wife, is a neat means of marrying the personal and political, even if it leads to a few slightly rote scenes in the second half as the lawyer becomes consumed by his task. Still, Mehta finds an effective focus in Rao, an actor capable of suggesting the vulnerable human being behind the hero - a man with an increasingly heavy burden, trying to do the job that will ultimately do for him.

Shahid screens in NFT2 tomorrow at 8.30pm, and again on Sun 16 at 5.30pm.

Sunday, 9 April 2017

At the BFI: "Queen"

A crowdpleaser that posits new directions for the Bollywood romcom, Vikas Bahl's Queen opens with codependent small-town girl Rani (Kangana Ranaut) being dumped by no-good fiance Vijay (Rajkumar Rao) on the very eve of her wedding. After retreating into bittersweet memories of how these two got so close (and yet so far), the film begins to propose ways of moving its heroine forward - chiefly by dispatching her, alone, on the European honeymoon she was meant to share with the man of her dreams. On the streets of Paris - and under the sisterly influence of freewheeling single mum Vijayalakshmi (a vivacious Lisa Haydon), who Rani's grandma, looking on via Skype, takes for an adult movie star - she'll undergo the first stage in a much-needed process of liberation; degrees of fish-out-of-water comedy ensue, as Rani discovers European mores are very different from how things are done back home, where a girl is simply supposed to shut up and settle down.

In the guiding hands of screenwriter Anvika Dutt, it is, however, very much about a girl, and watching Rani throw off her dowdy cardies, let down her hair and learn to stand on her own two feet makes this a more than useful platform for the approachable, empathetic Ranaut. Some of its material comes by the yard, as romcom standard - so, yes, there's a makeover sequence, and some very broad knockabout around the sex shops of Amsterdam with the multicultural buddies Rani makes in a hostel - yet Dutt and Bahl remain capable of narrative and visual sophistication: it's an effective move to deploy the Eiffel Tower not as touristy marker but psychological signifier, looming over Rani as surely as the shadow of megaprick Vijay - and heartening that our heroine ultimately gets to make a decision of a kind that only a truly progressive and open-minded film industry would permit.

Queen screens in NFT2 on Tue 11 at 5.50pm, and in NFT3 on Fri 28 at 8.20pm.  

Friday, 7 April 2017

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office   
for the weekend of March 31-April 2, 2017:
1 (1) Beauty and the Beast (PG) ***
2 (new) Ghost in the Shell (12A) ***
3 (new) Smurfs: The Lost Village (U)
4 (3) Get Out (15) ****
5 (2) Power Rangers (12A) **
6 (4) Kong: Skull Island (12A)
7 (new) Free Fire (15)
8 (5) Logan (15) ***
9 (6) Life (15) **
10 (new) Peter Kay's Car Share: A Second Season Celebration (15)

(source: theguardian.com)

My top five:   
1. Neruda
2. The Lost City of Z
3. The Salesman
4. Get Out 
5. Raw

Top Ten DVD rentals:  

1 (new) Moana (PG) ****
2 (1) Arrival (12) ***
3 (2) Doctor Strange (12) **
4 (3) Bridget Jones's Baby (15) *
5 (5) Inferno (15) *
6 (4) The Girl on the Train (15) *
7 (new) Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children (12)
8 (6) A Street Cat Named Bob (12) **
9 (7) I, Daniel Blake (15) ****
10 (9) Storks (U)

(source: lovefilm.com)

My top five:  
1. Moana
2. The Young Offenders
3. Endless Poetry
4. Revolution: New Art for a New World
5. Paterson

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:   
1. King Kong [above] (Saturday, ITV1, 9.35pm)
2. Ben-Hur (Good Friday, five, 1.05pm)
3. Ilo Ilo (Saturday, BBC2, 12midnight)
4. Crank (Good Friday, ITV1, 10.45pm)
5. Goldfinger (Sunday, ITV1, 1.45pm)