Film review: If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)

 

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Based on James Baldwin’s 1974 novel. Has its memorable moments such as the argument between the families, when the mother comforts her adult daughter when she’s in bed, the situation by the store, and the Puerto Rico sequence. The narrative consists of mostly platitudes such as ‘you are not alone when you have a family’, ‘love makes you see the world anew’. Yet the acting and presentation transcends the clichés.

Besides the love story focuses on the hardship of the blacks, harassment on the street by whites, treatment during a criminal case, trouble renting a place to live, etc. The last act may frustrate some viewers as the story feels unfinished.
The blaxploitation movies from the 1970s tended to present whites as the villain without much nuance. In contrast, Baldwin’s/Jenkins’ universe is more realistic by including sympathetic white characters.

So why not a higher rating? To me, great art allows for multiple interpretations and I don’t see that here. The message of injustice towards blacks is as relevant today as it was in the 1970s but the storytelling forces its opinion on you and playing the race card feels a bit obvious. A good watch with a touching story about the communal bond between members of an oppressed minority though I’m not the biggest fan of one-dimensional message movies. As Alissa Evans wrote in her review, the characters’ personalities feel secondary to their circumstance. The lead Stephan James has kind, gentle eyes which might be the reason he was picked. KiKi Layne is likeable as well while Regina King and Brian Tyree Henry shine in supporting roles. The jazz score is accomplished and is incorporated well.
Jenkins told The Los Angeles Times on the subject of films based on black literature. “I don’t want to sound as though every novel by a black author should be translated to the screen, but I’m damn sure many more of them should be.”

If Beale Street Could Talk (2018) is important and competently made yet didn’t quite manage to rock me to the core in the way Moonlight did. The characters lacked the deeper, emotional weight of Jenkins’ 2016 film. A sense of wretchedness was missing. Perhaps better captured in Baldwin’s book.

6/10

What do you think? As always, comments are welcome

Film review: The Favourite (2018)

 

 

 

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Spoiler-free review. Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Killing of a Sacred Deer was my #1 of 2017 and I consider Dogtooth (2009) among the most original foreign films of the last ten years, so on that basis I was obviously looking forward to what the Greek filmmaker would do next.

Strong performances,  elegant costumes, and witty dialogue are the best things going on. Set in the 1700s, a fictionalized account of life at the court in England with an unhinged, ailing Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) and the manipulative cousins (Rachel Weisz & Emma Stone) who vie for her favor. It’s been written there is no evidence Queen Anne was a lesbian though no way to rule this out categorically. The Queen is affected by grief, as she has lost several children and adds a rabbit to her collection each time to comfort herself. The story is also about jealousy and abuse of power, hardly new territory, but themes that still hold true and are presented in an entertaining, comedic way.

 

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Lots of talent involved in front of and behind the camera, new screenwriters are brought in, and a bigger budget for the director, but I prefer Lanthimos’ previous films he co-wrote with Efthymis Filippou which leave room for the viewer to interpret. His latest, while well-acted and fun at times, is a performance-driven period comedy-drama that is style over substance. Worth a watch yet feels oscar-baity and not as dream-like compared to Lanthimos’ earlier work. A crowd-pleasing comedy and pretty straightforward.

 

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As another blogger noted, The Favourite is “born out of real world misogyny – a time and place where women had few options“. Yet there are echoes of #MeToo as well according to the director. As timely as it may seem, the original screenplay for The Favourite was written 20 years ago, but was easier to get made now where films with female casts are regular occurrences.

I’m not the biggest fan of period films so that may have played a part in my middling enjoyment. What we get is an edgy arthouse filmmaker attempting to appeal to the masses with a mainstream oscar contender. A few scenes amused me such as the wedding night and returning from hell speech. May have been more enjoyable if I’d seen it with a packed audience. Perhaps on rewatches I’ll grow to love the humorous exchanges? Isn’t a bad film yet not something I connected to on a personal or emotional level. He is a director who made his name by creating original concepts and the inventiveness is what drew me to his work in the first place.
Not a total sell out by Lanthimos as the film is still quite weird, but the storytelling is certainly not as bold and surprising as his previous work and may slightly underwhelm those fans who loved the director’s darker, challenging tales. If Lanthimos’ smaller arthouse films were too strange and disturbing for you, The Favourite, which subverts gender roles and is the director’s funniest, might be exactly what you want.

7/10

 

 
What do you think? As always, comments are welcome

 

Film review: The House That Jack Built (2018) (spoiler-free)

 

 

 

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This is a review of the unrated “director’s cut” version. Love him or hate him, Lars von Trier’s latest is a venture into psychological horror and displays a dark sense of humor. Lacks the emotion of 2013’s Nymphomaniac, a film it has a few things in common with, in terms of shocks and the lead in a lengthy dialogue with another character. Takes you inside the mind of psychopathic serial killer Jack, played by Matt Dillon in his best role in years.

The story is entertaining but uncomfortable and one of the most disturbing scenes to me could be when the blonde talks to the cop. With these type of violent films, I hope there are no maniacs who are inspired to copy the images on screen although what we see could also be viewed as a deterrent. It’s possible the film is a response to the controversial Melancholia press conference at Cannes in 2011, by reinforcing that Lars von Trier is interested in when art clashes with evil, and that he has a pitch-black, easily misunderstood wit, which is not for everyone. For example the hilarious OCD cleaning or Uma Thurman’s “you look like a serial killer” conversation with Jack in the van. This is really a horror comedy even if it really shouldn’t be a laughing matter. I’ll get back to that.

Serial killers (like filmmakers) display their creativity through their acts, and the film has unforgettable visuals. Is this a masterpiece by Lars von Trier or a pretentious, self-indulgent ego trip? Hard to say and I haven’t really decided how I feel about it. Important to discuss murder in society through art, and I wouldn’t want the director to censor his vision, although I felt he went too far in some sequences. Just because you have the power to put things on film doesn’t mean you should. In a similar vein to Haneke’s Funny Games, The House That Jack Built addresses the audiences enjoyment with horror. Encouraging laughs and thereby reminding us we are uncomfortably “enjoying” the events. I guess you could argue humor can be located in everything and I feel Lars von Trier is manipulating with the audience. The contradiction of spending time with a despicable character you would never want to meet in real life. That is what movies can do, take you to a place that is completely different to your own experience. So as to try and understand the thinking of even the most evil minds.

But is the film saying anything new? Certain elements did feel familiar to other films in the genre such as American Psycho, though I will say there’s certainly a discussion about art and evil which appears to fascinate von Trier, and the film will undoubtedly be analysed in every way moving forward. Complaining that the film is cold and sadistic I think is missing the point because it’s designed that way. I wouldn’t recommend to all, but if you appreciate his prior films you’ll be wanting to watch. Divisive, daring cinema, as you’d expect from the Danish auteur. As with the director’s other horror Antichrist (2009), excluding viewers with its unpleasantness.

 

 

What do you think? As always, comments are welcome

Film review: Suspiria (2018) (spoiler-free)

 

 

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A “cover version” of  Dario Argento’s horror classic from 1977. The story is more ambitious than the original, which back in the 70s went for atmosphere over story. The dance sequences are expanded on and the violence is definitely more graphic and off-putting. There’s a bit more depth in regard to the seduction and control of dance choreography, comparable to the manipulation of the Germans by Hitler or the loss of self in a cult. Set in late 70s Berlin, some reviewers wrote about national guilt in post-WW2 Germany, this aspect wasn’t that apparent to me. You could argue denial, guilt and trauma was embodied through various characters but I won’t spoil this here. Argento’s film was evasive about revealing what was wrong at the dance academy until the end, whereas Guadagnino’s Suspira is a different kind of mystery by giving up its secret half way through with explanatory dialogue, yet still offering other surprises.

 

 

 

What the new film wants to do (but to me doesn’t fully manage) is humanize these women and probably that’s the reason we see them laughing and enjoying themselves in the restaurant. The scenes with the old man have some emotion but needed to be edited down and at times are too removed from the central narrative. By the conclusion, I couldn’t tell dream from reality, and maybe that was intended, who knows, to make the audience feel we too were cast under the spell. The music and sound design is good, especially Thom Yorke’s haunting song Suspirium, although I think Goblin’s 70s soundtrack is far more eerie. A passable re-imagining, but not particularity emotionally involving and tonally it has some big shifts from quietly touching to gruesome all within a short space of time. I cared about the old man (I wasn’t distracted by Tilda Swinton in heavy make-up) and Sara (Mia Goth) yet felt almost nothing about the leads Susie (Dakota Johnson) and Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton). That said, Madame Blanc is arguably the most interesting and complex character. There are 2-3 sequences which I’ll remember for a long time, such as the emotionless stare, the laughing women and the detective, and the shocking opening dance. Unfortunately, the violence is needlessly unpleasant. But I guess it’s not a fault because the filmmakers were obviously going for uncomfortable.

 

 

 

The original is style over substance. But in terms of style there are few that can top it, with fantastic camera work, production design, music, and suspense. The 2018 film is thinking man’s arthouse cinema with a completely different approach to visuals and story. Because plenty is going on beneath the surface, one viewing is probably not enough to unpack everything. I’m happy tries to be different to the 1977 film and from what I’ve read is a labor of love for Italian director and horror fan Luca Guadagnino. There’s been talk of a new film category “elevated horror” or “post-horror” and Suspiria I assume belongs to this new bracket because it (in the vein of Get Out or Hereditary) features strong performances, works as a drama, and has substance to go with the blood. However, some have complained the term is disrespectful, an elitist label which implies horror needs elevating. Of course, you could make the case smart horror dramas have been around for decades (Rosemary’s Baby and The Shining) and these are just fancy new categories for journalists to write about.

 

7/10

 

 

What do you think? As always, comments are welcome

Film review: The Square (2017) (spoiler free)

 

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Winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year. The funniest scene might be the press conference with the tourettes guy in the audience. The director has admitted “I like horrifying awkward moments”, and The Square and Force Majeure (2014) are full of those. But where Force Majeure felt like a cohesive story arc, The Square is far more loose and fragmented. He returns to the theme of, when are you allowed to be a coward and when are you not, and what would you do in these situations yourself? If you are a cynic, you could argue the director is repeating himself in this regard.

 

 

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Ruben Östlund’s film leaves you with stuff to contemplate. If anyone could create these art exhibitions (piles of grit on the floor) it makes a mockery of paying to see them. And if you turn a person into art (the ape man on the poster) what happens to that actor, or any actor? The dinner theater scene has an unpredictability and an uncomfortableness that gives it tension, with the guests as much a participant of the event as the performer.

 

 

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I liked the observation that we are suspicious of strangers today, whereas in years gone by people were more trusting. The latter is a good topic for a museum exhibition. There are absurd comic moments in a shopping mall and in the streets, which awkwardly point towards empathy, charity and indifference towards others. “Will you help a person?”  a woman asks passers by. The moments are about ourselves and question if we do enough, how difficult it is to be human, and the struggle to always do the right thing.

 

 

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The personal problem the main character (Christian) has to deal with felt a bit overdone, although I think Claes Bang was given the role of a lifetime as the distracted curator of the museum, who is experiencing a tumultuous few days.  In this age of politically correct behavior and fear of scandal, The Square is highly topical. There’s a link between the mess Christian finds himself in and the idealism of the square exhibition.

Contains interesting ideas and scenes, but the film is arguably a bit too long and unfocused. Was Elisabeth Moss’ character really necessary? Despite some flaws, and wanting to be too many things all at once, I think the film does a good job of taking the viewer behind the scenes of a contemporary art museum and showing us the challenges they face in having to compete for people’s attention. I’ve heard The Square described as the discreet and shameful mirror of the privileged class. Amusing, awkward, and thought-provoking. Has many memorable moments and is among my top 10 films of 2017.