... And get to your local multiplex to see Jordan Peele’s feature debut
Every year, horror fans have to put up with a lot. They have to wade through a metric tonne of filler to unearth that elusive hidden gem that’ll give them their fix. For every Babadook, there’s an As Above So Below, a Ouija and whatever number instalment we’re currently at in the bafflingly enduring Paranormal Activity franchise. In exchange for The Witch and Under The Shadow, genre buffs have to sit through The Forest, Shut In and Rob Zombie’s newest masturbatory tripe... And the list goes on...
This year has already seen Rings and The Bye Bye Man stink up the screens but finally, a diamond has emerged from the rough, one which confirms another pattern: all of the aforementioned horror standouts are films from first-time directors, and this year, Jordan Peele’s Get Out joins the debut-done-good list.
That’s right, you read correctly: that’s writer / comedian Jordan Peele, who makes up one half of quirky sketch comedy duo Key & Peele and who usually makes the audience laugh. His masterful directorial debut will make the audience shudder.
Twentysomething black man Chris (Sicario’s Daniel Kaluuya) has been dating his white girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams, of HBO's Girls fame) for several months and she’s bringing him home for the weekend to meet the folks. “Do they know I’m black?” he asks apprehensively, only to be reassured that it isn’t an issue. They drive out of the city into wealthy suburbia, where he meets Dean and Missy (Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener), who welcome him with open arms. “I would have voted for Obama for a third term”, shares the ingratiating Dean, while hypnotherapist Missy proposes to hypnotize Chris to cure him of his smoking habit.
Unsettling tensions steadily rise in suburban heaven... Chris notices the strange behaviour of “the help” and Rose’s brother Jeremy (played with slippery smarm by the always-excellent Caleb Landry-Jones). Then there’s the annual gathering of über-liberal friends, which coincides with his arrival. He begins to think that something might be lurking beneath the overly-PC attitudes and prolonged smiles.
To delve too much into what makes Get Out such a must-see would be to spoil its impact and multiple twists. Think a far more disturbing version of Stanley Kramer’s Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner...and then some... and you’re on your way. Peele meshes thrills and sporadic helpings of dark comedy in order to make his twisted meet-the-parents premise function as an unnerving horror movie as well as a societal and racial satire.
His well-shot, chilling creation goes from being a psychological thriller to an all-out horror with some supremely creepy beats, but also terrifying implications. Impressively, all this is achieved without using cheap jump-scares or OTT gore. Instead, it bathes in tension, with some brief scenes even stylishly recalling Jonathan Glazer’s Under The Skin.
The beauty is that whatever you think is going on, you’re wrong; just when you think you’ve put two and two together, Peele seemed to have planned your calculations all along. As uniformly strong as the cast is, it’s his sharp screenplay and assured direction that make Get Out so damn effective. The writer / director orchestrates the execution meticulously: every subtext has a payoff, and Peele reveals himself to be well versed in the art of gradually ramping up the suspense, keeping us on our toes until the crescendo, a bonkers-yet-satisfying finale which Charlie Brooker would doubtless have loved for his Black Mirror series. The filmmaker’s confident handling of tone even allows him to use moments of levity not to diffuse the tension, but paradoxically amp up the dread, as if to remind you that the wee chuckle you just had was not accidental, but necessary.
As for the social commentary, the film has teeth, scathingly critiquing the “woke” culture and exposing post-Obama racial attitudes. Cleverly, Peele brushes past the easy targets and aims for the cloistered suburban communities that pride themselves on their liberal values. It’s timely, well-handled and the less said, the better...
So, genre fans rejoice!
We’re not even halfway through the year and Jordan Peele has treated us. And even if certain promising titles have yet to be released (Julia Ducournau’s Raw and both the It and Suspiria remakes are on the radar), it would be surprising if Get Out wasn’t one of, if not the most memorable 2017 offering when it comes to intense, intelligent and memorably disturbing horror. Its impact is both immediate and delayed - to the extent that the film would benefit greatly from repeat viewings - and you certainly won’t be able to think about hypnotists, teacups and bingo in the same way...
- D - 26/04/17
Twin Peaks, Colorado
Having wowed the crowds at this year’s Sundance and Berlinale, Kitty Green’s documentary about a still-unsolved murder of the titular child finally emerges from the festival circuit and springs onto streaming platforms and selected cinemas.
25 December 1996. Boulder, Colorado. 6-year old JonBenet Ramsay is found dead in her family residence - specifically in the house’s basement - eight hours after the bizarrely-named pint-sized pageant queen was reported kidnapped.
The media were all over it and following the 24-hour news cycle focusing on the OJ Simpson case, the American public had steadily developed an appetite for a trashy media circus and wanted more. Turns out, for their next fix, they got a Twin Peaks-echoing drama where all-American veneer promises to reveal the darker underbelly of suburbia. Did the parents, who both seemed to crave the spotlight, do it? Did one of them cover up an accident caused by JonBenet’s brother? Where did that bizarre ransom note come from?
Considering the current demand for hard-hitting docu-dramas like Making A Murderer and the acclaimed O.J: Made in America, one could have legitimately expected this Netflix-bagged documentary about a 20-year old mystery to be a procedural whodunit centred on the police investigation and old archival footage. Guess again. Kitty Green isn’t interested in solving the case or bringing new evidence to light; in fact, we never actually get any cold hard facts about the case, since every information is related by people who remember it from the news. Instead, the director subverts preconceptions on the documentary genre and creates a thought-provoking hybrid much in the same way her almost-namesake Robert Greene did with last year’s genre-bending gem Kate Plays Christine, which also took a real-life tragedy (Christine Chubbuck’s on-air suicide) and told it via a unique non-fiction approach.
Casting JonBenet is far more stylish and lushly conceived though: Green takes a bold (and rather meta) stance and assembles a cast of local actors who are auditioning for roles in a dramatization of the JonBenet story. In auditioning the actors from the actual town where the crime was committed, we get backstories, theories and testimonies from people who actually lived in the small-town community and witnessed the unfolding drama at the time. These people’s quiet suburban lives were shaken by the death of JonBenet and they seem to know a bit too much about something that didn’t actually happen to them.
For a piece about a murder of a 6-year old, what is immediately striking is how the film provokes a surprising amount of giggles. Casting JonBenet can be darkly funny, as Green gets the auditionees to open up and speculate about JonBenet Ramsey’s death: they share some anecdotes, but also their personal tragedies, and the results are unexpected. There are disenchanted Santas, am-dram posturers, numerologists and even sex instructors who need to answer their phones during filming... The director deftly uses the humour that emanates from the actors and the contradictions in their storytelling, and it makes watching Casting JonBenet simultaneously chilling and very entertaining.
Most of all though, the film is a subtly provocative (and unexpectedly timely) look at us, as opposed to a crime case. Green is interested in the viewer, and how we and the media process information and deal with tragedy. Her film is a compelling look at our culture’s obsession with the sensational, specifically with true crime: we have a tendency towards playing detective, quickly theorizing and casually psychoanalysing. This form of schadenfreude can lead to us feeling superior, having convinced ourselves that we’ve Sherlocked the case. Here, the director teases us, satirizes our morbid fascinations and essentially asks us whether we actually want answers, because the mystery and the headlines might not be as tantalizing when tainted by the truth.
This all culminates in a final scene that could very well have been lifted from another David Lynch masterpiece: Mulholland Drive. We witness all the permutations of the case acted out simultaneously and this surreal, brilliantly filmed sequence featuring Bert Parks‘ ‘There She Is Miss America’ not only reminds you of the disturbing American obsession with child pageants, but also emboldens the satirical content. Crucially, its multifaceted eeriness highlights how theatrical artifice can lead to something true.
- D - 26/04/17
THE BYE BYE MAN
Adieu, auf wiedersehen, sayonara and don’t come back
Released earlier this year and gradually coming to the end of its release schedule in European cinemas, The Bye Bye Man deserves a review... That way you can’t moan about not being warned.
Elliot, his girlfriend Sasha and his best friend John are three college students who decide to rent a ridiculously large and haunted-looking house together off campus. Surprise, surprise: they begin to notice strange events and bizarre occurrences, all of which seem to be linked to the titular bogeyman, who needs people to say his name so that he can drive his victims to psychosis and murder.
Even if you look past the stupid title, this film feels like director Stacy Title and her screenwriter hubby Jonathan Penner enviously cursed It Follows for its successful nostalgia-riffing ways and, in a drunken stupor, thought it was a good idea to haphazardly compile elements of their favourite horror flicks for their own throwback horror film. The result is a Candyman-meets-A Nightmare On Elm Street rehash with shades of The Babadook.
Now, while this crude description doesn’t sound completely repulsive, and the regularly-employed horror trope of summoning all kinds of nastiness via onomastic means remains a fascinating concept, it’s worth saying that The Bye Bye Man is rubbish. Not the so-bad-it’s-good rubbish, mind you; rather, the unredeemable kind of rubbish that genuinely looks like an undergrad film project that ran out of money halfway. The husband and wife team are completely out of their depths, the editor was clearly chopping blindfolded and the young trio of actors (Douglas Smith, Cressida Bonas, Lucien Laviscount) need to enrol in acting classes post-haste.
And just when you thought it wasn’t ridiculous enough, The Bye Bye Man completely wastes the talented, Giacometti-framed Doug Jones (who needs to give Guillermo del Toro a buzz) and features both Carrie-Anne Moss and Faye Dunaway (FAYE BLOODY DUNAWAY!!!!) slumming it for a pay checks with inexplicably stupid cameos.
To bastardise the film’s very own mantra / dull-as-dishwater tagline: Don’t think it. Don’t say it. And certainly don’t waste your time seeing it.
- D - 22/04/17
Migrating to the big screen
Twelve years since its debut on stage at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, David Harrower’s award-winning play ‘Blackbird’ makes it to the big screen. Retitled Una, it depicts the titular young woman (Rooney Mara) showing up unannounced at the workplace of a middle-aged man (Ben Mendelsohn), who we learn was convicted and served time for sexually abusing her fifteen years ago. Thus begins a suffocating, dialogue-driven two-hander set almost exclusively in the warehouse where Ray -now renamed Peter- works.
Benedict Andrew’s cinematic take can’t shake the drama’s inherent staginess but the transition from stage to screen is solidly executed, thanks in large part to the screenplay, courtesy of the Scottish playwright himself. Harrower’s script affords Andrew’s film the same intensity and complex handling of the subject of paedophilia. It also gives the thespian duo some layered material to work with, as both Una and Ray can’t be reductively pinned down to predator/victim roles.
Ben Mendelsohn shines as the man whose past comes back to haunt him and deftly navigates Ray’s complexities, so we never fully condemn or warm to him. Meanwhile, Rooney Mara proves once again how fantastic she is and how much she can do with a single gesture, regardless of a slightly wobbly British accent. (She also happens to be the best thing about Terrence Malick's latest and disappointing venture Song To Song - more on that one next month...) Both actors conjure up a deliberately uneasy chemistry that ensures the viewer is offered shifting perspectives and the luxury to question each characters’ motivations. Like the play, Una isn’t just a monochromatic story of sexual abuse, but a shaded tale of two tortured individuals who continue to rip open new wounds.
A shame, then, that the performances ultimately outshine their vehicle. Some flourishes don’t quite work (the relevant but on-the-nose inclusion of PJ Harvey’s ‘Down By The Water’, for instance), and the third act, which shakes things up by deviating from the play, tries too hard to up the ante by teetering on a Hard Candy edge. It culminates with a necessarily-ambiguous finale, but one which leaves us on a slight bum note.
Still, while it might not be as devastating or as furiously engaging as David Mamet’s ‘Oleanna’ - with which ‘Blackbird’ shares some thematic and stylistic strands - Una remains an adaptation that is worth the price of admission for the performances alone.
- D - 14/04/17
Based on a true story of the 1996 libel case brought by British historian David Irving against Penguin Books and Jewish-American professor Deborah E. Lipstadt, who labelled Irving as a Holocaust denier and an anti-Semite in her book ‘Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory’, Denial chronicles how Lipstadt and her British legal team had to prove that the Holocaust actually happened.
Mick Jackson’s film about this lengthy legal battle between two “scholars” could have been fascinating and should’ve been powerful, especially in the “alternative facts” and “fake news” era we currently live in. David Hare’s weighty script positively fizzles with present-day similarities, but instead of a frighteningly timely drama, we’re left with a frustratingly pedestrian film steeped in courtroom drama clichés, and an execution which never feels cinematic.
You can’t fault the film’s all-in determination to factual authenticity, as all the trial scenes are directly based on the actual transcripts, and the dialogue is verbatim from the court records. However, the central performances prove to be problematic.
Rachel Weisz plays the permed Lipstadt as a loud, fish-out-of-water Yank lost in the British judiciary system and comes off as grating, at times as unintentionally smug. She serves as a noble mouthpiece for the victims of the Holocaust, but her righteous fury frequently borders on the ridiculous, especially when her character feels the need to emphasize that Deborah is Hebrew for “warrior”, a fact cringingly mirrored when she jogs up to the iconic statue of warrior queen Boadicea, found near the Houses of Parliament in London. As for Timothy Spall (who has shed an impressive amount of weight since his barnstorming turn in 2014’s Mr Turner), he is so damn good as Irving that you want to know more about this hateful, reptilian figure. You never once side with him, but Spall - unlike Weisz - adds layers to a performance that could easily have wound up as a moustache-twirling baddie in the hands of a lesser actor. These clear good vs. bad antipodes and their thespian treatments create a bizarre dynamic in which Spall’s superior portrayal shows up Weisz’s. This culminates in a lack of emotional catharsis when the protagonist you’re rooting for wins; instead, you wish the film had gotten to the root of what makes this villain a villain.
It is this lack of ambition, coupled with some trite beats, which undermines the drama and cheapens the thought-provoking material about memory and objective truth vs. prejudiced distortion. The real-life case and its parallels with current events may be interesting enough to keep you invested, but there’s no denying Denial needed a far more subtle approach... or far more balanced casting.
- D - 13/04/17
TOIVON TUOLLA PUOLEN
(THE OTHER SIDE OF HOPE)
This seventeenth feature film from Finnish auteur Aki Kaurismäki was a standout at this year’s Berlinale and even earned the droll, eccentric (and often heavily inebriated, as evidenced by his Berlinale shenanigans) director the Silver Bear for Best Director.
For his second instalment of a planned “port city” trilogy that began with 2011’s Le Havre, Aki Kaurismäki’s Toivon Tuolla Puolen (The Other Side of Hope) follows Khaled (Sherwan Haji, a revelation), a young Syrian refugee who arrives in Helsinki on a cargo freighter, completely buried in a pile of coal. He wants to play by the book, therefore turns himself in to the local police station and begins the process to seek asylum status. His preconceived idea that the Finnish people are compassionate and tolerant is slightly shaken, as their supposed enlightenment doesn’t always extend to matters of immigration...
He soon ends up in a detention centre, where he meets friendly Iraqi bunkmate Mazdak (Simon Hussein Al-Bazoon, a perfect double-act with Haji), who is also aware of the Kafkaesque situation they find themselves in. However, Khaled catches a break and finds an unlikely ally in the form of Wikström (Sakari Kuosmanen), a middle-aged business man turned inept restaurateur who, after surreal and sudden fisticuffs, helps him to reunite with his sister, from whom Khaled was separated as they fled Aleppo.
Kaurismäki fans rejoice! As per his habit, the filmmaker deftly meshes deadpan humour with heart-warming sincerity with The Other Side Of Hope, and makes beautifully composed static shots rhyme with delightful-yet-sparing moments of sly absurdity. Beyond the perfectly timed and purposefully stoic acting style, the lighting here is the real thing of wonder: the dimly lit interiors are comedic and an homage to Edward Hopper paintings. Like the film, the lighting and astute use of colours manage to be both comfortable and melancholic, showcasing once more than Kaurismäki relishes in thought-provoking contradictions and in doing so, challenges and deconstructs stereotypes. For instance, the 1970s-looking colour palette (pastel blues, film-noirish reds and burnt oranges) seen in the frequently rebranded restaurant Wikström owns - and where many of the laughs come from thanks to the underachieving employees - conveys the characters’ varied headspaces while steadily infusing a sense of warm, almost bizarre familiarity to what would otherwise be bleak situations. The alienation and loneliness is embraced yet countered with the colour schemes. Hats off to the director, but also to cinematographer Timo Salminen, who filmed these detailed 35mm compositions and in doing so adds in no small way to the intoxicating paradoxes on show.
While many can - and will - berate the Finnish maestro for doing more of the same with his new fable, it’s hard to be mad when the result is this unpredictable, this poignant and this urgently eloquent. As it is, The Other Side Of Hope finds Kaurismäki at the height of his visual storytelling powers, providing a droll and surprisingly uplifting answer to last year’s Golden Bear-winner, Gianfranco Rossi’s direr take on the refugee crisis, Fuocoammare (Fire At Sea). More than that, it works as a moving but unsentimental call for people to get in touch with their humanity and a tragicomic plea never to abandon generosity or hope, despite the borders that men seek to erect.
Let’s hope that the director hasn’t peaked with this second instalment in his planned harbour trilogy; the odds are the third chapter could very well top off a masterclass in triptych filmmaking.
- D - 07/04/17
THE AUTOPSY OF JANE DOE
Tales from the Morgue
For a setting so inherently creepy, it makes you wonder why there aren’t more memorable films set in morgues. Sure, there’s the Ewan McGregor-starring Nightwatch, 2007’s adventurously named The Morgue, Tobe Hooper’s Mortuary and to a lesser extent Didier Le Pêcheur’s J’aimerais Pas Crever Un Dimanche, but none of them can claim to be truly memorable. Or that good. Only that necrophilia sequence in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Neon Demon scarringly springs to mind, but even then, the general setting wasn’t a morgue.
Enter The Autopsy Of Jane Doe, the English-language debut and second feature from Trollhunter director André Øvredal. Set almost exclusively in one location - a Virginia morgue - this macabre tale sees father-and-son coroners (Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch) tasked with performing an emergency autopsy on an unidentified corpse, found at the scene of a murder. The cadaver of Jane Doe in question is, bafflingly, perfectly preserved, even if her wrists and ankles have been broken.
As they peel back the layers of this mystery (both literally and metaphorically), tally up the clues and get closer to uncovering the truth about Jane Doe, it becomes clear that they’re out of their depth and that this young woman poses questions beyond their understanding.
The central mystery shall remain intact and this review will remain purposefully vague on certain plot points, because half the fun is letting your imagination run wild with your own theories. Safe to say however that the minimalistic premise is simple, the hook effective and the narrative plays out like a gothic murder mystery, a rather ingenious chamber piece that Edgar Allan Poe would have approved of. The writers, Ian Goldberg and Richard Naing, have created what is essentially a very entertaining throwback to TV shows like The Twilight Zone and Tales From The Crypt. Coupled with Øvredal’s deftly handled suspense and some gruesome physical effects (take a bow, make up and prosthetic departments, as well as the set designers), and you have yourself a lean midnight chiller that holds up. The autopsy dissections are key to the plot and are explicit, but never exploitative: the effects are fantastically detailed and the camera maintains a professional distance that mirrors the profession of our protagonists. But make no mistake - stomachs will be unsettled. This is not for the squeamish.
Cast-wise, everyone is uniformly solid. The Autopsy Of Jane Doe is basically a three-hander between Cox, Hirsh and Olwen Kelly, who plays the title role. Cox is excellent and pulls off some iffy dialogue thanks to the seasoned gravitas he injects, while Hirsch proves to be a decent foil. Both create a believable chemistry that means you care about them and their well-being. As for Kelly, she impresses by being an unnerving presence and by doing so much without ever moving a muscle...
Granted, The Autopsy Of Jane Doe becomes less effective as answers reveal themselves, the score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans is overwrought and the barmy denouement will have been sussed out by seasoned genre fans; but what preceded it was so good and the suspense so suffocating that you’ll be willing to forgive a climax that doesn’t quite live up to the standards set earlier on. In the end, Øvredal’s well shot, atmospheric and efficiently scary chiller doesn’t overstay its welcome and fiendishly accomplishes what it set out to.
More than that, it shows Trollhunter was no accident and has given us a memorable morgue-based horror film. What more could you ask for?
- D - 01/04/17
Take aim… (Free) Fire!
From Free Fire’s opening music cue and introductory dialogue - “Fuck the small talk, let’s buy some guns” - the tone is set and you know you’re in for an energetic, foul-mouthed romp.
Set in Boston in the late 70s, Ben Wheatley’s lean and tinnitus-triggering crime caper sees an arms deal go ridiculously awry in an abandoned warehouse. The well-cast players, who include mardy Irish gangsters (Cillian Murphy and Wheatley-regular Michael Smiley), a “misdiagnosed child genius” (Sharlto “Redeem yourself!” Copley), a former Black Panther (Babou Ceesay) and some other excitable crew members (including Jack Reynor and Sam Riley), have words. Those words quickly escalate into fisticuffs, as a seemingly straightforward transaction sees the buyers, the sellers, the go-betweens (Brie Larson and a bearded, never-funnier Armie Hammer) and some uninvited gate-crashers end up in a bloody shooting gallery.
Cue: a sustained orgy of bullets, weapons-grade squabbling and John Denver references.
Trust Wheatley to take yet another left turn for his first all-American production and surprise us with a down and dirty, unrelenting shootout. The filmmaker is one of the most exciting voices in British cinema and for his sixth feature - which counts Martin Scorsese as an executive producer - he’s decided to have some meticulously choreographed fun. His period chamber piece, which plays out like Reservoir Dog’s quippier cousin, fulfils the promise of its two-gangs-try-to-survive premise; it features Peckinpah-levels of violence, with an immensely quotable script to boot, courtesy of Wheatley’s regular writing partner Amy Jump. The writing duo assure Beckett-levels of absurdity with some terrific wisecracking to-and-fros.
However, the ultimate pay-off isn’t up to scratch and it’s hard not conclude that the film feels a tad undercooked. To put it in Free Fire terms, it runs out of ammo fast. The cast are terrific, some camerawork is inspired and the proceedings are meant to be chaotic; however, the straightforward premise, while audacious - it’s literally a 90-minute gun battle - can’t quite sustain its runtime. Moreover, following his brilliantly uncategorizable Kill List, the trippy period piece A Field In England and last year’s ambitious and under-loved JG Ballard adaptation High-Rise, you can’t help but feel this more accessible genre exercise is a lesser offering from the prolific director.
Still, as more mainstream and less distinctive as Free Fire is compared to the rest of his filmography, Ben Wheatley’s newest venture remains dexterously handled entertainment that seeks nothing more than to thrill. Worth a shot.
- D - 30/03/17
I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO
Remember This Voice
A decade in the making, Raoul Peck’s documentary sees the Haitian filmmaker take the words of late novelist and social critic James Baldwin, who wanted the lives of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr and Medgar Evers “to bang up against each other”, and stylishly lace the author’s prose with archival footage and modern clips.
Now, I’m sure there’ll be some of you rolling your eyes, thinking that this documentary is surely a hectoring essay about civil rights and how you’ve had it up to your eyeballs with all things American right now. You go to the cinema to escape the world outside it, not to be reminded of its ills.
I hear you, sunshine, but I Am Not Your Negro is different: it sees Peck adapt the words of Baldwin’s unfinished novel ‘Remember This House’ in order to create a unique and concise piece of work that articulately distils a complex issue. He and his editor Alexandra Strauss have assembled a non-lecturing chronicle of black activism during the civil rights movement, which comes to life through Samuel L Jackson’s narration. What could have proved a gimmicky casting choice ends up a creative masterstroke, as Jackson’s quieter, older-sounding baritone proves to be perfect. He is barely recognizable when he plays Baldwin, ensuring every step of the way that the appropriate sadness and solemnity of the author’s tone is never betrayed.
Granted, this is a timely film, and as concise as I Am Not Your Negro is, it is a layered experience. Neither Baldwin nor Peck could have predicted Trump’s ascension to the White House, but rarely has a film written in the past, largely focusing on the more distant past, found such urgency in the present. Chronology is often thrown out of the window and the construction of the documentary reinforces the timeless and often prophetic quality of the Baldwin’s prose; it is juxtaposed with 50s and 60s newsreel footage, the Obama inauguration and the Ferguson protests.
Strongest of all, however, is that Peck is clearly a cinephile and uses a great number of film clips - from King Kong to Stagecoach, Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner to The Defiant Ones - in order to create a fascinating correlation between the history of cinema and America’s race and class struggle. The director mirrors Baldwin’s views through his love-hate relationship with Hollywood cinema and shows how the image projected by the cultural exports of Tinseltown clashed with social realities, and in some cases how the self-perpetuating fantasy of American life seen on the big and small screens reflected the “moral apathy, the death of the heart” that Baldwin saw happening in his country. Hollywood here is essentially the eagle wounded by an arrow.
Stylish and edited to perfection, I Am Not Your Negro is the ultimate Baldwin film, and few documentaries have blended anger with thought-provoking depth so brilliantly. Quite simply unmissable.
- D - 27/03/17
THE LOST CITY OF Z
Percy Fawcett And The Kingdom of Zed
Based on David Grann’s 2009 book of the same name, The Lost City Of Z chronicles the expeditions of real historical figure Major Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam), a British soldier and explorer who lead several expeditions to South America between 1906 and 1925. We see him tasked by the Royal Geographical Society to survey Bolivia; there, he discovers pottery in the jungle, which prompts him to return to England and proclaim, through the jeers of the Establishment, the existence of an undiscovered civilisation. His life calling becomes clear: he embarks upon an obsessive search for the city he names ‘Z’ (pronounced ‘zed’), which when discovered will prove that the Amazon cannot be reduced to the home of “savages”.
Any film partly shot in the jungle about obsession with South American cultures will ring Herzogian bells, but hold your horses before you casually dismiss this movie as an Aguirre, The Wrath Of God rehash. The Lost City Of Z sees director James Gray cast himself more as David Lean’s protégé and helm an ambitious and epic period film, one that immerses us in the colonialism, nationalistic entitlement and stuffy arrogance synonymous with Edwardian Britain. However, this particular crusade never comes across as imperialist; instead, it’s a sprawling, at times plodding, story about obsession.
The cast shine, specifically the supporting players. Sienna Miller is excellent as Nina, Fawcett’s dutiful yet neglected wife; the Alfred Molina-looking Angus Macfayden is smarmily good as the rich egotist ally-turned-antagonist James Murray, while Robert Pattinson is initially unrecognizable as the bearded Henry Costin. The latter gives a generous yet understated performance and can’t be praised enough for his work here.
As for the moustachioed Hunnam, he pulls off the stuffy English accent and is likeable; however, he lacks the je-ne-sais-quoi you need from a leading man, the zest that should materialise into a rousing presence, which makes you wonder what Michael Fassbender could have achieved with the role. Still, at one point, there were rumours that Benedict Cumberbatch was in the running to play Fawcett, which would have been a sizeable miscasting, so we can count our blessings there. Because Hunnam is not an A-lister - despite his Sons of Anarchy and Pacific Rim credentials - the film refreshingly remains a non-crowd-pleaser. This doesn’t stop it from dragging in the third act, mind you, but all is redeemed by a superb ending, an intoxicatingly dreamlike and movingly enigmatic finishing flourish.
The Lost City Of Z works as both a criticism of colonialism and as good old fashioned entertainment. It doesn’t quite have the substance for classic status but shines as a courageous and accomplished adaptation that benefits greatly from Darius Khondji’s lensing on 35mm celluloid, which gives the picture a classic Hollywood texture. It is Khondji’s craft and Gray’s assured direction that makes one of Nina’s closing lines the perfect sum-up: “To look for what is beautiful is its own reward”.
- D - 25/03/17