Archive for February, 2024

American Fiction

Posted on February 11th, 2024 in At the cinema | No Comments »

Cord Jefferson’s satire on the publishing business through a Black lens is many things. One thing it isn’t is the riproaring, one-liner stuffed, broad comedy which the trailer sells it as. By taking the ten best jokes and stitching them together, the marketeers have badly misrepresented this smart, painful, incisive, thoughtful – and yes, sometimes very funny – film. Ironically, despite the frustrations that this might cause, it seems appropriate for a story in which things are not what they seem, commercial imperatives trump artistic integrity and even vaunted literary prizes are hotbeds of pandering and intellectual shortcuts.

The cast is unimpeachable. Jeffrey Wright has never been better and is given a strong family unit comprising sister Tracee Ellis Ross, mother Leslie Uggams and brother Sterling K Brown. The early part of the story dismantles this strong family, forcing Wright’s hand much in the way that the St Valentine’s day massacre forces Joe and Jerry’s hand in Some Like it Hot. Only the incredibly convenient arrival of the perfect suitor for their live-in-maid strains credulity a little.

Based on what sounds like an unadaptable novel, the film’s unwillingness to settle for a single ending (or a single clear message) is probably the best way of taking the book’s style and finding a cinematic analogue, and Jefferson is careful to pave the way for this development in the way he structures and shoots some earlier moments (which include a lovely cameo from Keith David). He’s also careful to smudge the outline of what could have been too strident a moral, shading Issa Rae’s initially comical character with more depth and unafraid to make out hero seem like something of an asshole from time-to-time.

Possibly the best joke in the whole film, and one the trailer couldn’t spoil (so I will), is the conclusion of the literary judging process in which the three white jurors overrule the two Black ones on the basis that “It’s time to listen to Black voices.” Sharply satirical, but also oddly warm and even moving, this definitely isn’t what was sold to me, but is arguably better.

Oscar Nominations 2024

Posted on February 10th, 2024 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

Have just discovered this languishing in my drafts folder. Apologies for the inconvenience.

The Oscar nominations are out and once again, we have ten Best Picture nominees. I have already seen a triumphant eight of these, and will be trying to mop up some of the International and Documentary features in the next few weeks. Here are the runners and riders.

American Fiction is one of the two I haven’t seen, but the trailer is very appealing (although you’d be forgiven for overlooking Sterling K Brown who is glimpsed only briefly, but who notches up a Best Supporting Actor nomination). Full review to follow.

Anatomy of a Fall. Terrific slab of Euro-intrigue which remakes the courtroom drama in a way I wouldn’t have thought possible, blessed with a remarkable tri-lingual script and a tremendous central performance from Sandra Hüller. Full review here.

Barbie. Thrillingly bonkers Mattel tie-in, which subverts the very play logic which it shockingly embraces to deliver a simplistic but deeply heartfelt feminism-for-beginners message. I briefly wondered if it might gather enough momentum to be a real contender for Best Picture, but with only eight nominations and nothing for Greta Gerwig as director or Margot Robbie as leading actress, I think we can write it off from this contest at least.

The Holdovers. Very Oscar-friendly, but probably not extraordinary enough to win. Full review here.

Killers of the Flower Moon. Scorsese demonstrates that he hasn’t lost his touch, blending the intimate with the epic, but I would have preferred a more focused two-hour version or a more exploratory six-hour mini-series which would have given more of a voice to the Osage people. Full review here.

Maestro. Despite all of the effort poured in by Bradley Cooper and the wealth of talent he has surrounded himself with, I kept waiting for the story to kick in. This feels like it’s run out of gas already.

Oppenheimer. Clear front-runner, with the most important story to tell, the biggest cultural footprint (possibly with the exception of Barbie) and it made a ton of money to boot.

Past Lives. Beautifully observed, painstakingly assembled, and far more original than its premise would suggest. Doesn’t have much of a chance at the big prize.

Poor Things. Lanthimos’s horny fairy tale horror has the potential to pull off a major upset, and I wouldn’t be mad at it for doing so, despite my reservations about the film. Full review here.

The Zone of Interest. The other one I haven’t seen but advance word is very strong.

In other categories, Best Director looks nailed on for Nolan, regardless of who wins Best Picture. The omission of Greta Gerwig is appalling but somehow not surprising. Nice to see Justine Triet there though. Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor also look set to go Oppenheimer‘s way. Best Actress is a straight fight between Emma Stone and Lily Gladstone. Best Supporting Actress looks more open with probably Emily Blunt the least likely to succeed, but a case could be made for any of the others. Original Screenplay looks like a two horse race between Anatomy of a Fall and The Holdovers. Adapted Screenplay is Nolan’s to lose.

The Zone of Interest

Posted on February 9th, 2024 in At the cinema | No Comments »

Jonathan Glazer’s approach to the Holocaust is a terrifying exercise in cinematic minimalism. Although I haven’t read it, it seems that he has taken Martin Amis’s novel about Auschwitz CEO Rudolph Höss, stripped it off almost everything resembling a plot, and then shot it with fly-on-the-wall cameras. The result is very much a one-trick film – but it’s one hell of a good trick. As we watch the bourgeois 1940s German family playing with their kids, entertaining friends and relatives, tending the garden, splashing in the pool, the soundtrack never ceases to be filled with the ghastly sounds of the final solution emanating from the camp next door to their middle-class paradise.

Although the goings-on at the death camps are rarely evoked in dialogue, this is not a tale of people blithely looking the other way. They know exactly what is happening, it just isn’t relevant to their day-to-day interests. Yes, the presence of human remains near where his children are playing is enough for an underling to earn a telling-off from Höss, but otherwise the tragedy and brutal evil of the Nazi purge happens in the corners and off-screen.

There’s an element of absurdity in the way that the family refuse to acknowledge the sounds and sights of death and terror right on their doorstep – almost like something out of The Bed Sitting Room or Synecdoche, New York – until you remember that all of this was real, that Auschwitz happened and that the Höss family were real people. That isn’t to say there’s no artistic licence here. The real Auschwitz was a little further away from the Höss garden, I understand, so the absurdity is partly Glazer’s doing, but this is a matter of degree more than anything else.

Something barely resembling a story crops up after about an hour when Höss is transferred and his wife Hedwig (Sandra Hüller from Anatomy of a Fall) refuses to uproot herself and her children, but otherwise this is all Glazer’s Kubrickian detachments from the unholy terrors happening at the edges, with Łukasz Żal’s cinematography giving the sunny days an overlit, almost nuclear, whiteness, and the winter months a cool blue blanket.

Rating this film is something of a struggle for me. I don’t want to see it again, I note the excellent performances, and admire the rigour of the form, but I felt overwhelmed by it, rather than drawn in. That may be what Glazer intended, but it doesn’t make this a film I’m likely to recommend to friends and family. And I felt that restraint slip in the phone call where Höss talks to Hedwig about (theoretically) how to gas a ballroom of partygoers.

Mean Girls

Posted on February 3rd, 2024 in At the cinema | No Comments »

Another day, another musical film of the musical play of the film of the book. And another property I wasn’t that invested in. I saw the original Lindsay Lohan Mean Girls only a few years ago and thought it was fine, but lacking the savage punk energy of the sublime Heathers to which it appears to owe a significant debt. And the unreality of Heathers means that it musicalises really very well (surely the musical film of Heathers can’t be too far away?) whereas this doesn’t have quite the same scope – but also it isn’t trying to be a heartfelt drama about important social issues either.

The cast are all pretty great, most of them new to me. Angourie Rice is a suitably winsome lead, Reneé Rapp, reprising her stage role, is excellent (taking over from Rachel McAdams) but Busy Philipps is a bit of a downgrade from Amy Poehler (whereas Tina Fey and Tim Meadows just reprise their roles, although Fey bizarrely has omitted to give herself anything funny to do). Jon Hamm has three lines, two of them in the trailer. MVP is the hilarious Avantika who bristles with comic energy whenever she’s on screen.

The plot is… Mean Girls. The songs are fine… There’s some sharp lyric writing and some nifty choreography, but I couldn’t hum any of the tunes today, less than 48 hours after seeing the movie. Without the novelty of seeing this for the first time in 2004, and without the excitement of a live performance, this feels constrained (as opposed to the film of Matilda which exploded off the big screen). Directing team Samantha Jayne and Arturo Perez Jr make it flow and feel cohesive in the way that Blitz Bazawule didn’t with The Color Purple, and there are flickers of imagination in numbers like “Apex Predator” but overall, this just seems a bit… plastic.