Review: Harriet

DIR:  Kasi Lemmons • WRI: Gregory Allen Howard, Kasi Lemmons• DOP: John Toll • ED: Wyatt Smith • DES: Warren Alan Young • PRO: Debra Martin Chase, Daniela Taplin Lundberg, Gregory Allen Howard • MUS: Terence Blanchard • CAST: Cynthia Erivo, Leslie Odom Jr., Joe Alwyn, Clarke Peters

When Harriet (Cynthia Envo) realises that she must escape from slavery or suffer getting sold down the river she cannot risk speaking to her mother, Rit (Vanessa Bell Calloway). Instead, she reveals her plan in the form of a spiritual, singing to Rit while she is still toiling in the fields. It’s at moments like this that Kasi Lemmons’s biopic Harriet hits home: showing the collective pain shared by those in slavery, while also demonstrating the strategies the enslaved employed to circumvent daily injustices. 

Where Harriet is perhaps not so successful is in its portrayal of its central figure, slave-turned-liberator Harriet Tubman, who single-handedly rescued 70 others from slavery and lead armed expeditions in the Civil war. While Envo endows her protagonist with a quiet certainty, the narrative feels less comfortable giving Harriet too much agency too early. Instead, after fleeing her plantation in Maryland, leaving her family and husband, she must go on an overly conventional hero’s journey in which a mix of historical and fictional characters instruct her on how to escape slavery and become an abolitionist. The historical Tubman’s belief in her direct interactions with God is played down: this sadly ends up feeling like a watering down of Harriet’s personality.

Harriet explores some interesting new ground in the slave narrative genre, highlighting some of the diverging opinions in the abolitionist experience as seen in Harriet’s relationship with real-life Underground Railroad conductor and historian William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.) and a strong female relationship between Harriet and fictional wealthy freewoman Marie Buchanon (Janelle Monáe). However, in other ways, Harriet is hampered by an over-reliance on the genre. In particular, too much time is taken up following a personal enmity between Harriet and her former slave owner Gideon Brodess (Joe Alwyn). While Harriet undeniably risked danger at every step at the hands of bloodthirsty slavers who would stop at nothing to take down the mythical slave-liberator “Moses,” one suspects that filmmakers could figure out a way to highlight the plight of African American individuals without foregrounding white characters and actors.

Much of Harriet’s escape is portrayed as a sprint through the rural South as she narrowly avoids slave catchers and their hounds. This certainly lends the film an exciting, adventurous quality to it: however, it begins to strain credulity when every fugitive appears to have the lung capacity and muscular strength of an Olympic track athlete. And indeed, Harriet in general has something of a speeded-up quality to it, as certain fascinating aspects of Tubman’s life are glossed over.

If this review appears to be overly nit-picky that’s because it is. Harriet brings a lot of good to the table and more should be done to remember the extraordinary women who fought and continue to fight for Black civil rights in America. Tubman may in some ways just be too extraordinary a figure to fully capture in the form of a biopic. Ultimately, Harriet is an admirable and thought-provoking look at a pivotal figure in American history, and well worth the watch.

Sarah Cullen

125′ 34″

12A see IFCO

Harriet is released 22nd November 2019

Harriet –  Official Web Site 

 

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Review: La Belle Époque

DIR/WRI: Nicolas Bedos • DOP: Nicolas Bolduc • ED: Anny Danché, Stéphane Garnier, Florent Vassault • DES: Stéphane Rozenbaum • PRO: Martin Metz • MUS: Nicolas Bedos, Anne-Sophie Versnaeyen• CAST: Daniel Auteuil, Guillaume Canet, Doria Tillier, Fanny Ardant

Poor Victor Drummond (Daniel Auteuil). He lost his job as a comic-book illustrator because of the horrible modern world in which everyone worships the internet all the time. These days he has to suffer through life as a kept man while his wife and son make pots of money and try to convince him to accept well-paid work on their streaming service. 

Forgive me my skepticism, but for some reason I’m just finding it harder to buy into the dilemma of the poor little well-off white guy as found in Nicolas Bedos’ La Belle Époque these days. Maybe it’s simply a moral failing of mine. Hmm. 

Anyhow, Victor’s son Maxime (Michaël Cohen) is luckily not entirely devoid of use when he gifts Victor a voucher for an innovative re-enactment entertainment package, in which he gets to pick the time period. Think of the packages as escape rooms, except instead of escaping a room of puzzles there’s, um, history. Victor picks the date in 1974 when he first met his recently estranged wife Marianne (Fanny Ardant) and soon finds himself on a carefully recreated life-size set of the street and bar in which they first locked eyes. Cue much romantic comedy as Antoine, the producer and director of Victor’s time-travelling experience, repeatedly bullies his employee Margot, the actor playing the younger Marriane (Doria Tiller). Don’t worry though, he’s troubled and loves her so it’s apparently fine.

Comparisons have been made between La Belle Époque and the work of Charlie Kaufmann. However, what came to the fore for this reviewer was more similar to Peter Weir’s The Truman Show. While Victor may have signed up for this immersive recreation of reality, the lengths to which Antoine and his crew go in order to control and observe Victor certainly cross the line into unacceptable. However, disappointingly, and in contrast to The Truman Show, despite being ostensibly critical of the problems of technology, La Belle Époque has curiously little to say about the dangers of surveillance in the modern era. 

To give the film some light praise, La Belle Époque sets out to be provocative as demonstrated in the film’s frenetic opening regency-era sequence, replete with raunchiness and sudden shocks. It does succeed. The fast-paced, at times exhausting editing slows down as the film travels back to Victor’s more simple, idealised era. This was preferable but only just, considering that providing certain characters with more nuance did not necessarily improve events. 

Who knows? Maybe I would have been more entertained by Victor’s exploits if it didn’t take the world literally being turned into a playground for his own desires and a huge cast of characters provided to accede to his every whim in order for him to learn some surprisingly banal and rudimentary lessons about life. But that’s the plight of the poor little well-off white guy these days and I will prepare my tiny violin accordingly. 

Sarah Cullen

115″

La Belle Époque is released 22nd November 2019

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Review: Gemini Man

 

DIR: Ang Lee • WRI: David Benioff, Billy Ray, Darren Lemke • DOP: Dion Beebe • ED: Tim Squyres • DES: Lucio Seixas • PRO: Jerry Bruckheimer, David Ellison, Dana Goldberg, Don Granger • MUS: Lorne Balfe • CAST: Will Smith, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Clive Owen

Kids these days. Not only are they spending all their money on skinny lattes while simultaneously hoarding their wealth, they’re also ruining the action-hero genre. That is, at least, according to Ang Lee’s latest film, in which middle-aged men are the characters with agency who not only save the world but also threaten it with danger. Millennials just seem to get in the way of everything with their constant neediness.

Gemini Man follows Henry Brogan, the older Will Smith, an elite assassin who is about retire, when he himself becomes the target of a failed assassination attempt. Escaping to Europe with fellow agent Danny (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), he discovers that he has been cloned to create an improved version of himself – ingeniously named Junior, just in case we were confused. When the two Smiths first come face-to-face it’s hard not to think about the cop from Bright trying to swat away the Fresh Prince: the film is at its best when engaging in ridiculous, over-the-top action set pieces, but even those are few and far between. If nothing else, it’s rather fascinating that the aspect of the younger Smith with which the CGI has the most problem representing is his upper lip, inviting us to question the directorial choice to draw attention to it by having him licking ice cream while watching a simulated army training montage. Yes, that is a thing that happens.

For most of its run-time Gemini Man is far from thrilling and appears stuck in nostalgia for a bygone time when manly men manfully transversed the globe in luxury jets saving the world. Henry’s ex-colleagues are all men of a certain age who appear to still be the ones saving the world despite (or perhaps due to) their opulent lifestyles (although this reviewer is happy to admit she is always delighted to see Benedict Wong doing well for himself). The film also sets the low bar of expecting kudos for not having Henry engage in sexual relations with Danny. Gotta start somewhere, I suppose. 

Where Gemini Man gets particularly squeaky is in its politics regarding the younger generation. The problem with Junior, despite being a born-and-bred assassin, is that his father figure (Clive Owen) coddled him as a child. He is, as a result, simultaneously a cold-blooded killer and also a spoilt brat with no direction. There probably should be some interesting commentary to be found about incels hidden beneath it all, except for the fact that we’re watching it from the point of view of heroic boomers who just happen to know what’s best for the poor little disturbed millennial boy. While we get the ages of both Smiths, Winstead’s Danny is that eternal age of women in Hollywood action: approximately thirty (probably?) but with little-to-no character development so it doesn’t really matter.

The whole project would likely be a lot more enjoyable if it wasn’t for the woeful script in which characters never say anything that the audience hasn’t already anticipated. If nothing else, for those watching it in 3D there are some enjoyable scenes in which the depth-of-field is carefully used to enhance the action. For the rest of us, unless you’re an Ang Lee completist, it’s far from necessary. 

Sarah Cullen

116′ 53″
12A (see IFCO for details)

Gemini Man is released 11th October 2019

Gemini Man – Official Website

 

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Review of Irish Film @ DIFF 2019: Shooting the Mafia

Sarah Cullen takes a look at Kim Longinotto’s powerful documentary which strips back the glamorous image of the Sicilian Mafia, showing the harsh reality of life, death and business at the hands of those who wield it.

After being bowled over last year by Sicilian Ghost Story, Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza’s haunting fictional rendering of the real-life mafia kidnapping and murder of Giuseppe di Matteo, the son of a mafia informant, my interest was piqued when I heard about the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival’s showing of Shooting the Mafia. Kim Longinotto’s documentary examines the work of photographer Letizia Battaglia who has spent decades capturing the crimes of the Sicilian mafia. Guiseppe’s unimaginable ordeal is not mentioned, which says far more about the bloody history of the notorious crime syndicate than it does about the documentary: as demonstrated by Battaglia’s haunting photography, there have been countless Giuseppes since she began recording their violence since the 1970s.

The first female photographer to be employed by an Italian newspaper as well as the first Italian photojournalist to document the mafia’s violence, Battaglia’s life and work are both explored throughout. At the age of only sixteen she entered into a constricting marriage to escape from her controlling father. After her divorce she took up photojournalism. Using her camera she took over 600,000 photos recording the death and destruction wrought across Sicily by mob violence. Shooting the mafia, in Battaglia’s case, frequently meant recording the aftermath of their actions: inert bodies in their own blood, funerals, the destruction of vehicles. Inevitably, her life is part of the wider fabric of Sicily: she became a target of threats from the mafia and relates her own grief at the deaths of other resistors against the regime. Through it all the photographs she never took, she observes, are the ones that haunt her the most.

Longinotto’s ambitions to push at the boundaries of the documentary form are highlighted early on: as she highlighted in the Q&A afterwards, alongside photography and other archived recordings, Battaglia’s life is illustrated with footage from early Italian cinema. Drawing comparison between the men who attempted to prevent Battaglia’s creative freedom as a young woman and the mafia which circumscribed the freedoms of Sicily, Longinotto draws a line between the importance of personal creativity and the self-determination of an entire community. In its many uses of multimedia, Shooting the Mafia explores the possibilities of art as a tool for challenging violence.

Coming out of Shooting the Mafia, I felt like I had more questions than answers. In a certain sense, it’s difficult to know for sure what the focus of Longinotto’s chronicle is: Battaglia’s life, her photography, or the struggles of Sicily. But then again, this may be appropriate considering the multiple meanings of focus in a filmed recording of a rumination on the possibilities of photography. Like Battaglia’s own photography, which approaches its subject matter in an oblique manner, Shooting the Mafia approaches Battaglia in an oblique manner, through her romantic relationships, her photography, and her political career. One suspects there is much that Battaglia is keeping from the viewer: moreover, one suspects that is the intention of an individual who approaches the world from behind the camera.

 

Shooting the Mafia screened on 2nd March 2019 as part of the Dublin International Film Festival (20th February – 3rd March).

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Review: Booksmart

DIR: Olivia Wilde • WRI Susanna Fogel, Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Katie Silberman • DOP: Jason McCormick • ED: Jamie Gross • PRO: Chelsea Barnard, David Distenfeld, Jessica Elbaum, Megan Ellison Katie Silberman • DES: Katie Byron • MUS: Dan Nakamura • CAST: Kaitlyn Dever, Beanie Feldstein, Jessica Williams, Jason Sudeikis

What can one hope for from a female coming-of-age comedy 2019? I for one went into Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut Booksmart hoping that it would be this year’s Blockers (which was, in turn, the previous year’s Bad Neighbours 2). And reader, it did not disappoint.

Following the fortunes of two model students on their final day of high school, Amy (Kaitlyn Deever) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein) have avoided parties and general tomfoolery in favour of study and intellectual rigour throughout their school careers to ensure success later in life. This backfires when they discover that the rest of their graduating class has also been accepted to Harvard and Yale. Looking to make up for lost time, the two girls set off on an odyssey of graduation parties. Yes, it is in many ways the female version of Superbad. And while in one way it’s sad that we have had to wait over a decade for such a film to appear, it’s perhaps also a very good thing that no one attempted a female version of Superbad ten years ago.

While it’s undeniably satisfying to see new films flipping the script on the assumptions Hollywood has made about American high school since the ’80s, the film does occasionally overplay its hand. Almost every character turns out to be something they’re not, which at times can be exhausting, particularly for characters that had barely any screen time in the first place. However, this isn’t to take away from the impressive supporting cast and the good intentions behind it all: it’s nice to see a diverse array of high school characters wherein everyone is treated as an individual, and long may the dismantling of the Hollywood hierarchy continue.

And for many reasons, Booksmart feels worth the wait, bringing together as it does two fantastic leads who have deserved more screen time for quite a while now: Kaitlyn Deever managed to be a kick-ass kid in television’s adult-focused Justified while Beanie Feldstein was the infinitely likeable best friend in Lady Bird (and should have been the focus of the movie, in this reviewer’s humble opinion). Together they bring a wonderful combined energy to the film, with lots of the comedy coming from their offbeat exchanges. Despite seeing each other daily, they take plenty of time to send each other constant encouragement, which is as sweet as it is bizarre. As a spiritual sequel to Blockers it also follows in that film’s progressive steps: Amy is out and, aside from her Christian parents (Lisa Kudrow and Will Forte) who are stepping over themselves to demonstrate their acceptance of their daughter, her sexuality doesn’t raise any eyebrows.  And indeed, if Molly fails to understand the nuances of her best friend’s sexuality at times, it’s her own misunderstanding of female sexuality that is the butt of the joke. “I have a secret for you.” she tells Amy: “I once tried to masturbate with an electric toothbrush, but I got a horrible UTI.”

Hopefully we will see more directing from Wilde and her all-female writing team, as they have succeeded in creating a laugh-out-loud comedy which explores the nuances of female friendship and permits its characters to make mistakes. Booksmart graduates with top marks (but doesn’t forget to have fun along the way).

Sarah Cullen

102 minutes
16 (see IFCO for details)
Booksmart is released 27th May 2019

Booksmart – Official Website

 

 

 

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Film Ireland Podcast: Episode 35 – Drop Kick a Puppy

 

Sarah Cullen and Richard Drumm address the nation and share their latest jibber jabber on some new films that people have made for you to see, including dream-chasing and drug-taking in Wild Rose,  spotting Dublin streets in Greta, and high-school yarns in 8th Grade and Book Smart.

Sarah takes a look at three Netflix films with women drinking in Wine Country, a lack of murders in Who Would you Take to a Desert Island, and alive ghosts in Suzzanna: Buried Alive.

Richard takes his seat at the High Table and discusses the endless shoot-outs of John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum, nonsense in the cinema at Pokémon: Detective Pikachu, and the pointlessness of Vox Lux.

And finally there’s the glass cliff of Avengers: Endgame (were they tears Richard?)

Listen…

Film Ireland Podcasts

 

 

 

 

 

Land Without God screened on 28th February 2019 as part of theDublin International Film Festival (20th February – 3rd March).

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Review: Us

DIR/WRI: Jordan Peele PRO: Jason Blum, Ian Cooper, Sean McKittrick, Jordan Peele • DOP: Mike Gioulakis  ED: Nicholas Monsour• DES: Ruth De Jong  MUS: Michael Abels • CAST: Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Elisabeth Moss

I’m still a bit miffed that Jordan Peele didn’t run with my super-cool idea for his film. Picture this: the movie opens with the title card for Us, except it’s obscured by some sort of spooky fog. Then, as the fog clears, the title card comes into sharper focus and – what’s that? Two dots have appeared! It’s not Us as we imagined, but instead U.S.! The United States! On the big screen! Who’d have imagined?! Aaaand, fade to black, the end. But Peele had his own ideas, just not quite as nuanced as my own, and I can respect that. And since Us turned out to be well paced, tense, and genuinely scary, I have to hand it to him: he did not need my help this time.

In Peele’s new horror, Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o) is haunted by a trauma that has remained with her for over thirty years: as a young girl, she was briefly separated from her parents while at a beach-front carnival and only vaguely remembers what she endured while exploring an abandoned hall of mirrors. Returning to the same beach three decades later with her family in toe, Adelaide fears that whatever she has been trying to avoid all that time is about to catch up with her. It appears that her fears are not unfounded when four enigmatic figures, all dressed in red, appear outside their holiday home one night. When they break in and come face-to-face with the Wilson family, the Wilson family discover their doubles staring back.

While Us might not be quite as good as Peele’s breakout debut Get Out, it’s certainly the most immediately scary of the two (whereas the Sunken Place in Get Out had me feeling sick to my stomach, the cat-and-mouse games throughout Us had me watching through my fingers), and surely that is one reasonable metric by which to measure your horror. Starting off evocative of other terrifying home invasion narratives such as The Strangers and The Invitation, Peele’s second film, like Get Out, reveals its machinations originate in a landscape located somewhere between the realms of science fiction and fantasy. Not unlike the work of Ursula K. Le Guin, this enables Peele to explore the implications of the surface of society in comparison to what remains unseen.

Lupita Nyong’o is fantastic as both versions of Adelaide: both the socially awkward loner and over-protective mother protagonist, and the terrifying crack-voiced double who appears to be spearheading the doppelgänger attack. Winston Duke plays Adelaide’s husband, Gabe, a likeable if somewhat bumbling boat enthusiast. What with his square glasses, beard and comic relief, he comes across as something of a Peele-a-like. If I were to fault the casting in any way it would be a criminal under-use of the incredibly funny Tim Heidecker as the father of a fellow vacationing family and frenemy of Gabe (that’s right, I’m taking no prisoners here).

While Us couldn’t really be said to be a sequel to Get Out it does still tackle many of the same ideas, particularly in relation to the commodification of the (both African and non-African) American body. I am already anticipating plenty of discussion regarding the significance of the doppelgängers’ red costumes, for starters. Beyond the immediate nail-biting horror there is plenty to mull over, and indeed it feels like a movie that will reward repeat viewings. All I can say for now is that, after one viewing, Us feels like a puzzle that disconcertingly doesn’t seem to quite fit together: maybe you’re not looking at it the right way up, maybe there’s a piece missing, or maybe you’ve just realised your double is hiding under the table and is really putting you off. Whatever the reason, Us remains disturbingly oblique and is probably all the better for it.

Sarah Cullen

116 minutes
16 (see IFCO for details)
Us is released 22nd March 2019

 

 

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Review: Under the Silver Lake

DIR/WRI: David Robert Mitchell PRO: Chris Bender, Michael De Luca, Adele Romanski, Jake Weiner • DOP: Mike Gioulakis  ED: Julio Perez IV • DES: Michael Perry  MUS: Disasterpeace • CAST: Andrew Garfield, Riley Keough, Topher Grace

 

Is it impressive that Under the Silver Lake manages to be a lot stranger than the trailer implies (and the trailer is quite odd in and of itself). I don’t know if  that’s impressive, but I feel it’s worth mentioning. Sometimes trailers these days don’t give away the whole movie, which is something to admire. If this seems like faint praise, it sort of is. Because while an attempt to make something Pynchon-esque yet more accessible for the screen is in and of itself far from unwelcome, director David Robert Mitchell’s over-indulgent run-time and some undercooked storylines mean it is ultimately less than the sum of its parts.  

Andrew Garfield’s Sam is an aimless young slacker living in L.A. whose money is just about to run out. He spends much of his time in Rear Window fashion, spying on his female neighbours in his condo and engaging in conspiracy theories. After encountering a mysterious new women, Sarah (Riley Keogh), at the swimming pool, Sam falls for her and spends the evening with her, only to discover the next morning that she and her roommates have all left in the night. Wondering whether her disappearance has anything to do with the recent sudden death of a local billionaire or a prophetic zine, Sam starts following clues which lead him into the underworld (occasionally literally) of Hollywood.

While not without some enjoyable sleuthing for both the protagonist and audience, Sam’s character is perhaps a microcosm of the film’s problems as a whole. We never really get a strong sense of what exactly Sam believes beyond the fact that he, um, thinks that pop culture has secret messages embedded in it that are meant for rich people. Yeah. This admittedly could be a good starting point for a character (or indeed a movie), but requires a lot more fleshing out to become something interesting. As it is, the central mystery of the film feels similarly like a bare-bones outline of a finished work, with a whole load of unnecessary red herrings thrown in (to take my example above, I feel I was being rather charitable in comparing the film to Rear Window. Quite frankly, Sam’s just a Peeping Tom). Where Mitchell’s film is more successful in evoking its competing themes of anxiety and nostalgia for twentieth-century popular culture is in its visuals and soundtrack: aesthetically impressive and gorgeously edited, Under the Silver Lake certainly feels appropriately neo-noirish as Sam wanders around in a fugue of Los Angeles-tinged uncertainty.

It’s also disappointing to see how Under the Silver Lake under-uses its cast beyond Garfield. Garfield himself is hugely likeable (arguably more than the character should be) and capable as a protagonist who could easily have been unforgettable as an author or audience surrogate and as such is hugely pivotal in maintaining engagement in the film. However, beyond Garfield the impressive supporting cast are almost all reduced to glorified cameos, with Topher Grace, Jimmi Simpson and Laura-Leigh Clare appearing in only in a small number of scenes. Particularly glaring is Zosia Mamet’s Troy, seemingly Sam’s friend with benefits who, despite featuring heavily in the first half of the film, is not seen again.

While Under the Silver Lake may be well-intentioned in its attempt to explore the dark underbelly of the American movie business, it’s hard not to feel disappointed that it attributes so little agency to the victims of the Hollywood Machine. The gone girl supposedly at the centre of the tale is not so much a character in her own right but an excuse for the protagonist to indulge in his nostalgia, something we’ve seen far too often. To the film’s credit there are some wonderfully zany moments which should pique interests throughout (and in particular a short-lived horror villain which will probably give me nightmares). On the other hand, it’s hard to know whether the film’s scattergun approach works overall (I refuse to believe that R.E.M.’s “What’s the Frequency?” is anyone’s dance number). Perhaps the most surprising part of this Hollywood puzzler is just how conventional it is.

 

Sarah Cullen

139 minutes
16 (see IFCO for details)
Under the Silver Lake is released 15th March 2019

 

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