Category Archives: Film Reviews

Queer Classics: “Rocketman” (2019)

After watching Bohemian Rhapsody, I had reservations about going to see Rocketman. While I like Queen’s music, I don’t have the same investment in either them or Freddie Mercury as I do Elton John. I’ve been a diehard Elton fan for decades, and he’s one of the few artists that I have made an effort to see in concert as many times as I can. So, given how thoroughly meh Bohemian turned out to be (how a film about Queen can be so lacking in energy is truly strange), I went in to Rocketman with somewhat low expectations.

Fortunately, I needn’t have worried. Rocketman was everything I wanted and more.

The film begins with Elton John entering a rehabilitation facility. He then narrates his childhood and adolescence, his union with his longtime lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), his tumultuous affair with his manager John Reid (Richard Madden), his heights of glory and the pits of despair.

As with any successful film, casting is everything, and Taren Egerton is an absolute gem in this film. Somehow, through the magic of makeup and his own style, he comes to embody Elton in a way that is, sometimes, truly startling. And, unlike in Bohemian Rhapsody, where Rami Malek was not doing much of the actual singing, here Egerton actually shows off his singing chops. Though he doesn’t have quite the high tenor (nor the falsetto) that was such a hallmark of Elton’s earlier career, he is a very fine singer in his own right, and he does manage to capture some of Elton’s stranger enunciations. There were times that I had begun to think that I was actually watching Elton himself, and if Egerton isn’t at least nominated for an Academy Award for this there is no justice in the world.

It is, in other words, Egerton’s film, though Jamie Bell also deserves honorable mention for his fine turn as Elton’s lyricist Bernie Taupin, and Richard Madden has a fine villainous (and sexy) turn as Elton’s manager/lover John Reid. Everyone else in the film is quite serviceable, though there’s not a great deal of subtlety in Bryce Dallas Howard’s characterization as Elton’s mother, even if she does the best with what the story gives her. Gemma Jones, however, is warm and lovely as Elton’s grandmother, and while she’s not onscreen very long, she makes it clear that she is one of the few sources of genuine stability and love in his life.

Rocketman doesn’t shy away from painting its subject in a very unflattering light. Indeed, as my friend remarked, it’s a little surprising how scathing it is in its depiction of Elton’s lower points, particularly his cruelty toward those in his life who really do seem to care for him. What’s more, it shows us just how far Elton had sunk into a pit of self-loathing by the time that he finally sought our rehabilitation, and how much the heights of success was matched by a depth of despair. This despair, of course, is made all the more wrenching because of Elton’s being forced to live so much of his life in the closet (at least, unlike Bohemian Rhapsody, Rocketman emphasizes the importance of this fact, including showing a very steamy sex scene between Elton and John Reid).

For all of its darkness, however, Rocketman has many moments of the utopian joy that one frequently associates with the musical genre. I was particularly struck by the choreography and cinematography of “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting,” which catches up you in Egerton’s enthusiastic performance and the myriad bodies moving with joy through his vocals. Indeed, the film makes it clear that Elton is truly one of those people for whom musical ability is truly a gift, and the many musical numbers, even the ones that occur at his darker moments, are exquisite listening.

Just as importantly, Rocketman highlights how important Elton’s relationship with Bernie Taupin was and remains, even after all of these years. There’s a certain irony about Elton’s oft-repeated claim that the two of them have never had an argument, as it seems that the only reason this is true is because Taupin refuses to engage with Elton’s vicious diatribes. I truly enjoyed seeing Jamie Bell in the role, as I often feel that he doesn’t get enough appreciation as an actor. There is an undeniable chemistry between Egerton and Bell that emerges at numerous points in the film, and it is clear that, for Elton at least, the affection was at first more than brotherly. As the years progress, their relationship deepens and matures, until they are at last brothers in all but blood, and their last scene together is immensely touching.

It’s a little bit funny, but it’s quite astonishing how easily many of Elton’s numbers fit so seamlessly into the narrative that the film constructs (even if their date of composition doesn’t necessarily line up with the film’s chronology). There’s a certain irony about this, however, for the film doesn’t actually use any of the songs from John’s and Taupin’s autobiographical album Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy. I suspect this is because so many of them are explicitly about his life with Bernie, and it might have felt a bit trite to have song and narrative line up so neatly. However, I was a little sad not to hear Egerton perform “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” (though I was pleased to see the film make use of some of Elton’s deeper cuts).

All in all, I really enjoyed Rocketman. I consider myself an Elton John fan, and to see his early life brought to such astounding life on screen is uniquely pleasurable. One gets the impression that, for Elton at least, this was a deeply personal film, and while I don’t know just how much input he had in its creation, it feels as if Rocketman comes from the heart. Full of emotion, good storytelling, and infectious music, Rocketman is a moving testament to the extraordinary life of one of the greatest musicians of all time.

Advertisements

Film Review: Aladdin (2019)

Going into this year’s live-action remake of Aladdin, I was full of misgivings. The trailers really didn’t do the film any favours, and it looked like it was going to be a very cheap-looking film. Having watched the film, I can say that some of those fears were ultimately realized; the film, for its enormous budget, does often appear awfully small. This is, ultimately, the problem of producing this particular type of fantasy film in a “real” environment. While 2-D animation allows for a truly magical world to explode to life on the screen, these live-action/CGI hybrids, somewhat paradoxically, are often strangely limited in their representation.

For all of that, I actually found myself enjoying the film more than I anticipated, and a great deal of that enjoyment stems from the undeniable charisma and chemistry of the three leads: Aladdin (Mena Masoud), Jasmine (Naomi Scott), and of course the Genie (Will Smith). Masoud is, to put it bluntly, absolutely adorable, and he really seems to have fun in the role. He’s charming and awkward in all of the right ways. Scott, likewise, brings a political bite to the character of Jasmine that wasn’t really present in the original; in fact, she wants to be sultan in her own right, rather than settling as a consort.

And, for his part, Will Smith really owns the role of the Genie. Since no one could ever compare to the screwball, rapid-fire power that Robin Williams brought to the role, Smith opts instead to make it his own. There’s no denying that Smith has that certain sort of charm that has made him such a compelling star for so long, and he brings all of that to bear as Genie. Admittedly, it is still rather odd to see him as the big blue character but, thankfully, the film frequently opts to show him as a fully human character, which mitigates that strangeness.

Plot-wise, film hits the same points as the 1992 film, though there are a few significant differences. For one thing, the film fleshes out Jafar’s backstory–making him a former pickpocket who clawed his way up to the pinnacle of political power. However, that backstory just doesn’t do enough to lift the character into the same realm as he was in the animated film. Marwan Kenzari is fine as far as he goes, but he lacks the screen heft to do anything new or interesting with the role. (Though I hate to say it, his voice just isn’t the right fit for Jafar. Jonathan Freeman, who voiced the character in the 1992 film, made him a far, far more interesting villain). And, unfortunately, this Jafar is significantly less queer than his predecessor.

This defanging of a villain is very much in keeping with the other live-action remakes that we have seen or are going to see. Luke Evans, bless him, doesn’t even come close to capturing the hyperbolic and camp masculinity of his predecessor, and it looks like Scar of the new The Lion King will lack the scenery-chewing queerness of Jeremy Irons’s rendition of the character. While some might greet this as a good thing, I beg to differ, as it robs these villains of the very thing that makes them so compelling and, well, fun.

That’s not to say that Aladdin isn’t fun. Unencumbered by the slavish devotion to re-staging every scene (the fatal flaw of Beauty and the Beast) and with Guy Ritche at the helm, the film is very confident in itself. Ritchie has a very distinctive visual style, and while I wouldn’t say that Aladdin puts these to maximal effect, there are a few flourishes that stand out. And, aside from everything else, Aladdin is just a fun film, one that doesn’t always take itself so seriously.

Enjoyable as it is, it’s worth pointing out that the film still has its problems with representation. Like its predecessor, this film trades (very unreflexively) in Orientalism. As a friend of mine pointed out, it’s just sort of a mishmash of sundry “Eastern” cultures, with no real sense of cultural specificity. Thus, whatever strides forward it makes in terms of racial representation–the cast is, thankfully, almost completely non-white–is undercut by these other issues. As that same friend pointed out, it would definitely help Disney to have a few people in positions of power to point out how woefully tone-deaf they can be (though I’m still not convinced it’s possible to do a version of this story that isn’t fundamentally Orientalist). While we’re on the subject of race: what in the hell was Billy Magnusson doing in that movie? Seriously, does anyone know?

Overall, I’d say that Aladdin is a fine remake. If this is the direction in which Disney is taking these live-action remakes, I think that bodes well for how successful The Lion King will be. Will it hold up the way that it’s predecessor has? Probably not, but for now, it’s an enjoyable enough magic carpet ride.

Film Review: “Wine Country” (2019)

IMHO, any film that has both Amy Poehler and Tina Fey in it is worthy of celebration. So, when I heard that Wine Country had both of them in it, and that it had been directed by Poehler, I was thrilled. I read the criticisms of the film that said that it didn’t land as firmly as some might have wished, but I decided to watch it anyway.

And I did not regret it. The film is full of humour, warmth, and girl-power. What else could you ask for?

The film follows a group of female friends as they reunite for a celebration of Rebecca’s (Rachel Dratch) birthday. Each of them has a bit of baggage–emotional and otherwise–that they’re not really dealing with, and this ultimately creates the very friction and negative emotions the weekend is supposed to ameliorate. Through the ups and downs of the weekend, however, they ultimately discover that the strength of their collective friendship gives them what they need to endure all that life throws at them.

There’s a warmth at the heart of Wine Country that is in woefully short supply these days, either in the real world or in popular culture. So much comedy (and virtually all drama) is deeply cynical and always laced with at least a trace amount of venom. And, of course, our politics is about as toxic as it is possible to be. In the film, however, it’s always clear that these women truly love one another, and it’s worth pointing out that, with the exception of Jason Schwartzman–who turns in a solidly funny performance–the women run the show. There is, thankfully, no soggy romance plot to wade through, and while there are no real surprises in the plot, there are many genuine laughs throughout the film.

Despite its rather formulaic plot, there are some notable surprises. For one thing, Poehler gets to play it (mostly) straight for most of the film, and there is a resonance to her plight (she’s lost her job) that plays as sincere. And, perhaps most surprisingly, it’s Rachel Dratch who threatens to steal the show. I’ve long felt that she was one of the most underappreciated female comedians of her generation, and it’s a welcome change to see a film finally shine a spotlight on her considerable talents.

The rest of the cast is uniformly good, of course. You can always count on both Ana Gasteyer and Maya Rudolph can always be counted on; indeed, their feuding is one of the film’s central conflicts and its contours and resolution read as eminently believable. And both Emily Spivey (as Jenny, a shut-in with anxiety issues) and Paula Pell (as the lascivious and bawdy lesbian Val) delivered some of the downright funniest lines in the film. Of course, no review would be complete without mentioning Tina Fey who, like Poehler, turns in a relatively restrained and straight performance as Tammy, the owner of the bed and breakfast the women are staying in.

For me, the bottom line is that this is still a film about a group of women and their contentious but deeply-rooted friendship and love for one another. To my mind, the lukewarm critical reception the film has received revels a great deal about how we view women in comedy. Rather than embracing it as simply a good, simple comedy, there seems to be the sense that we can’t allow these women to just be ordinary. Once again, it seems to me, women are asked to bear the burden of what we as audiences and critics think they should be rather than what they are trying to be. I couldn’t help but be reminded of Ghostbusters, which suffered similarly lukewarm reviews because, I’m convinced, critics just weren’t willing to give it any slack.

So, while I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Wine Country is a great film, it is a good film, with solid acting and solid writing. When the end credits roll, you feel good about the world and about what women can do when they embrace their collective strength in one another.

And sometimes, in my opinion, that’s good enough.

Film Review: “Bohemian Rhapsody” (2018)

I briefly thought about including Bohemian Rhapsody as part of my “Queer Classics” series of blog posts, but after a lot of thinking I decided to just give it a regular “film review” designation, mostly because the queer content is so understated that one would be forgiven for not even being able to notice it at all.

If you haven’t seen the film, it is essentially the story of how Freddie Mercury, played with almost unearthly accuracy by Rami Malek, became the lead singer of Queen. It follows a pretty traditional biopic structure, with the meet-cute between Mercury and the other members of the band, their trials and eventual triumph, their feuds with one another and, of course, their reconciliation. Oh, and there is some indication that Mercury was gay.

I do see the criticisms that some have lodged that the film pathologizes queerness by attributing the band’s feud to the sinister machinations of Paul Prenter, who leads Mercury into the sinister world of queer desire. More significant, I think, is the fact that Prenter is such a thinly-constructed character that we struggle to understand why it is that he would have such an outsize influence on Mercury, to such an extent that he basically abandons his bandmates. As queer villains go, he’s not even that interesting (which is a shame, because Allan Leech is a decent actor). If they were going to make the queerest character a villain, you’d think they would have at least made him compelling.

Indeed, one of my frustrations with the film stems from its narrative incoherence. It can never really decide whether it wants to be a biopic of Freddie Mercury (which seems its primary interest), the band Queen (which it sort of is), or both (which it really fails to do because it can’t find a balance). The rest of the band emerge as half-characters at best, not insignificant enough to fade utterly into the background yet with no real depth either. A generous reading of the film would say this is a deliberate attempt to show the vexed nature of the band’s relationship, but I’m honestly not sure the film deserves that much.

Likewise, it can’t really seem to decide how to express Mercury’s sexuality. Though the film seems to want to argue that Mercury was gay, to many (including me) this seems to ignore the fact that he was most likely bisexual (bi-erasure is a real thing, y’all). It was also frustrating that the film gave so much narrative time to the fictional character of Prenter and all of his chicanery when that time would have been better spent fleshing out the relationship between Mercury and his partner Jim Hutton. The fact that it doesn’t says a lot about how narratively lazy the film is, and how uncertain it is about what role Mercury’s sexuality played in his life and how it should be represented in the present.

At the formal level, the film is exquisitely shot, and as I was watching it I kept hitting the pause button so that I could simply take in the beautifully composed shots. Given the grossness of Bryan Singer, I’m reluctant to belabor this particular point, but I console myself with the fact that there are others, including the cinematographer, who no doubt helped to get the film’s perfect looks.

Similarly, the performances are almost uniformly excellent, but of course it is Rami Malek who really steals the show. This is definitely one of those cases where an actor is very deserving of his Best Actor Oscar. Malek doesn’t just perform the role of Mercury; he literally seems to embody him. In fact, there were several times in the film when I could swear that I was watching Mercury himself. Whatever the weaknesses of the script, Malek does a great deal to make up for it, and he deserves a lot of credit for making the film work as well as it does.

At the end of the day, it seems to me that Bohemian Rhapsody is exceptional for being so unexceptional. It doesn’t really break any of the established rules for biopics, and that’s okay. If you go in with a reasonable set of expectations for what you’re about to see, then you probably will not be disappointed.

Film Review: “Gloria Bell” and the Sublime Joy of Julianne Moore

Warning: Full spoilers for the film follow.

I have a confession to make: I’m a Julianne Moore fanatic.

I’ve loved her in every film I’ve seen her in: Safe, Far from Heaven, A Single Man, and Game Changer (in which she seemed to embody the spirit of Sarah Palin). Never once have I been disappointed by a Julianne Moore performance. And, having seen Gloria Bell, I’m glad to say that that that record remains intact.

Anyone who reads this blog knows that I love a good, simple story simply told. Sure, I also love big epics and thundering blockbusters, but one can only watch so many of those before starting to feel a bit drained, a bit overwhelmed and frustrated by Hollywood’s seeming resistance to small films. Luckily, that seems to be changing.

Gloria Bell is a tidy little film, and what it lacks in bombast and narrative complexity it more than makes up for with a lean story, solid performances, and genuine heart.

Gloria has started to feel a bit stifled by her life: her ex-husband has remarried, her son seems a bit of a drifter who is clearly distant from his wife, and her daughter is preparing to embark on an international romance with a Norwegian surfer (and is pregnant to boot). Into all of this wanders Arnold (John Turturro), middle-aged man that she meets at a dance club, who has his own issues with his family. Thus starts a contentious relationship that forces Gloria to really think about what she wants from her life.

The film is refreshingly frank about Gloria’s sexuality. It manages to convey sex scenes that are sensual and not prurient, and it allows Gloria to take charge of the narrative in ways that women are (still all too consistently) denied in much Hollywood film. She wants to carve out her own sort of life, though it also seems that everyone in it doesn’t see things the way that she does. Through her understated performance, Julianne absolutely disappears into the role, to such a degree that we almost (but not quite) forget that it’s a star we are watching.

While at first Arnold seems to provide just the sort of escape she’s looking for, it soon becomes apparent that he has his own hang-ups and issues. While he refuses to introduce Gloria to his needy daughters, she makes every effort to include him in her family, an effort that he rejects (he even flees a birthday party without telling her where he’s going). Turturo does an excellent job conveying Arnold’s narcissism, and while we aren’t led to identify with him, we can at least have a bit of sympathy for his unenviable position. Thankfully, it doesn’t take Gloria long to realize that he has far too many issues and is far too controlling, manipulative, and self-centered, and we cheer her along as she reclaims her agency.

There’s no question that it is Moore that elevates the film from being simply ordinary. She is truly one of those actors who has what it takes to be more than a mere performer (though, of course, she brings a genuine warmth and sincerity to the role of Gloria). When she’s on screen you simply cannot take your eyes away; her charisma infects every scene in which she appears. I guess what I’m trying to say is that Moore is one of those rare (these days, anyway) actresses who actually qualifies as a genuine star.

However, the supporting cast is excellent as well, and Holland Taylor makes an understated yet affecting performance as Gloria’s mother. Michael Cera brings his signature blasé attitude and, as already mentioned, Turturro captures middle-aged male angst expertly.

Gloria Bell doesn’t break any of the rules, unless it’s through a refusal to give into the imperative to have a happy ending that would domesticate this free spirit. In fact, when she sprays him with his own paintballs and then goes to a wedding reception, where she begins dancing to her signature song (“Gloria”, obviously). In the end, she reclaims her agency, showing once and for all that she doesn’t need a man to be happy and fulfilled.

All she needs is her sublime, glorious self.

A Tale of Two Endings: “If Beale Street Could Talk” and “Green Book”

When Green Book was announced as the winner of the Best Picture at this year’s Academy Award, one could practically hear the collective groan that went up. The film, many argued, was too simplistic and too banal in its exploration of race relations in America, particularly when compared to other films such as Barry Jenkins’s If Beale Street Could Talk. G

Having now seen it, in conjunction with Barry Jenkins’s new film, I can say that those frustrations are justified.

If Beale Street Could Talk, based on the James Baldwin novel of the same name, chronicles the budding romance between Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James), which faces an existential crisis when the latter is accused of having raped a woman and imprisoned. The film toggles between past and future, showing the beginnings and flourishing of their romance, as well as the struggles they face after he goes to prison.

It probably goes without saying that, in If Beale Street Could Talk, Barry Jenkins has managed to recapture the same sort of magic that he brought to his Oscar Award winning Moonlight. The film is visually lush, with a color palette that makes the texture of fabric sensible to our own fingers, inviting us to experience the rich, deep love between the film’s two leads. The score is hauntingly beautiful, likewise invoking the exuberant joy of first love.

Yet it is precisely the films exquisite beauty that makes its ending that much more tragic. Having confessed to the rape in order to avoid even harsher punishment, Fonny must now spend several years in prison. Still, the two of them attempt to make the best of this awful situation, and Tish brings their son to regularly see his father, and the film ends with this haunting tableau: a family united yet also irreparably shattered by the violence of the state.

Of course, we’ve been primed for this unhappy ending throughout the film, for Jenkins makes the canny choice to intersperse the film’s lush colors with moments of black and white photography depicting the depredations of a police state that sees black bodies as little more than prison fodder. Though we want Fonny and Tish to find a way out of this dreadful situation, we also know that it can never be.

As I sat in the theater watching that family manage to claw some sort of love and unity out of this horrid situation, I was struck by how the ending tears apart the Hollywood myth of the happy ending, for though they are united in their love of each other, they are separated by the institutions that have oppressed people of color and by the banal pettiness of racism.

The next day, I saw Green Book, and wow, what a different film. Tony (Viggo Mortensen) is a bouncer who is employed by renowned musician Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) to be his driver as he makes a tour of the Deep South. Though clearly racist himself, as they journey through the south Tony gets a clear sense of the tremendous toll this takes on his employer. He gradually comes to recognize the terrible injustice of Dr. Shirley’s life.

Let me say upfront that the film is not nearly as bad as I had thought it would be, and I think it might be overstating it to say that it is explicitly racist. I don’t think it would be going too far, however, to say that the film is disingenuous in the extreme, and I can understand why many were upset that the film won out over such contenders as Roma, The Favourite, and BlacKkKlansman.

For one thing, the film isn’t about race relations, or the black experience in America, or about black people at all, really. What it is about is one white man’s journey to understanding the injustices that black people face. Let me be clear. This is not at all the same thing as focusing on Dr. Shirley’s experience, precisely because so much of the film is about, and told through, his perspective. Of course, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised to find a Hollywood film channeling our present anxieties about racial strife through the eyes of a white man.

More irritatingly, one of the film’s central conceits is that Tony has a salt-of-the-earth wisdom that is superior to the more educated one possessed by Don. In one particularly notable scene, Tony actually has the gall to claim that he is more authentically black than his employer (because he likes fried chicken and knows who Aretha Franklin is), and the film doesn’t really make any effort to show either Tony or the presumptive viewer how utterly ridiculous that claim is.

Most frustrating, however, is the ending, in which  is exactly what you would expect from a liberal film from the early 1990s: after returning to NYC, Tony invites Don in to enjoy Christmas with his family. While at first Don demurs, at the end he knocks on the door, is admitted, and is welcomed into Tony’s family. Now, to be clear, the film has gone out of its way to show how everyone in Tony’s family except for his wife is as virulently racist as he is, and somehow the film seems to want this ending to do the heavy lifting of making us believe that they have all had a moment of enlightenment. Such naivete is both laughable and incredibly frustrating.

Through this narrative closure, the film promulgates the idea that somehow, if everyone just puts their minds to it, the film suggests, everything will be okay, no tearing down of institutional racism needed! So predictable is it, and so heavy-handed in its delivery, that I actually groaned when I realized what was about to happen. Surely, I thought, this can’t be how they intend to end this film. Alas, it was.

Let me be clear: the ending isn’t bad in and of itself. It’s okay sometimes to go to movies simply for the pleasure of feeling good. What frustrates me, though, is that the film remains so resolutely and frustratingly wed to Tony’s perspective. Everything hinges on his “acceptance” of Don, who remains a shadowy and elusive presence right up until the end.

I suppose I wouldn’t be as annoyed as I am had not Green Book not won the Oscar for Best Picture, a category in which If Beale Street Could Talk was not even nominated (when it clearly should have been). It is tremendously frustrating to once again see a film that takes the easy out when it comes to issues of race in the United States win the Best Picture, a frustration made that much worse by one Academy member’s huffy claim to The New York Times that he voted for Green Book because he was tired of being told how to vote by those outside of the Academy.

These two films, with their radically different endings, make different demands on us as viewers. Beale Street forces us to reckon with the consequences of state-sanctioned violence against black bodies, which cannot be waved away by the banalities of a Hollywood ending. Green Book, on the other hand, reassures us that everything will be all right, so long as good white men like Tony take it upon themselves to not be racist.

In 2019, we deserve better from Hollywood than the triteness of Green Book. Thank goodness we have If Beale Street Could Talk.

Film Review: “Stan and Ollie”

Fair warning: Spoilers for the film follow.

These days, it’s sometimes hard to remember that it used to be possible–preferable even–to have a film with a running time of an hour and a half, one that still manages to hit all the right narrative notes to make a satisfying cinematic experience.

Cue Stan and Ollie, a pleasant little biopic about the later years of one of Hollywood’s most iconic comedy duos.

Though a few scenes take place during the duo’s heyday in 1930s Hollywood, the majority of the film revolves around their attempts to rejuvenate their film career via a tour of the UK and Ireland in the 1950s. Though it’s slow going at first, they gradually attain success, until they are playing to packed crowds in London. However, the ostensible goal of this tour–to procure a movie contract–ultimately falls through, and the two must decide whether they will continue their partnership.

Full confession time: I’ve always much preferred Laurel and Hardy to Abbot and Costello. I can’t say why, other than that I think that Stan and Ollie just seemed more organically funny to me than their (arguably) more successful counterparts. So, I was already prepared to enjoy the film, and I was not disappointed.

The film does play a bit fast and loose with historical details, compressing some things and excluding others, but that’s rather what you expect from a biopic. Indeed, rather than trying to provide a panoramic view of the comedy duo’s career, it shows us this one particular incident that is reflective of their dynamic and their struggles both within and against Hollywood. As a result, we do get a fairly rich sense of their relationship.

While the film’s plot follows a fairly traditional biopic pattern, the performances from both Coogan and Reilly really allow the film to stand out (it’s rather a crime, I think, that neither was in contention for an Oscar). They both seem to truly inhabit their characters. This is not mere mimicry, but instead something richer, deeper, and more meaningful. Just as importantly, there is also an undeniable chemistry between the two leads that lends their performance a level of credibility it might otherwise lack. There are times when one could be forgiven for believing that the two men on screen are really the two old Hollywood stars.

Thus, the film is essentially about the relationship between the two men. From its perspective, the two of them only really succeeded when they worked together. Their other partnerships, Though their wives are certainly prominent parts of their lives–and Shirley Henderson and Nina Arianda deserve enormous credit for imbuing each of them with spit-fire personality–it’s clear from the beginning that the bond between the two men is of a different kind.

The film is also a reflection on the brutal, unforgiving nature of Hollywood. No matter how successful Stan and Ollie become through their tapping into nostalgia, there will be no movie deal for them. The Hollywood of their heyday has moved on, and while they may not be as pathetic as, say, Norma Desmond of Sunset Boulevard, there is still a sense of pathos about the whole drama. We in the audience know that there can be no resuscitation fo their film career even before they do; there is no place for 1930s comedians of their type in 1950s Hollywood. We are thus invited to both cheer for them and pity them at the same time.

The film is intertwines various types of nostalgia: there is the yearning of the two actors for their earlier success; there’s the nostalgia of the fans who fill the auditoria; and then there is the film’s own nostalgia for both the 1930s and, arguably, the 1950s. As with so many Hollywood films about Hollywood, the dream factory is a vexed signifier. While it promises them both a renewed career, it is also the great beast that has already chewed them up and left them behind.

In that sense, Stan and Ollie is a rather melancholic film, for as the blurb of text at the end explains, the tour did in fact take a heavy toll on Ollie’s health, and he died shortly afterward. For his part, Stan never again performed with another partner. In the end, we’re left with a sense of sadness for what might have been, a bittersweet longing for two careers cut short by the vicissitudes of Hollywood.

Film Review: Surrendering to Feeling in “A Star is Born” (2018)

Warning: Substantial spoilers for the film follow.

I went into the most recent version of A Star is Born with great trepidation. I’ve seen both the 1930s and 1950s versions, but have steered clear of the 1970s one because of its notoriously bad reception. However, something drew me to this one. Perhaps it was my long-standing love of Bradley Cooper’s beauty or my queer appreciation of Saint Lady Gaga. Or perhaps it was hearing “Shallow” come on my Sirius XM and feeling profoundly moved by the performance. 

Whatever it was, something drew me in to see this film, and I have never looked back.

Unsurprisingly, this film follows the narrative pattern of its predecessors: ingenue and aspiring (musical) artist Ally (Lady Gaga) is discovered by country-rock star Jack Maine (Bradley Cooper). Very quickly, her career begins to overshadow his, and he begins his descent a descent into addiction and despair that ultimately results in his suicide. The film ends with Ally singing in her late husband’s memory.

Fortunately for me, I was prepared for the ending. I mean, it is A Star is Born, and so you sort of know how the whole thing is going to end up. The one thing that remains the same in every iteration of the story is Maine’s decision to end his own life rather than continue to drag his successful wife down with him into his own private darkness. Nevertheless, it still felt like a gut punch when Jack takes his own life by hanging himself with his belt–a method that had failed him when he was a teen but has now become devastatingly effective. 

What surprised me as I watched the film was how easily I was overwhelmed by feeling. How was it possible, I wondered, that I could be so invested in a story whose ending I already knew? At least part of this is due to the star power of Cooper and Lady Gaga, both of whom positively ooze charisma. Gaga proves that she has the acting chops to convey vulnerability, while Cooper, with his rakish good looks, serves as the ideal embodiment of a country rock star struggling with his own inner demons.

Yet it is also due to how deftly the film handles the feelings of its characters. Some of this stems from the soundtrack. I dare you to listen to songs like “Shallow,” “Is that All Right,” and “I’ll Never Love Again” without being reduced to an absolutely soggy mess. Of course, we all knew going in that Lady Gaga is one of the most talented musicians of her generation, but MY GAWD. Her performance of the film’s finale (I’ll Never Love Again”) drew sobs from me that I didn’t even know were there. Admittedly, I’m very prone to weeping during melodramatic films, but even as I was watching that final performance I was astounded by just how much feeling was being wrenched from me at this moment. It was one of those rare occasions when my entire body and soul seemed to be caught up in the currents of emotion on the screen.

An equally strong part of the powerful feeling of this film, however, comes from the film’s willingness to display men showing emotions other than anger. Bradley Cooper manages to convey Jack’s genuine sense of remorse at the shame he has brought Ally, and when he breaks down and weeps while in rehab it’s hard to maintain your own composure And let me tell you something, there is nothing that will make you weep like seeing Sam Elliott–the paragon of a certain type of western/cowboy masculinity, who plays Jack’s brother –tear up after what turns out to be his last parting from his brother. Emotional response aside, it really is refreshing to see straight men allowed to be outwardly expressive of feelings other than rage and violence.

At the formal level, A Star is Born is a remarkably intimate film. The camera frequently moves in for tight shots of its characters, and it its movements are graceful and fluid. As a result, we are constantly drawn into the world of these characters, invited to inhabit their states of feeling. By the end, it’s hard not to feel the same pang of loss that Ally does, as we nevertheless experience the soaring, exquisite joy of her ultimate success. 

Sometimes, you just have to give yourself up to the pleasures of feeling.

 

Film Review: “Annihilation” (2018) and the Radical Dissolution of the Self

Warning: Some spoilers follow.

Some science fiction films are groundbreaking in the sense that they open up new ways of seeing and looking at the world. 2001: A Space Odyssey is one such film, as is Tarkovsky’s Solaris and Ridley Scott’s Alien. These films unsettle us, forcing us to live in a very uncomfortable sort of world, one that is both like and unlike the one that we experience in the everyday. Annihilation, with its unstable narrative, exquisitely unsettling visual composition, and uncanny sound design, is another such film, a reminder of the continuing power of science fiction to challenge our ways of making sense of the world…and of the cinematic image.

The film begins when Lena (Natalie Portman) is reunited with her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) who had gone missing in an area known as the Shimmer over a year earlier. Determined to find out what caused his disappearance–and his physical breakdown after he re-emerged–she agrees to enter the Shimmer with a group of other women to discover the source of the disturbance, what it may want, and whether it can be reversed. Once there, however, they encounter increasingly disturbing mutations, including an alligator with teeth like a shark and a hideously disfigured (and utterly terrifying) bear. Ultimately, Lena must confront the entity that has formed the Shimmer, in all of its utterly alien intensity.

At the level of narrative, Annihilation poses a challenge. It is not a straightforward story, but is instead related largely in flashback from Lena’s perspective. However, as we quickly learn, there is much that Lena cannot explain, either to the scientists interrogating her in the army station outside the Shimmer. And, just as importantly, it’s entirely possible that Lena, having been affected (infected?) with the entity that has come to earth, may not in fact be herself in the way that we normally expect individual subjects to be. Perhaps, after all, she has become something entirely new, something capable of turning narrative against itself.

The film also registers a fundamental instability in the way we make sense of ourselves as discrete, self-contained subjects walled off from the external world. When Lena asserts at the end that she isn’t sure that the entity has a purpose other than the continual destabilization of life on earth, she gestures toward an uncomfortable truth: there are things in the universe that simply do not behave in any way that accords with our own limited epistemologies. This is particularly discomfiting, as the entire film’s narrative centers on a search for knowledge, a desire to understand what it is that has caused the Shimmer and driven so many soldiers to madness and death.

What’s more, the film is also a challenge to us as spectators. Through both its stunning visual and sound designs, the film engenders a feeling of a loss of self, something akin to the sublime. This emerges in two important ways, one small in scope and the other larger. In the first, smaller-scoped sequence, Lena gazes into a microscope at a dollop of her own blood, and she is dismayed to see her DNA–the basic structure of her identity–changing and mutating right before her eyes. This sequence is unsettling precisely because of its oscillation between the seen and the unseen. While Lena is able to see her innermost self rapidly transforming, her external self remains largely unchanged. This is in marked contrast to so many of the other characters in the film, who are shown losing parts of themselves, either to the predatory bear or to the more benign plant beings that gradually absorb one of the team members. This sequence engenders a profound feeling of unease in us as spectators, as we are forced to accept that, for all that we might like to think of ourselves as discrete subjects, we are constantly subjected to and changed by forces we cannot see or control.

The second is much more radical. The director has been very open about the fact that it is best seen on a big screen, and while I am not usually one who buys into the idea of medium specificity, but in this case the sheer overwhelmingly dazzling nature of the big screen really does make all the difference. There is a scene near the end where Lena finds herself face to face with the radical alterity that is the extraterrestrial being, and the screen explodes into a radiant nimbus that is rendered even more unsettling by the pulsing of the soundtrack. In this startling instance, the film invites us to feel as if we are being lifted right out of our bodies or, perhaps more precisely, as if our bodies have meshed with the film screen. Something, it seems to me, is lost in this exchange between the body of the film and the body of the viewer, and there is also something unsettlingly pleasurable about this experience.

Thus, the film’s title is not just about humanity’s propensity for self-destruction but also a distillation of the film’s challenge to individual subjectivity. In that sense, Annihilation is the perfect film for our current age, in which all truth–and all sense of self–seems to be in a current state of flux, disruption and, in the most extreme cases, implosion. The fact that the scientists who question Lena seem to have no more ability to explain what has happened than Lena herself does further calls into question the regimes of knowledge that govern almost every aspect of our being. And the fact that the film’s aesthetic remain so disturbing also registers, I argue, the angst of an era in which the old certainties are passing away and, somewhat surprisingly, turns those anxieties into a viewing experience that sends a quiver across the flesh, a shudder of pleasured revulsion.

Annihilation is a horror science fiction film in the best possible way, one that pushes the boundaries not only of what film as a medium can do, but also what we as spectators can readily bring into our own bodies, minds and, dare I say it, souls.

 

Film Review: The Utopian Pleasures of “Black Panther” (2018)

Every so often a film comes along that really and truly changes the contours of Hollywood filmmaking.

Black Panther is one such film.

I tend to be a bit hyperbolic in my praise of films that I really enjoy, and I will warn you right now that this is going to be on of those reviews. From the very beginning, I loved everything about this film, from the cinematography to the acting to its utopian sensibility. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that it is without question my all-time favourite of the MCU to date.

Coogler’s camera is a remarkably graceful one, and he relies less on the sort of breakneck editing that marks so much recent action cinema (and that can be quite disorienting and distracting when used, as it often is, to excess). There are several instances in which his camera actually follows the movement of the actor rather than relying on  It’s largely this graceful camera movement that grants Wankada its graceful beauty, which we are frequently invited to consume from above as the camera glides over the mountains and plains, all of it bathed in the piercing African sun.

Coogler’s camera is matched by the sinuous and smooth grace of Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa, who commands the screen with an understated intensity. While Boseman lacks the imposing physicality of his counterpart Michael B. Jordan (in the person of Killmonger), he nevertheless has a power all his own. The two are an intriguing mirror image of each other, each representing very different views of the world that systematically devalues the lives, experiences, and bodies of black people. While T’Challa believes in the necessity of looking after his people, even if that means turning his back on the rest of the world, Killmonger believes that it is only through violent revolution that the wretched of the earth can at last take control of their own destinies. The film ultimately argues that is only a synthesis of such ideas that can succeed.

Indeed, if I have one complaint about the film it’s that we don’t get to see more of Killmonger’s backstory. If we’re being completely honest here, Andy Serkis’s criminal mastermind Klaue is a bit of a distraction that could have been dispensed with in order to give us more time to learn about the tortured psyche of this film’s compelling antihero (I use that term rather than villain quite deliberately). While we do get some suggestive scenes of Killmonger’s backstory, more attention to his specific experiences as an African American would have allowed his personal philosophy–as tortured and destructive as it is–to have more heft within the film.

But let’s face it: the real stars of this film are the black women: T’Challa’s lover Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), his general Okoye (Danai Gurira) and his sister Shuri (Letitia Wright). These are some of the most kickass female characters to grace the silver screen, and they own every second of it. Can we talk about the fact that the elite corps of  Wakanda is comprised of women so powerful that, in one of the film’s climactic clashes, they can only be overcome with the use of war rhinos? And can we talk about the fact that finally (finally!) there is a young woman of color who is shown to be an acknowledged tech wiz (and a kickass warrior to boot)? And can we also talk about the fact that we have a woman of color who is a spy on the order of 007 himself?

And let us not forget Angela Bassett. While she doesn’t have a very large role in this film, she nevertheless grants some further grace and gravitas to the proceedings. She is also a pillar of strength for both her son and the kingdom at large, a reminder of the fundamental role that women play in Wanakda.

This film, like so much of Hollywood–and of superhero films in particular–offers up a utopian sort of pleasure. As Richard Dyer has outlined it, utopia provides imaginary solutions to the problems and shortcomings of everyday life in capitalist modernity, providing intensity, energy, community, transparency, and abundance. All of these are clearly on display in Black Panther, whether in the form of Wakanda’s phenomenal wealth or the scenes of action that sweep us up in their intensity. What’s more, Hollywood encodes into its form a sensibility that one can take action, that one’s body has the ability to transform one’s lived reality. Of course, for many of us we take that for granted, even as we acknowledge our own bodied limitations.

One can see this sensibility in the film’s sinuous cinematography that lifts us free of the mundane burdens of the regular world, but it also emerges in the stunning feats of action. T’Challa has strength that is both innate and also buttressed by his suit, and this allows him to move through the world–and to mold it–in ways that are denied those of more pedestrian origins. The fact that it is a man of color whose embodied agency controls the narrative makes its utopian pleasure that much more intense.

Black Panther is also utopian in terms of its reception. While there have been some who have (rightfully) critiqued the film’s politics, there have been just as many who have seen in it exactly the sorts of utopian pleasures that have long been explicitly offered to white audiences. There is something profoundly joyous about simply seeing so many beautiful black stars in one place, in a film that has been buttressed and funded by one of the most powerful entertainment conglomerates. Tempting as it is to wring our hands at the perils of being incorporated into the gears of mass entertainment, we must also acknowledge the profound emotional resonance such representation has for those who consume it.

It is my sincere hope that Marvel, Disney, and all of the Hollywood studios recognize what should have been obvious for quite some time now: it is indeed possible to make (financially) successful films that center on the experiences of nonwhite people will at last find the representation they deserve.

Hollywood, are you listening?