If Beale Street Could Talk: Movie Review.


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Only 48 hours ago my wife and I belatedly watched the Oscar-winning Moonlight (a very odd choice for the best movie Oscar in my opinion), also written and Directed by Barry Jenkins.  Today we saw Jenkins’ follow up. Across the two movies it’s notable that Jenkins doesn’t do ‘action’,as both are glacially paced.  He also doesn’t do white actors.  There are none at all in Moonlight and only 3 or 4 in Beale Street.

Visually, Beale Street is stunning.  Jenkins is not left down by his cinematographer, James Paxton, who was also shot Moonlight.  This has moments of jaw-dropping beauty, and in Kiki Layne and Stephen James he has two faces that make for simply beautiful close ups.  In creating a love story Jenkins has certainly cast a couple that you truly believe are besotted with another, and that is both sweet and charming.

The movie also boasts am excellent soundtrack that has an epic central theme and a great deal of jazz to create mood where dialogue is in short supply.

But the movie is letdown by a pretty unengaging story, some very dense dialogue (it’s famine or feast in that respect) that is virtually indecipherable in places and central performances by the star struck lovers that are more lovely than moving.

The only performance that, for me, leapt off the screen was that of the mother of Kiki Layne, Regina King.  It is nuanced, engaging and powerful and she deserves the recognition she is getting.

This is a year of huge black movies: Black Panther, BlackkKlansman, Green Book and this, all of which have been heavily nominated at The Oscars and BAFTAs.  Of the four through it’s only Spike Lee’s terrific KKK movie that does it for me.

It’s slim pickings in the best movie department in 2019.  Roma is a terrible bore, The Favourite is excellent, but is Lanthimos’ third best feature.  For me the movie of the year is Cold War with The Favourite and A Star is Born close behind.  Not this, that’s for sure.

The Death of Grass by John Christopher: Book Review.


I finished this short Penguin Modern Classic (written in 1956) in the cafe of the National Library of Scotland and as I climbed the stairs to the reading room I spotted this incredibly apt advertisement for one of the Library’s WWI exhibitions.

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It’s apt because the book is about a group of people seeking a ‘land of milk and honey’ in the aftermath of a global disaster wherein all of the grass on the planet (and therefore food for all the ruminants we eat) dies.

It’s a post-apocalyptic vision about environmentalism that is indeed, as the cover suggests, prescient.

It was written in the Cold War era where nuclear annihilation was a real and present danger and the future of civilisation genuinely threatened.  Indeed, one of the government’s strategies to deal with the loss of cereal crops is to drop ‘atom bombs’ on all of Britain’s cities in a bid to wipe out half the population and leave the rest, post-apocalypse, to live on fast-growing and nutritious potatoes, other root vegetables and pigs.  (The impact of nuclear fallout radiation was neatly overlooked as a potential flaw in this strategy.)

It’s a novella really, easily consumed in rapid order and although it suffers terribly from the rather proper vernacular of its time, it’s great.

It’s institutionally racist and terribly, terribly sexist, not to mention class-biased and awfully niaive.  You won’t find a single bally swear word in its entire 194 pages, although you will find murder, rape and underage sex.

Nonetheless, if you forgive its ‘product of its times’ flaws it is an undeniably clever book, a good yarn and a pretty scary (and strangely believable) vision.

It has precursors of Cormac McCarthy’s, The Road (it’s essentially a road trip from hell to heaven) and chimes with The Lord of The Flies as it speculates on who would take control in times of martial law and civilisation breaking down.

I have to say I galloped through it, chuckling at times at the dated language.  It’s even more of a museum piece in that respect than Dickens, but it’s a compelling read and I recommend it, flaws and all.

Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance: Book Review


6dd2691efe3dd93d052f16345fe4364badd03c26-book.jpgI wanted to like this ‘ornery Joe memoir.  I really did.

It started reasonably well with a recounting of JD’s childhood in Hillbilly country; Ohio and Kentucky specifically and in the Appalachian Mountains precisely.

Brought up in a small town called Middletown known locally as Middletucky, because it’s ‘in the middle of Kentucky’ this is a story about JD’s remarkably impoverished childhood with a narcotics abusing mother, a hugely aggressive grandmother and a series of stepdads.  It’s not easy.

JD had an unremarkable schooling largely due to the string of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) that he had to endure. But several stars aligned to help him escape this awful childhood, firstly his grandparents, then the marines, then college and finally an unlikely entry to Yale where he studied law and walked into a high level job.

So it’s got to be a can’t put down page turner, right?

I’m sorry to say it isn’t.  The early momentum that Vance establishes gradually turns into a bit of a lecture about poverty, lack of opportunity and just downright dull storytelling.

It needs judicious editing because even though it’s not very long it becomes a Groundhog Day read with endless reploughing of the same old furrow.

By the end I was bored to tears and most of my sympathy had deserted me.

I can’t recommend this, although the sentiment is admirable.

Also, the front cover puff suggests insights into both Brexit (Brexit? It’s set in Rust Belt America) and Trumpism.  Trump isn’t even mentioned.

 

 

 

BlacKkKlansman: Movie Review. A spike Lee Joint.


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Kaboooooooom!

That’s the sound of Spike Lee returning with a bang.

Lee’s work has been lean pickings for me since his heyday in the late 80’s and early 90’s with movies like Do the Right Thing and She’s Gotta Have It.

But the rest of his cannon (maybe through ignorance on my part) has failed to engage me.

But this almost nails it.

My one overall criticism is that, at times, I’m not sure if Lee wants to make a comedy or a searingly monstrous docu-drama.

For me the hate he brings to the screen out punches the comedy 10:1.

Two characters in the movie should have been booted into touch: both are lampoons and detract from what is otherwise a great whole.  These are the hate-filled racist local cop (Officer Clay Mulaney) and the KKK sidekick Ivanhoe (Paul Walter Hauser – hilarious in a similar slapstick role in I Tonya, but misplaced here).

They are minor distractions but become grit in your eye, detracting from the overall menace and subtle humour surrounding a subject that is far from humorous.

What Lee does with this is face up, full on, to the endemic prejudice that fuels the police force and the local white population in small town Colorado.

He creates a sense of time and place that is authentic and cool man. As you would expect from a Spike Lee Joint the black cast are dealt most of the best hands, but Adam Driver (as a Jewish cop – only one step removed from being black in this chapter of the KKK’s eyes) performs an excellent supporting role as the white man who infiltrates the KKK on behalf of his black colleague (John David Washington).

You’ll know the plot constuct by now so I won’t bore you with that.

What makes it a great movie is the sense of time, place and politics, the soundtrack and the unflinching ability of Lee to capture the racist poison that is encapsulated in the performance of Jasper Pääkkönen as Felix Kendrikson; by far the most committed and cynical of the Klansmen.  And yet it is underpinned by nice comedic moments (other than the slapstick I described earlier).

There’s a scene in which the Chapter watch a screening of Birth of a Nation where, although underpinned by some humour, that hatred really does come across compellingly.  It’s chilling.

It’s a great (true) story that is extremely well told.

At times the cinematography is truly outstanding – in particular the scene in which a visiting black political speaker (Kwame Toure, played by Corey Hawkins) addresses the local black student population.  Lee creates a montage of faces from the crowd that echoes Queen’s seminal Bohemian Rhapsody video but so stylistically and handsomely that it’s art on screen for just a few fleeting moments.

It’s seared on my mind.

Recommended.

The Favourite: Film Review.


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I am a big, big fan of Yorgos Lanthimos whose two previous deadpan comedic features (The Killing of a Scared Deer and The Lobster) are outstanding movies.

The feature of both of these movies is Lanthimos’ extremely black humour delivered in a unique style.

However, for The Favourite Lanthimos has taken a big decision in abandoning the scriptwriting and handing the duties over to Deborah Davis (her debut) and Tony McNamara (lots of minor TV but no cinema history).  It’s  strange choice of writing team because they don’t bring any previous to the mix, and neither are fresh-faced youths.  But what they bring is an entirely different tonality to Lanthimos’ work and that leaves him to focus on direction, with cinematography provided by Robbie Ryan, who made a big contribution (in my view) to American Honey.  Indeed, the cinematography is a major talking point after the writing.  Gone is Lanthimos’ naturalistic, almost clinical, lighting of the Lobster and “Deer” instead, although we again go au natural, it’s through a gloom of candle and fire light that renders the screen largely black for a great deal of its 2+ hours.

His frequent choice of extreme wide angle (almost fish eye) lens to capture the scale of the huge palace rooms is highly unusual in cinema and is much more like stills photography. One scene, shot in a long corridor, makes it look like a u-bend when in fact it is completely straight – unlike the principal characters!

But the real meat here is this terrific all female star line-up.  In the #MeToo era this is a real vote of confidence in female actors with attitude and sheer quality.  Come March it is entirely possible that all of the leads; Olivia Coleman (national treasure that she is), Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone will be career Oscar winners because Coleman’s performance is quite brilliant.  The other two already hold this distinction and each has a good chance of adding to their trophy haul.

Although, As Queen Anne, Coleman (who gained 2.5 stone top play the gout-ridden Queen’s part) is the designated lead the film is essentially a three player ensemble with some ineffectual men put into bat to be made to look ridiculous and, oh, they do in Sandy Powell’s outrageous costumes and Beverley Binda’s even more outrageous hair and make up.  (“You look like a dead badger’ Weisz tells the Queen as she sets out on a royal engagement.)

The story echoes All About Eve as Queen Anne’s favourite lady in waiting, and lesbian lover, Lady Sarah Marlborough, The Wife of the Duke of Marlborough who is leading the war with France, is gradually pushed out of favouritism by one time lady and now servant girl, Abigail (Emma Stone).  Although she does not go without  fight.

This is where the scriptwriting team get the nod to create a bawdy and vicious rivalry set in a Draughtsman Contract-esque world.

Overindulgence, poisoning and illness leads to all three leads vomiting at least once each, reflecting this world of excess.

The music track is at times intrusive, but to my mind in a good way; it’s a sort of early 18th Century version of Atticus Rose and Trent Resnor’s soundtrack to The Social Network.

What everyone is talking about is the lead performances. Each is supremely talented and each is given so much scope to truly flex their acting muscles that what results is an acting master-class.  In the trailer it seems like a knockabout farce but in reality the movie is actually quite slow paced with moments of true hilarity and enough foul language to shock some of our more prurient audience members.  That said, my wife who abhors the C-word volunteered that it was used to great effect several times in this.

The lesbian relationships Queen Anne enjoyed are worthy of note. In a life that saw her lose 17 children (5 still born and many miscarried) her tipping of the velvet was, apart from a bulimic relationship with food, one of her few pleasures.  Both Lady Marlborough and Abigail are adept in their duty to pleasure their monarch.

Coleman comes steadily into her own as the movie progresses.  The first half belongs to Rachel Weisz, Emma Stone plays a beautifully judged and paced part in which she will do anything to get ahead but in the end it’s Coleman who wins the day with the last 20 minutes belonging to her as she suffers the vagaries of her life.  Her portrayal of Queen Anne as a stroke victim is as good a performance as you will see anywhere this year.

It’s a fascinating movie, although I’m not convinced it’s quite as good as its hype.  That said, for lovers of history and lovers of Olivia Coleman it has to be seen.

 

 

 

 

 

The Passion of Harry Bingo. (Further dispatches from unreported Scotland) by Peter Ross: Book Review.


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Had it not been for my good friend Tim Maguire I would never have stumbled across this wonderful anthology of odd little stories from the underworld of Scotland.  By underworld I don’t mean seedy, just slightly off the beaten track.

The titular hero is a fan of Partick Thistle. (Glasgow’s third football team – the one that people who don’t support football support – actually you might argue that it’s the one that people who DO support football support, because ‘The Jags” don’t come with the baggage of the Old Firm.)

Harry Bingo is 97 and has supported The Jags since 1945 – his passion.

The stories are written in a peculiar style, impossible to replicate, the best I can describe them tonally is a like like a reverential Scottish Louis Theroux.  I like Theroux, but some of his documentaries are seriously taking the piss out of his oddball cast of characters.  Peter Ross has similarly collected together people that at times could be mocked for their unorthodoxy, but while Ross writes with a twinkle in his eye that never turns into a sneer.

We meet a Sikh Pipe Band, The Burry Man, a man that protects the River Clyde dragging the bodies of the dead ashore, a wall of death rider, a bunch of bitchy (butchy) drag queens, The Naked Rambler, The Clavie King and we visit circuses, poultry shows, sex shops, car boot sales ,The Barrowlands Ballroom and the World Crazy Golf Championships.

Each short story, 5 to 10 pages long, sets up an indelible image, some familiar – most not – of characters that care deeply about something in their life – it may even be their job.

In places it is laugh out loud, but never mockingly, we laugh WITH these wonderful people.  The people that make up the rich tapestry that is Scotland’s culture.

They were all commissioned by Scotland’s leading newspapers, mainly Scotland on Sunday but also The Guardian, The Big Issue, The Times and The Herald.

They are little nuggets of Scottish gold.

Go read.  I have a signed copy!

 

Suspiria: Film review.


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I was thrilled to see the original of this movie by Dario Argento at Summerhall in Edinburgh during this year’s Fringe with the original score performed by Goblin, live on stage.

It was a great experience but, in my view, it’s an overhyped movie with little to recommend other than the astonishing score and the remarkable cinematography in its vivid, over-saturated colour.

The film itself is pretty unremarkable.,

But it was enough to tempt me into seeing the remake which is, in my view, much more remarkable.

It’s an incredibly odd follow on from director Luca Gaudanino’s “Call Me By Your Name’ – a touching and sentimental coming of age gay romance set in Italy and starring the incredible Timothy Chalomet.

This leaps genres like I’ve rarely seen a director do.

Gaudanino’s remake has none of the zing of the original, indeed the colour palette is quite muted.  It’s also dull throughout as a result of the endless rain (then snow).

It’s set in 1977 West Berlin with the Baader-Meinhoff (RAF) gang in full flow and providing a sinister backdrop to what is already a sinister movie.

Guadanino casts Dakota Johnson (50 Shades of Grey) and a malevolent Tilda Swinton brilliantly, but I also liked the performance of Mia Goth as Johnson’s best friend in a crazy dance school.

The award winning dance school that Johnson seeks and gains entrance too after a remarkable audition is actually a witches coven and Johnson appears to be the next sacrificial lamb to the God the witches worship.

But it’s not that straightforward.

It’s a long, slow, considered movie with an inevitable Sixth Act (yes it’s presented in six acts) denouement that’s a fantastic gore-fest.

The movie is getting mixed reviews and I understand that.  It’s really slow.  It’s arthouse not shock mall theatre.  If you want Halloween forget it.

But it’s great.

Really well directed and acted and Thom Yorke’s score is great although less intrusive than Goblin’s.

Recommended.