Hidden Figures

NASA prides itself on showcasing the brightest boffins the world has to offer, all working together to push human endeavour beyond what was once thought possible. In “Hidden Figures”, the task is to put a man into orbit – something never before attempted – and then bring him safely back to Earth (the latter part proving to be the trickiest). But this is not the only task that NASA faces in “Hidden Figures”, which is based on the true story of the contribution African-American women made to the 1960s U.S. space programme. NASA also has to realise the corrosive effects of segregation and discrimination, and realise the enormous benefits – both moral and scientific – of giving women and people of colour a seat at the briefing table. From this, everyone benefits: women, men and science. And yet, no matter how daunting the task of safely putting a man into space is, solving institutional discrimination back on Earth sadly appears every bit as arduous – if not even more so.

This is partly what makes “Hidden Figures” such an interesting movie. It’s a candied (but candid) story of three African-American women working for NASA in the early 1960s. They are Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) – all geniuses in their respective fields, continually having to work twice as hard for half the credit. NASA’s goal is to send a man into space before the Russians, which accounts for the dramatic stakes of the movie. As everyone knows, however, America loses this race – at least the first part of it. The Russians win the first leg by sending Yuri Gargarin into orbit in 1961, much to the chagrin of the U.S. government. Sadly, this won’t be the only time the Russians undercut an in-office Democratic president.

What’s interesting is that Russia in the early ‘60s was ahead of the United States not just in aeronautical terms, but also in giving women a chance to shine. Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space in 1963. America wouldn’t get round to sending Sally Ride into space for another 20 years. In Russia between the years 1962 and 1964, women accounted for 40 percent of all PhDs awarded in chemistry. Meanwhile back in the United States, that statistic was only at five percent. The irony of NASA’s endeavour becomes clear in “Hidden Figures”. NASA’s vision, as stated on its website, is to “reach for new heights and reveal the unknown”, claiming it does so “for the benefit of mankind.” Except, as “Hidden Figures” shows, in its formative years NASA did so by neglecting more than half of it.

As a film, “Hidden Figures” is a bit of a contraction; at least in its presentation. On the one hand it’s a very “Hollywood” movie. It hits all the feel-good beats, is a bit too formulaic and cheesy, but ends up being a really enjoyable, wonderfully rousing crowd-pleaser. But then, contradictorily, it also couldn’t be further from a typical “Hollywood” movie. The reason being, of course, that Hollywood rarely has black women at the centre of its films; let alone three smart, extremely capable black female scientists. What’s more, not only do we see these women as chalkboard superheroes and numerical ninjas, constantly displaying their mathematical prowess, but we also see them simply hang out, flirt and be themselves. They also do not engage in any stereotypical bitchy rivalry that a movie, such as this, would often necessitate. They are friends and they are supportive of each other’s progress; and we as audience members love being in their company.

The three central performances are all terrific. And each of the characters could easily have warranted their own standalone movie. They are an excellent on-screen trio, bouncing off one another’s distinguishing characteristics. The script by Allison Schroeder and director Theodor Melfi, however, is not striving for originality or artistic inventiveness. Therefore to criticise it for failing to do so seems harsh. Instead, “Hidden Figures” simply sets out to tell a remarkable story in a clean, entertaining fashion. And there’s something enormously satisfying about seeing a well-told story with a clear moral centre and a strong emotional payoff.

The second scene of the film is a great example of its crisp efficiency. It’s the scene where we first meet our three central characters. (In the first scene we see Katherine as a child prodigy, but this is the first time we see her as Taraji P. Henson.) The three women are by the side of the road after their car has broken down. We see Dorothy underneath the car, screwdriver in hand, trying to fix it. The rapport between the three women is immediately evident. They have wonderful chemistry together and the scene unfolds with a police car pulling up behind them, introducing tension (black women, white cop, the 1960s, the American South – not a welcoming combination). Not only does this scene brilliantly and efficiently establish these three characters – their mannerisms, their friendship, their differing personalities – but it also sets up many of the film’s themes as well. The three women use their talents to persevere in spite of their unfortunate circumstances. By the end, things are moving in the right direction and the women have gained enormous respect (albeit from those whose opinion on such racial and gendered issues matter a great deal less). As a visual metaphor, however, it’s clever storytelling; and it neatly encapsulates the film.

But there are moments when “Hidden Figures” feels like it goes too far. Kevin Costner plays Al Harrison, Director of NASA’s Space Task Group. He’s the sort of guy that doesn’t seem to care if you’re a man or woman, black or white. All he wants is for you to crunch the numbers and crunch them on time. But this leads to plot points that, although structurally significant, seem pretty implausible. For instance, Katherine has to endure endless belittling treatment from the Space Task Group: constant patronising, measly “coloured” coffee, and 40 minute bathroom breaks on account of the “coloured” bathrooms being half a mile away. Having stayed silent for so long, she finally speaks out. And, in doing so, gives Costner his big moment. Costner righteously grabs a crowbar (yes, a crowbar) and repeatedly whacks the “coloured bathroom’s” sign until it comes tumbling down… Couldn’t you have gotten the janitor, Kevin?

The film is full of little moments like this, although perhaps not quite as extreme – moments punctuated by the film’s sometimes annoyingly jovial soundtrack. Towards the end of the film, the creative licensing starts to creep in again for dramatic effect. But again, it feels too forced. There are too many characters running around with folders pressed to their chest trying desperately to pass them on to the right people before take-off. In reality, this wasn’t exactly the case. But then again, it’s a Hollywood movie… What’d you expect?

There isn’t a great deal of visually interesting storytelling going on in “Hidden Figures” – which is a shame considering how effective the rest of the storytelling is. However, one visual touch that works rather brilliantly (aside from Janelle Monáe’s killer outfits) is the way the film shows how out of place these three women are with respect to their surroundings. Almost everyone working at the high end of NASA is male. And they are all white. They all look white, and they all dress in white – that traditional mid-century office look of white short-sleeved shirt and tie. As a result, everyone at NASA looks the same. They all blend into one big white establishment. And the colour scheme of the interiors is also deliberately very muted and grey.

Now cue Taraji P. Henson entering this environment. She is a black woman, colourfully dressed, entering into a white male world. This immediately makes her the most striking thing on-screen. And every white head turns as she walks by. In doing so, her conflict at NASA is directly represented by the conflicting colours on-screen.

Most of the film revolves around Katherine’s point of view. However, Janelle Monáe risks walking away with the movie. Her character Mary was the first black female engineer at NASA, and shines every time she’s on-screen. However, Octavia Spencer has perhaps the hardest part to play among the three women. Her character Dorothy does not have the big emotional scenes that Katherine and Mary have. Hers are much more nuanced. But the relationship between Dorothy and supervisor Vivian Michael (played brilliantly – as one would expect – by Kirsten Dunst) is the most interesting relationship in the whole movie. It’s remarkably delicate given the film’s fairly unsubtle approach.

Vivian is a bigot. But Dorothy never lectures her or gets any big “movie moment” to set her straight. Instead their relationship plays out much more authentically; something which feels a lot closer to reality than any crowbar-swinging from Costner. One of the best scenes in the film is when Vivian looks Dorothy in the eye and earnestly says, “Despite what you think, I have nothing against y’all.” As has been evident throughout though, this obviously not true. But Dorothy does not lose her temper. Instead, she quietly and respectfully replies, “I know… I know you probably believe that.” It’s a brilliant, underplayed exchange – one that’s sadly still relevant to today as it was back then.

Despite its sugary delivery, “Hidden Figures” still manages to be wonderful entertainment. But what elevates it above most films of this sort is that it sheds light on a much larger issue. Not just in terms of Hollywood’s representation of African-Americans, but in terms of its representation of women too. When people think of NASA during the ‘60s, most do not picture black women contributing to its cause. Yet they did – significantly so. “Hidden Figures” is celebratory in tone, yet its lasting impression is to make one ask the question: How many more hidden figures are out there? How many more stories have yet to be told? How many more women that made significant contributions to science were forgotten or overlooked because of institutional sexism. The answer is, of course, plenty: women like Rosalind Franklin, Jocelyn Bell Burell, Lise Meitner and countless others – all of whom endured discrimination simply for being a woman; all having to put up with men exclusively being awarded for discoveries they were absolutely integral to.

“That’s just the way things are.” This line is heard over and over again in “Hidden Figures”, and is always directed towards black women by white people to justify racism. But the movie shows that accepting “the way things are” flies in the face of true scientific endeavour. For instance: man cannot travel to space. For millennia, that was just the way things were. But science challenges that notion. And “Hidden Figures” shows that that restrictive way of thinking benefits neither science nor the voices it chooses to neglect. NASA’s ultimate vision is to benefit all of mankind. But believing “that’s just the way things are” in situations involving blatant discrimination means that, no matter how many small steps man takes, mankind will never take a giant leap forward.

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The Importance of Being Ernst

This week sees the 125th birthday of director Ernst Lubitsch. If you don’t know who that is, here’s why I think you should:

“Germans aren’t funny.” You hear this cheap crack all the time. A bunch of ruthlessly efficient, incredibly rational hardworking pragmatists – but ask them to tell you a knock-knock joke and you might as well be watching an Adam Sandler movie. In 2011, a poll was conducted in which more than 30,000 people from 15 different countries were asked to rank the nations with the worst sense of humour. Germany came out on top (or bottom, depending on how you look at it), thus furthering the stereotype that many countries appear to believe: that German comedy is no laughing matter.

Except that, like most stereotypes, it’s completely and utterly bogus.

I give you Exhibit A: Ernst Lubitsch – the man that, according to no less than Jean Renoir, “invented the modern Hollywood.” Lubitsch was a comic genius, an artist, a maverick, a sophisticate, and yes: a German. He was truly a man of infinite jest. And he made films of infinite zest.

The writing process can be a punishing one. Lots of writing can create lots of writhing. To aid this process, and act as a constant source of inspiration, the great Billy Wilder had a saying. While working on a given project, be it a film noir or a screwball comedy, he often asked himself the same question. So imperative was this question to his screenwriting process that he, in fact, had it mounted above his office door. It simply read, “How would Lubitsch have done it?”

Lubitsch was Wilder’s hero. Wilder once said that Lubitsch “could do more with a closed door than most directors could do with an open fly.” For Lubitsch, as Wilder well knew, was a supreme craftsman; and one that also enjoyed great commercial success in his day. He was the golden boy of Hollywood’s Golden Age. And his gilded sheen never dulled. Lubitsch specialised in witty, sophisticated comedies; often poking fun at the upper classes and those in power. As a director, he had an incredibly deft hand. His style was nimble and unexpected; sharp and refined; it was instantly recognisable, and always very funny. As a result of this gentle filmmaking flourish, his films were often marketed as having “the Lubitsch touch”.

The Lubitsch touch is a touch of class. It’s easy to appreciate; impossible to replicate. Instead, one can only bask in its sizzling, sunlit perfection: the subtle touch of an off-screen master. This can be found all over films like “Trouble in Paradise”, “Design for a Living”, “To Be or Not to Be”, “The Shop Around the Corner”, “Heaven Can Wait” and “Ninotchka” – all of which are some of the greatest American films ever made. And I believe Mr. Billy Wilder would thoroughly agree. (Speaking of Wilder, here he is talking about “The Lubitsch Touch” at the AFI Harold Lloyd Master Seminar in 1976. Unsurprisingly, he explains it brilliantly.)

One of Lubitsch’s finest films is “Trouble in Paradise”, a delightfully dazzling Pre-Code rom-com about a gentlemanly thief (Herbert Marshall) and a crafty pickpocket (Miriam Hopkins) that decide to con the famous perfume manufacturer, Madame Colet (Kay Francis). It is an extraordinarily flirtatious film. Its characters candidly flirt with one another for practically the entire running time. And the film candidly flirts with perfection. Like so many of Lubitsch’s films, it is crisp, breezy, superbly sophisticated, and every bit as exquisite as the day it was made.

Another Lubitsch masterpiece is “To Be or Not to Be”, a movie about a group of actors in Nazi-occupied Warsaw that get caught up in a plot to track down a German spy. The film stars Jack Benny as the star of a Polish theatre company, alongside Carole Lombard who plays his wife. Lombard was one of the century’s greatest comic actors, and this was sadly her last movie before her tragic untimely death. But Lombard’s death wasn’t the only thing seen as untimely. Released in 1942, the film, too, was greeted with cries of “Too soon!” The New York Times wrote that the film was “callous and macabre”, and it performed terribly at the box office. But today, “To Be or Not to Be” is seen as one of Lubitsch’s best works. And rightly so. It is easily one of the funniest films ever made and true testament to the genius of its director.

What made Lubitsch so special, among many things, was his sense of mischief. His films are littered with adult themes, hinted at through sly visual humour and witty, playful gags. But his films never ventured into smuttiness. If there is such a line that divides smut from genius, Lubitsch never crossed it. But, especially with the advent of the Hays Code, he did sometimes walk it. And for that, I will always love him.

So why does nobody talk about Lubitsch anymore? Is it so hard to acknowledge that a German is responsible for some of Hollywood’s greatest comedies? German comedy is some of the greatest in the world. (Critical darling “Toni Erdmann” is one of the most acclaimed comedies in recent memory. And guess what – German.) Ernst Lubitsch was one of the most famous directors of the 1930s, yet today very few have even heard of him. It’s such a shame. Or, as the Tangerine Tyrant would say, “Sad!”

So this week, in honour of his 125th birthday on Sunday, stick on an Ernst Lubitsch movie. Stick it on and marvel at his German genius, his wicked wit, his supreme sophistication and, of course, that gloriously gifted, tremendously talented touch.

Ooh, La La

Warning: This contains some spoilers of “La La Land” and is best read after seeing the film.

Disclosure: I really, really like musicals. I love their Technicolor splendour; I love their gorgeous artistry; I love their unabashed joy and their heightened sense of tragedy. I love the costumes, the dance numbers, the elaborate set designs and the smart, witty dialogue. I get a ridiculous kick out of watching Fred and Ginger hoofing all over Art Deco sets, and I swoon like nobody’s business over Cyd Charisse using her legs the way a painter uses a brush. And the music – Ah, the music!

I La- La- love it.

The collaboration of song, dance and narrative storytelling amounts to a near perfect form of entertainment. And, in terms of cinema, musicals allow for the communication of a character’s internal thoughts – a genius way of getting around one of cinema’s biggest constraints, allowing characters to express feelings that dialogue never can. The songs, too, have the difficult task of having to propel the story, define characters and establish motivations; as well as being catchy and altogether musically interesting. In other words, it’s not easy. But when done well, there are few things like it.

And so, with that in mind, I come to “La La Land”, the new glitzy, glamourous musical from writer-director – and all-round whiz kid – Damien Chazelle. And if I’d fallen any harder for this film I’d probably have gotten a concussion. “La La Land” feels like it was made especially for me – every beat, every note, every nod, every frame. Remember that scene in “Sherlock Jr.” where Buster Keaton walks up to the screen in a movie theatre and literally falls into the movie? That’s exactly what I wanted to do while watching “La La Land”. I so desperately wanted to jump into the picture and dance in the purple-orange twilight with its stars Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling.

What can I say? I’m gaga for “La La”. It’s a gorgeous love letter to Old Hollywood, written in beautiful longhand and signed off with a ruby-red lipstick-marked kiss. It’s an ode to those that dare to dream – as foolish as they may sometimes seem. It’s a song to the hearts that ache; a raised glass to the messes we make. To the dreamers, the risk-takers, the romantic fools and the starry-eyed artists – here’s to them all. But “La La Land” is also a truly remarkable example of pure cinema – a trait shared by all great on-screen musicals. Many of the great movie musicals strike a balance between simplicity and complexity. And “La La Land” is a very simple story made with impeccable craft and extreme technical sophistication; but never so much so that it feels like it’s favouring technique over story.

Mia (played brilliantly by Emma Stone) is a young aspiring actress hoping to get her big break in Hollywood. But, due to the cruel nature of Hollywood auditions, we start to wonder what will happen first: will Mia break into the movies, or will the movies break Mia? After a string of cute encounters in which the pair start off hating each other (a little nod to the old Astaire and Rogers movies of the ‘30s), Mia eventually falls in love with Sebastian (charmingly played by Ryan Gosling): a gifted, if slightly snobbish, jazz pianist who dreams of running his own club. These may seem like characters from dozens of other musicals (and in a sense they are), but that’s partly the point. “La La Land” plays with traditional musical tropes and audience expectations; in a sense deconstructing “the musical” whilst always paying homage to it.

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling have never been better than they are here. Their chemistry is undeniable. They feel like an Old Hollywood pairing. Sure, their dancing is not going to trouble the legacy of classic hoofers like Gene Kelly or Eleanor Powell, and their singing isn’t exactly Marni Nixon or Ethel Merman, but it’s not supposed to be. “La La Land” is trying for something different; something more authentic and “real” than pitch-perfect vocals and immaculately executed tap dancing. Their far-from-perfect skills highlight the pair’s adorable, bumbling humanity – ordinary people set against extraordinary backdrops.

This, I feel, is because the film is pitched somewhere between a classic MGM-style musical from the ‘50s and a more melancholic Jacques Demy musical from the ‘60s. This balancing act is also reflected by the film’s structure. The first half is very MGM. The second half is very Demy. Together they complement each other beautifully, wonderfully setting up the film’s finale – a stunning “An American in Paris”-style dream sequence that is, quite simply, one of the most rapturous pieces of modern American cinema I’ve seen in a long time.

The film owes an enormous debt Demy; particularly his masterpiece, “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg”: a sumptuous, vividly coloured French operetta – and a film that boasts the best wallpaper in cinema history. No really, it does. But there’s also a little bit of “The Young Girls of Rochefort” in there too. (If you haven’t seen these two Demy films, incidentally, I urge you to check them out – particularly if you enjoyed “La La Land”. They really are spectacular.)

What “La La Land” manages to do so well – and why it works so well as a piece of cinema – is that it makes the camera (and, by extension, the audience) another dancer in the movie. Mandy Moore’s choreography is deliberately designed with the camera in mind. It gives the film a sophisticated fluidity that many modern musical films lack. In other words, it’s a film made by people who love and understand musicals – primarily Chazelle, a man that clearly adores Old Hollywood; evident by his littering of the film’s background with nods and references to (and even iconic faces of) classic American cinema. But, as represented by the closing of the Rialto cinema, and all the talk surrounding the death of jazz in the film, Chazelle is also keenly aware that the worlds of Humphrey Bogart and John Coltrane are sadly fading away.

The film’s cinematography, by Swedish DP Linus Sandgren, is exquisite. Almost all films are shot in colour these days. But very few films actually use colour to help tell their story. The colour palette of “La La Land” is beautiful, and is begging to be appreciated on the big screen. It was shot on 35mm, giving it that rich scintillating quality that only good old-fashioned celluloid can provide. And, coupled with the film’s ample use of the “magic hour” to capture L.A.’s famous dusky glow, it makes for a genuinely magnificent visual experience.

Colour is also an important aspect of wardrobe, of course. And the costumes in “La La Land” are glorious. Emma Stone’s beautiful flapper girl-style dresses change in accordance with the seasons. The changing seasons provide the structure of the film, but they also cleverly reflect the changes in Mia and Sebastian’s relationship. In winter, when they first meet, it’s a cute, but cold, encounter (lots of car horns and middle fingers). In the spring, however, their relationship takes root and starts to grow. In the summer, it is in full blossom. But come autumn, it starts to fall apart.

The irony of a seasonal structure is not lost on Chazelle, given that the film is set in L.A. – where sunshine is as common as palm trees and Priuses. This is delightfully addressed in the film’s spectacular “Winter” opening number, entitled “Another Day of Sun”: a stunning, one-take dance routine wherein the camera swoops and swirls all over a Los Angeles freeway. The film pokes fun at L.A. by incorporating the one thing all of its residents associate with the city – traffic. It takes one of the most famously irritating aspects of L.A. and turns it into a mesmerising, intricately staged singsong. I would call it a showstopper were it not for the fact that the show’s just getting started.

However, all of my soppy gushing over “La La Land” is probably best ignored if you don’t like musicals. The film is most certainly not going to be to everyone’s taste. In fact, due to all the adulation it’s been receiving, the inevitable “back La- La- lash” is starting to gain traction. Some of the complaints labelled against “La La Land” are worth noting, however; particularly this well-argued piece by Morgan Leigh Davies for L.A. Review of Books. And although I agree with many of the criticisms brought up, I still cannot, and will not, deny the giddy internal flutter I felt the whole way through this film.

As they say in “Guys and Dolls”: “So sue me.”

There’s a scene in the film where Mia is discussing her one-woman play with Sebastian and she’s worried that people mightn’t take to it. “It feels really nostalgic to me.” “That’s the point” says Sebastian. “Are people going to like it?” Mia asks. Sebastian looks her in the eye, grins and says “Fuck ‘em!” And with that, Chazelle is effectively telling his audience the same thing. If they’re not on board with the film, if they think it’s too nostalgic, too indebted to the past, or too sentimental, then, well, fuck ‘em.

And to be honest, when it comes to musicals, I’m siding with Chazelle on this. I tend to have zero time for people that don’t like musicals. If you’re the kind of person that watches “Singin’ in the Rain” and doesn’t feel like “laughing at clouds” by the end of the picture, or doesn’t “walk down the lane in a happy refrain” whenever the lights come back up, then I have nothing more to say to you.

People who don’t like musicals? Ugh – If I may slightly tweak a quote from Lina Lamont, “I cayn’t stand ‘em.”

There’s a moment in “La La Land”, not far into the film, where Mia and Sebastian are strolling through a film studio backlot discussing acting and jazz. They stumble across a movie set, beautifully lit and gorgeously arranged. Mia smiles blissfully, turns, and walks out of the frame. As she does so she lets out a nostalgic sigh: “Ah, I love it.” That tiny, beautiful little moment is how I felt the whole way through “La La Land”. You know… The sort of feeling that makes you want to grab an umbrella, leap on a lamp post and belt out “What glorious feeling; I’m happy again.”

The Best Films of 2016

2016 sucked. “I know it. You know it. We all know it”, as the Orange Menace said. Prince died, Brexit happened, and a petulant 70 year-old man-baby won the U.S. presidential election by lying, harassing women and gluing his finger and thumb together when he spoke. Beneath this man-baby’s (very) thin skin lies another, smaller, version of himself. And another one beneath that. And another. And another… It’s a common trait among Russian toys.

The Oxford English Dictionary’s word of the year for 2016 was “post-truth”. God. Remember last year when it was literally an emoji with tears of joy? Those were the days. Now it’s Samsung’s screaming emoji with a ghost flying out of its mouth.

In our new post-truth world, experts are seen as “elitist”, Nazis are called the “alt-right”, and the dissemination of fake news is a legitimate, real-life problem and not just some ominous plotline from a George Orwell novel. (The latter case being partly due to many red baseball cap enthusiasts getting their “news” from – shall we say – non-traditional sources? You know… renowned sites like batshitcrazyrightwingpropaganda.com and hillaryclintonisthedevil-nolikeliterallythedevilwithhornsatailandeverything.org.)

But that’s 2016 for you. It may perhaps become short-hand for “terrible” for years to come: “Dear God, the Greek salad over at Trump Grill was just awful. I mean it was, like, 2016-bad.”

Movie-wise, this year was a little better. Although I don’t think it was an especially stellar year. Sure, there were good films here and there, but, rather aptly, many of the best films I’d seen this year were in fact originally released last year. They just didn’t get round to opening in the U.K. until this year. And, in the strange, elusive tradition of movie distribution, most of the films that critics are calling the best of 2016 won’t come out over here until… yes, 2017. Among them are “Moonlight”, “La La Land”, “Silence”, “Toni Erdmann”, “Elle”, “Jackie”, “Manchester by the Sea”, “I Am Not Your Negro”, “Cameraperson”, “The Fits” and “The Handmaiden”. All of which I haven’t seen. And it’s killing me.

To be honest, movie culture in general was a bit up and down this year. Well mostly down. Sort of like the pound ever since 23rd June. Back in January there was anger at the Oscar nominations for being whiter than Donald Trump’s electorate. Then, in the spring, a bunch of sad, moaning misogynists started bitching about talented women starring in a “Ghostbusters” remake. ‘It’s just that “Ghostbusters” was such an important part of my childhood,’ they cried, failing to see that they were still living it, having never actually grown up.

The summer didn’t fare too well either this year. The U.K.’s economy started plummeting, Theresa May became Prime Minister, and people started to wonder whether they’ll soon have to add the word “Supremacist” in between the words “White” and “House”.

Annoyingly, however, the summer movies weren’t much of a saviour. Sadly they were really rather poor – so poor in fact that, along with meagre box office turnouts, it prompted many to ask the question that gets mandatorily chucked around every couple of years or so: “Are movies dead?” Well I, for one, sincerely hope not. But then again, what with all the nifty work Death has been doing with celebrities these days, one cannot be too sure.

Nevertheless, that all isn’t to say that there weren’t some wonderful films over the past twelve months. There were; each one, in its own way, reminding me why I adore the movies. And there were one or two films that proved to be simply sensational. Here are a few films released in the U.K. and Ireland this year (in alphabetical order) that, for me, made 2016 a little more bearable and a little less rotten.

a-bigger-splash

A Bigger Splash

Dir: Luca Guadagnino

Sunshine, rock ‘n’ roll, sex and booze. Set in a picturesque volcanic island off the coast of Sicily, “A Bigger Splash” is about a mute rock star (Tilda Swinton) and her lover (Matthias Schoenaerts) having to entertain two unexpected guests in their Italian resort. The guests: a very loquacious Ralph Fiennes and a very salacious Dakota Johnson. Swinton commands the screen with her raspy whispering and cool-as-hell eye shadow, while Fiennes frolics about naked and never shuts up. The scene in which he dances in the sun to The Rolling Stones’ “Emotional Rescue” is a particular highlight. It’s a cool, seductive quasi-thriller that reeks of the cool, seductive sensibilities of 1960s European cinema.

anomalisa

Anomalisa

Dir: Charlie Kaufman

Charlie Kaufman is a master. He’s a sort of geographer of the mind. He explores the human condition like no other filmmaker and presents it on-screen in the most lyrical, idiosyncratic way imaginable. “Anomalisa” is his latest project – and it’s another treasure. It’s a bitter-sweet tale of loneliness and the banality of existence gorgeously brought to life by incredible, intricate puppetry and sophisticated computer trickery. It’s both deeply moving and very, very human. And any film that references “My Man Godfrey” with as much wit as Kaufman does here is a win in my books.

Chi-Raq

Chi-Raq

Dir: Spike Lee

Spike Lee’s “Chi-Raq” is one of the most original – and one of the most daring – films of the year. It’s a messy, sprawling update of Aristophanes’s “Lysistrata”, re-appropriated to Chicago’s modern-day violent south side – with dialogue almost exclusively in verse. It’s a commentary on gang violence in America, but also on the Black Lives Matter movement, police brutality and feminism. It’s been a while since a Spike Lee joint was this bold, this boisterious, this sexy, and this urgent. (For full review, see here.)

creed

Creed

Dir: Ryan Coogler

“Creed” is a rousing reboot/sequel/spin-off of the Rocky franchise. Coogler’s film comes out fighting, throwing all the right japs and landing every punch. It’s a brilliantly directed and wonderfully acted film; but one that’s thoroughly and unashamedly a “Rocky” movie. It boasts all the boxing clichés (the training montage, the step climbing, the “I gotta prove myself” narrative) but it does them all so incredibly well that it never matters. It’s old school storytelling done with contemporary style. And it’ll stir your emotions like few other films this year.

de-palma

De Palma

Dir: Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow

This documentary about filmmaker Brian De Palma – the enfant terrible of the ‘70s Movie Brats – proved to be one of the most pleasurable viewing experiences of 2016. I spent most of the doc simply swooning over De Palma’s craft, thinking to myself, “God, movies used to look like this.” How can you not when you’re greeted with clips of “Carrie”, “Blow Out” and “Carlito’s Way”? (Not to mention the Hitchcock films that inspired him.) This is a rare opportunity to see the man himself discuss his work. And he and his career make a strongly compelling subject. Essential viewing for movie nerds.

divines-2

Divines

Dir: Uda Benyamina

This fiery French flick from director Uda Benyamina concerns two Muslim teenage girls that start selling drugs for a local gangster to escape the horrors of poverty and the emptiness of school. The girls, Dounia and Maimouna (fantastically played by Oulaya Amamra and Déborah Lukumuena), are a pair of defiant, determined rebels from the Parisian slums – rebels that dream of living the high-life. They are often seen swaying, flicking imaginary bills from their palms, shouting “Money, money, money!” Together they make the sweetest, most heartfelt on-screen duo of the year. The film will charm you, move you, and devastate you.

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Green Room

Dir: Jeremy Saulnier

I saw this film at the Belfast Film Festival way back in April. I saw it with a packed audience, all geared up and eager to see what Jeremy Saulnier’s latest has in store. Would it pack a punch? Would it be as gripping as “Blue Ruin”? How is Patrick Stewart going to fare playing a neo-Nazi (ahem, sorry – “member of the alt-right” blah, blah, blah)? The answers were as follows: “Yes”, “Yes” and “With terrifying effectiveness.” “Green Room” is a smart, gnarly film about a rock band battling a gang of white supremacist punks in the American Northwest. It grimly depicts a world where neo-Nazis emerge from the shadows and take up arms for battle – in hindsight, a sad, prophetic signal of political things to come.

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The Hateful Eight

Dir: Quentin Tarantino

This sprawling, claustrophobic western from Tarantino proves that he’s still one of the best filmmakers around. It’s a great example of a modern director understanding and exercising sheer cinematic craft. Aside from your Spielbergs and your Scorseses – who are maybe the best in the world at it – more often than not you have to look to the Far East for contemporary examples stellar craft (see Wong Kar-wai, Park Chan-wook and Bong Joon-ho). But Tarantino can hold his own. His camera becomes another character in his films. And, in “The Hateful Eight”, his camera follows a group of resentful, despicable characters all cooped up in a tavern during a bitter snowstorm. But duplicity and (inevitably) bloodshed are on the horizon.

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The Invitation

Dir: Karyn Kusama

Possibly the most disturbing film of the year. Karyn Kusama’s brilliantly pessimistic film about a dinner party gone wrong has remarkable parallels with today’s political climate – and not in a fluffy, everything’s-going-to-be-all-right kind of way. Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi’s screenplay is smart, darkly funny and extremely tense. It wonderfully captures the aching sense of paranoia in a way that only the best screenwriting can. It also contains one of the most memorable final shots of any American film in years.

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The Neon Demon

Dir: Nicolas Winding Refn

This hypnotic, gorgeously shot feature from Nicolas Winding Refn stars Elle Fanning as an aspiring model looking to break into the L.A. fashion scene. But, being a Refn film, the plot isn’t important. Visual metaphors and vividly rendered symbolism are where his interests lie. And boy is it vividly rendered. Argentine cinematographer Natasha Braier frequently captures her subjects bathed in a devilish neon light – deliberately aloof characters that stiffly stare into space like shop window dummies, revelling in their own icy narcissism. It’s convulsive, it’s pulsating – it’s part satire, part black comedy – and the whole thing feels like a particularly beautiful (but also particularly horrible) dream.

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Sing Street

Dir: John Carney

An unabashedly joyous film from Irish writer-director John Carney, the man who brought us the 2006 indie musical “Once”. “Sing Street” revolves around a 14 year-old kid in 1980s Dublin who forms a band to escape the miseries of school life and the splitting up of his parents. But it’s also to impress a girl. (Actually, it’s mainly to impress a girl.) The songs are glorious little pop records, incorrigibly accompanied by the band’s amateur attempts at making their own music videos. If this film doesn’t leave you smiling, you have no heart. It’s that simple.

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13th

Dir: Ava DuVernay

This DuVernay documentary draws fascinating parallels between the mass incarcerations of African-Americans in the U.S. to the 13th Amendment of the nation’s Constitution. More specifically, it argues that a clause within the 13th Amendment (which prohibits slavery in the U.S.) stating “except as punishment for a crime” allowed for the lawful continuation of slavery into the 21st Century. The doc forces us to take a deep look – or rather, a long, hard stare – at the history of the American prison system, and how it is – and has always been – a direct reflection of the country’s history of racial discrimination.

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Victoria

Dir: Sebastian Schipper

The tagline of this film pretty much sums it up: “One girl. One city. One night. One take.” The girl is Victoria (Laia Costa), a young Spanish woman who gets involved with a few local guys on a night out. The city is Berlin. The night is one in which the boys are told they must commit a bank robbery to appease a local crime boss – and Victoria slowly gets sucked in. The one take is a gimmick, but it’s pulled off with incredible skill and becomes remarkably effective. It’s employed because the story necessitates it, making the film more than just an impressive technical achievement.

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World of Tomorrow

Dir: Don Hertzfeldt

This animated short became available on Vimeo back in January, roughly the same time it became available to stream on Netflix in the U.K. It’s about a little toddler, Emily Prime, who is taken on a tour of her own distant future by Emily, a future version of herself. It’s barely 17-minutes long, yet it packs more creativity, more insightfulness and more laughs into those 17 minutes than pretty much any other film this year. Developed by the wickedly talented Don Hertzfeldt, it is (perhaps unsurprisingly) a true marvel of animation. It may be slight, but, for me, it’s probably the film of the year.

A couple more certainly worth checking out: “The Nice Guys”, “Don’t Breathe”, “Love and Friendship”, “Hail, Caesar!”, “Hunt for the Wilderpeople”, “Hell or High Water”, “The Witch”.

Chi-Raq: a Review in Verse

Note: This review was originally written for Banterflix (see here) in conjunction with the film’s December 2016 UK release.

 

Chi-Raq is a film that captures our time,

A sprawling, crazy tale of black-on-black crime;

A messy, sometimes confounding, minor masterpiece

That sees Aristophanes’ “Lysistrata” applied to war on the streets.

It’s an angry retelling of the ancient Greek play

About a woman seeking peace in an unorthodox way.

She rallies all women to refuse sex towards men

In pursuit of peace on the streets – no more killing again.

Lysistrata’s demand is simple, but not so easy,

Yet her cry gains momentum: “No peace, no pussy!”

 

We begin with an overture: “Pray 4 My City,”

A rousing anthem inducing terrible pity

As Nick Cannon describes a city that’s falling apart;

A siren, a call, a desperate cry from the heart.

To the music, the lyrics are printed in time,

Then Sam Jackson turns up and starts speaking in rhyme.

Sam plays Dolmedes, the dapper Greek Chorus,

Narrating a tale that cannot possibly bore us.

 

Two gangs are at war – the Trojans and Spartans –

Shedding black blood on the streets causing the city to darken;

Two sides blinded by gangsters and glory

Gun each other down like some cruel West Side Story.

Wesley Snipes plays Cyclops, leader of the Trojans,

With anger and lust as his primary emotions.

Nick Cannon plays Chi-Raq, leader of Spartans,

Who shares the same name as the place where disheartened

Families have to sit and watch loved ones die;

But not a witness comes forward, not a soul testifies.

 

Teyonah Parris plays Lysistrata: a bad-ass chick;

A confident, sexy, self-assured feminist

Who knows what she wants, is never sycophantic,

Breathing dynamic new life into this bawdy Greek classic.

Inspiration for action comes from Angela Bassett,

From which Lysistrata focuses on one particular facet

With which to rid the streets of suffering and agony.

Her plan: a form of regimental chastity.

 

Chi-Raq is gorgeously shot and impressively staged,

Boarding on the silly and tragic in bold, daring ways;

Often as surreal as Buñuel and as funny as Chappelle,

Who turns up in a night club to give the Trojans hell

For driving all of his showgirls away

In one of many hilarious examples of the stellar screenplay.

 

Chi-Raq, spoke almost entirely in verse,

Is the tragic nickname of a place with worse

Crime than America’s Middle Eastern affairs;

But when the poor at home are murdered, who cares?

More Americans are killed in Chicago than Iraq

And most of those killed are young men who are black,

Thus Chicago and Iraq form a portmanteau

Creating “Chi-Raq”: a war zone in South Chicago.

 

Jennifer Hudson is a mother grieving her child,

An innocent schoolgirl that always wore a cute smile

Until a stray bullet flew and caught her left eye:

Killed on the street for being a passer-by;

Killed without her mother getting to say goodbye.

But her mother isn’t going to just standby,

She is not going to see her little baby girl die

In vain for the pain that these killers have caused,

For the dozens of innocent black lives lost;

So she tirelessly works to see that justice is done,

To have this man behind bars, to stop this killing with guns.

 

Theatrical sequences litter the movie:

Some hot and spicy, some bizarre and some goofy.

But all are urgent, they burst with vitality,

Sometimes blurring the line between fantasy and reality,

For this sumptuous satire is such a sensation

And one of the most original films I’ve seen in ages.

It will anger some, perhaps even offend a few

After tackling subjects that may seem taboo,

But Chi-Raq is a gem and should not be missed

So please check it out – no honestly, I insist.

 

Yes the film’s bold, brash and undeniably preachy,

But it’s done so well that it’s a testament to Spike Lee’s

Direction and skill – he’s at the top of his game,

Creating a film deserving of almost every of acclaim:

A film that is biting and with serious sting

And his very best film since Do the Right Thing.

 

It’s a sprawling, messy sensational movie,

Aspects of which are of staggering beauty.

Never once is it boring, bland or chaste,

Though admittedly it won’t be to everyone’s taste,

But this is Spike Lee at his best, resurrecting his voice;

And I, for one, am delighted – I expect you, too, to rejoice.

So welcome back Spike, but please, I beseech you:

Stick around a while – because America needs you.

 

“Chi-Raq” is released in the UK on 2nd of December 2016

It’s U.S. vs Them. But It’s Not the End.

Donald Trump is a virus. He is the embodiment of the very worst humanity has to offer. He is a pompous, self-aggrandising buffoon with as much charm and sophistication as a pubic louse. He is the result of our culture’s obsession with celebrity, its glorification of power, its male-privileged pomposity, and its sick, endearing admiration for the mega-rich and famous.

But this U.S. election was more than a choice for president. It was a choice of identity – America’s identity. In the end, it chose intolerance over inclusion, rage over reason and division over diversity.

How will parents break this to their kids? How will people that raised their children to “never insult others”, “reject racism and bigotry”, “work hard, be prepared and do your homework” – how will they look their kids in the eye and say a man that represented the very antithesis of every value they hold dear just became the most powerful person on the planet?

And what of his opponent?

Hillary Clinton – the most organised, the most prepared, the most calm, measured and judicious candidate in my lifetime (and by far the most qualified) – just lost to a man with zero experience, zero preparation and zero intellect.

Yes. A former First Lady of Arkansas, former First Lady of the United States, former New York Senator and former Secretary of State just lost the 2016 U.S. presidential election to a former steak salesman and reality TV star.

This is what sexism looks like. This is what misogyny looks like. Just when a woman was about to (finally) shatter the glass ceiling and become the first female U.S. president – providing perhaps the most important symbolic feminist victory of this young millennium – Trump manages to mend all the cracks and order a thicker sheet of glass.

To recap (because it has been a lengthy slog of an election and is worth taking a step back):

The man who wants to ban Muslims from entering the country; the man who wants to build a wall on the Mexican border; the man who calls Mexicans “rapists”; the man who bragged about sexually assaulting women; the man who was accused numerous times of sexual harassment; the man who refers to women as “dogs”; the man who doesn’t pay his taxes; the man who deliberately courted white supremacists; the man who won the endorsement of the KKK; the man who thinks Climate Change is a hoax and was “invented by the Chinese”…

This man…

This boisterous, bloviating, bigoted, blow-hard bully is President of the United States.

Let me be clear: I am not saying that everyone who voted for Trump is a racist. It would be wrong and impertinent of me to claim that. But consider this: Everyone who voted for Trump supported a racist. Everyone who voted for Trump validated a racist. And everyone who voted for Trump elected a racist.

This is a bitter pill to have to swallow.

But be optimistic. Be hopeful. It may seem impossible right now, but we must. This morning, Gloria Steinem said “Today is a vote against the future. But the future is going to happen anyway.” She’s right.

I am not American. However, this far-right reactionary movement is sadly not unique to the U.S. – in fact it is much closer to home than I’d care to imagine. But this is why I say “we” and not “you”. Because we are all in this together. Which is why we must keep fighting. We must never give up. We must be kind and we must be caring. And we must go high when they go low.

“This loss hurts,” Hillary Clinton said in her concession speech to a room full of mournful supporters, “But please, never stop believing that fighting for what’s right is worth it.”

Hear, hear Hillary. Hear, hear.

Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

The best kind of horror shows horror in the ordinary. It turns the everyday into a nightmare. Roman Polanski’s seminal 1968 classic “Rosemary’s Baby” does exactly that. It is a psychological masterpiece that exposes the fear in one of life’s most common, most arduous, and most natural processes: pregnancy.

Conceptually, pregnancy is terrifying. It’s why horror is full of it (“Alien”, “The Omen”, “Inside”, “The Fly II”, even “Twilight”). During pregnancy your body begins to change. Your emotions begin to swing. You become the host of an entirely other being inside of you – a creature, a thing; one that’s growing, feeding, kicking, waiting.

Of course when this is your own child you usually let all that slide. But what if it wasn’t? What if it’s something else? What if it’s not even a human being that you’ve been carrying and nurturing inside of you all this time? It is this fear that “Rosemary’s Baby” taps into; the fear every mother has for the well-being of her child. All children can act like monsters. All children can be little devils. But what if your child really is a monster? What if your child really is The Devil?

Rosemary Woodhouse embodies all of these fears. She’s magnificently played by Mia Farrow as a blue-eyed, innocent first-time mother, sporting Vidal Sassoon hair and an increasingly cadaverous face. Her husband Guy (played by John Cassavetes) is a struggling actor waiting for his big break to come along. He wants it bad. And he puts his own wife’s life in danger in order to get it. The movie’s star performance, however, comes from a scene-stealing Ruth Gordon. She plays a nosy neighbour from hell whose pushy prying on the Woodhouses seems genial at first but instead stems from insidious intent.

Rosemary and Guy are newlyweds. We first encounter them as they’re moving into their new Manhattan apartment. They get to work settling in and settling down. After feathering their nest, Rosemary decides that she wants a baby. But creepy cults and satanic rituals are brewing (literally) right around the corner. And they have plans for Rosemary.

Once Rosemary becomes pregnant, the film darkens. It introduces an awful sense of paranoia, positing the notion that everyone – her neighbours, her doctor, even her own husband – are in on some malevolent satanic plot. They’re all conspiring against her and her baby. There isn’t anyone she can trust. The feminist underpinnings of “Rosemary’s Baby” allow for some of its most cutting and incisive commentary. The film is essentially about the difficulties of pregnancy: the pain and unreasonable expectations that pregnant women are often subjected to. In one scene, a gaunt and pallid Rosemary throws a party and invites a few friends. But her friends (all of whom are women) can immediately see there’s something wrong with Rosemary. So what do they do? They give her advice. They try to help her. They listen to what she has to say.

Contrast this behaviour with the men in the film. Rosemary, who clearly looks unwell, is told repeatedly by men that she’s fine. The paleness: “it’s natural”. The pain: “to be expected”. The depression: “part of the process”. In other words, “Rosemary’s Baby” is a film about a woman who’s constantly being told by men that she doesn’t know what’s best for her own body. Particularly by her own husband.

The symbolic role of the “husband” in “Rosemary’s Baby” is both darkly comic and horribly pointed. In her 1968 review of the film, Pauline Kael wrote that “Pregnant women sometimes look at their men as if to say, ‘What did you do to me?’ Rosemary… has reason to wonder.” In other words, plainly speaking, it’s the husband’s actions that ultimately lead to his wife’s pregnancy. He’s the one to “blame”. He’s the one that brought upon this hardship. Yet it’s his wife that must endure it – not him. “Rosemary’s Baby” knows this. The film is well aware of the inequity of childbirth and plays with that notion in devilish ways, such as showing how it is Guy (not Rosemary) that ultimately profits from a woman’s own labour, a woman’s own efforts and a woman’s own body.

But what makes “Rosemary’s Baby” truly unsettling is that the villains of the piece are all friendly smiles and neighbourly gestures. They are the people you let into your home without a moment’s thought. The people you trust most in the whole world. Again: Horror in the ordinary. Horror in the everyday.

“Rosemary’s Baby” is masterfully directed by Roman Polanski, working from a script adapted from Ira Levin’s bestseller. Every shot in the film is from Rosemary’s perspective. Every moment is spent with her. Every beat of her panic, vulnerability and terror is felt. There’s no escaping it. We are always right there with Rosemary; inside her head, and by her side – every cloven-hoofed step of the way.