Hell Or High Water

A rewatch. Not quite as enjoyable on the small screen second time round, but I still enjoyed lots all the same. For example: the way the story is constructed, most of the performances, the occasional doses of humour, the cinematography and the way that the camera pans along the land, the way it subtly and continually explores racism and other social issues, the moody original score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. (****)

My Life As A Courgette

Simultaneously released as My Life As A Zucchini in the US, this wonderful stop-motion animated film by Swiss director Claude Barras is based on Gilles Paris’s autobiographic novel Autobiographie d’une Courgette, the adapatation coming courtesy of French writer-director Céline Sciamma, among others. Sciamma has proven to be a very sympathetic chronicler of childhood travails, and continues her excellent writing run here, bringing to life a number of troubled young characters within a short space of time – in fact the film is just over an hour long. These kids live within an orphanage and include within their number newly-arrived ‘Courgette’, whose parents have passed away; we also meet Simon, whose cruel aunt wants to take him out of the orphanage, and another newcomer, Camille. The film feels like an antidote to all the bright, fast, busy and colourful animated movies that seem to do so well at the box office these days, treating both its younger and older viewers with respect, and slowing the pace down to properly get to grips with the characters and their differing situations. It’s heart-warming, moving and subtle, and includes a disco scene that is just brilliant. (****)

I Am Not Your Negro

A fascinating, Academy Award-nominated documentary by Raoul Peck about the life and times of writer, critic and activist James Baldwin, based partly on his unfinished manuscript Remember This House. The film gets to grips with Baldwin’s life (at least the mainly public-facing side of it), and observations on and role within the African-American Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, occasionally underscoring his words with modern footage of the Black Lives Matter Movement. It’s a powerful piece that is put together very well by Peck and his editor Alexandra Strauss, who weave in archive news depicting racism towards black people, racist TV and film footage and Baldwin’s 1960s TV interviews, conducted with largely clueless white hosts who are sadly struggling to understand what all the noise is about. A suitably restrained and low key Samuel L Jackson narrates. (****)

Snowden

Oliver Stone’s biopic details Edward Snowden’s post-college rise within the ranks of the CIA and the NSA, his relationship with partner Lindsay Mills and the moment when, in 2013, he blew the whistle on his employer’s illegal mass surveillance operations. It’s a well-known story, and the main problem with the film is its predictability: if you know about Snowden or you’ve seen Laura Poitras’s excellent documentary Citizenfour – which covered Snowden during his initial time in the eye of the storm – there are only a couple of presumably fabricated incidents here to really give you a frisson of extra excitement, unless you count being surprised by a Nicolas Cage appearance as ‘thrilling’.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt does quite well in the lead role, emphasising Snowden’s techy geekiness throughout, but also doing that thing where he looks a bit blank behind specs, meaning you’re often not really sure what he’s thinking. (To that end, surely he’s perfect for one of those android or robot roles that Jude Law and Fassbender have tried out for size.) Opposite the lead, Shailene Woodley gets short shrift as Lindsay, whose conversations with Ed are only ever about his work and how his work is impinging on their relationship; surely there must be more to a relationship between a couple who have been together for so many years and who remain together today, during Snowden’s elongated stay in Moscow. She gets to talk about her own photography work once or twice as Stone seeks to convince us (and fails) that this character is modelled on an actual person.

Other cast members fare worse. As Poitras, Melissa Leo is only ever required to utter a few words of kind, mumsy encouragement to Snowden while he’s holed up in a Hong Kong hotel, revealing his information to the world. Zachary Quinto plays journo Glenn Greenwald, and it’s no exaggeration to state that a piece of cardboard could have been inserted in his place and the film wouldn’t be any worse off, while Tom Wilkinson fares slightly better as the Guardian’s Ewen MacAskill, trumping all by coming off as being slightly believable. Elsewhere you’ve got a couple of scenes with Cage overacting, Rhys Ifans as a mentoring CIA bigwig and LaKeith Stanfield in yet another minor role, this time as one of Snowden’s fellow NSA operators. Stone tries to cover up the thin supporting characterisation with occasionally exciting sequences, such as Snowden’s escape from Hong Kong, but the fact is this has little of the intrigue and tension of Poitras’s documentary, which grappled with the ethics of journalism and filmmaking extremely well, revealed much about surveillance -and security, and presented a fascinating glimpse into the mundane realities surrounding an international media storm, among other things. There are some flashy computer effects and reflections of screens and the like here, to stop the mind from wandering, but this all seems a little dated now. Overall it’s a mixed bag: not awful, but a rote Hollywood thriller, and your tolerance for it will probably depend on how much your political views align with Stone’s; he has little-to-no time for anti-Snowden arguments. (**½)

The Birth Of A Nation

The controversy surrounding the release of Nate Parker’s slave uprising drama The Birth Of A Nation, which saw rape charges that were made against the writer-director-star-producer in 1999 resurface in the media, somewhat undertsandably overshadowed the picture itself, which is earnest, well-intentioned and brimming with anger, but sadly also full of awful stylistic choices. Reclaiming the title from DW Griffith’s 1915 KKK propaganda piece, the film tells the story of Nat Turner, who led a 19th century slave rebellion in the American south. It covers similar ground to last year’s McConaughey snoozefest The Free State Of Jones, albeit importantly this time from a (still unusual, unfortunately) black perspective, with the focus largely upon black characters rather than a white saviour. Perhaps a better recent comparison with regard to the period and subject matter covered would be Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave, though Birth‘s terrible, cheesy musical choices and on-the-nose dialogue mean that the two are poles apart in terms of quality. Like Jones, Parker’s film suffers from a certain torpor that it can only briefly break out of with scenes of intense violence or suffering – which are harrowing and every bit as uncomfortable to sit through as they should be, for numerous reasons – or via one of Turner’s well-delivered biblical monologues. He is good at times, and as the director he ensures that we’re nearly always watching a close-up of his anguished face as he delivers his speeches or watches as punishment is meted out to others, but some supporting cast members crumble under the weight of the material, most notably Armie Hammer, who on this evidence probably ought to stick to the lighter stuff. Overall this is an uneven film and a mixed bag; it’s an admirably well-staged piece in terms of its sets and costumes, but it would have benefitted no end from Parker taking a step back and handing directing duties over to someone else. (**)

The Love Witch

Anna Biller’s kitsch debut is a camp, witty, feminist faux-giallo, which looks beautiful, is occasionally very funny indeed (witness the two male police officers who discover a used tampon in a jar and have no idea what it is) and is well-acted, with all of the cast members successfully tapping into the spirit of the piece by delivering deliberately wooden performances. Biller also designed and made the costumes, which are superb, and the sets, which are evocative of late-60s America. Bright, breezy and simple, and also very enjoyable, providing you’re willing to buy into the lovingly-recreated retro style and tone. (***½)

Blue Is The Warmest Colour (La Vie d’Adèle – Chapitres 1 & 2)

Abdellatif Kechiche’s Palme d’Or-winner was presumably going to get a ‘part 2’ at some point, or rather the ‘chapitres 3 & 4’ that the original French title promise. Having finally caught up with the long first installment of this French realist drama I would love to see what happens next to its main protagonist, and am hopeful that we’ll get an expansive, Truffaut-esque serial, though given apparent on-set troubles between the filmmaker and his cast and crew it seems sadly unlikely at this stage.

Controversial upon release in 2013 because of those rifts but primarily on account of its graphic sex scenes, most of which feature teenage student (and later teacher) Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos) and slightly-older art student Emma (Léa Seydoux), Blue Is The Warmest Colour is more about Adèle’s life than the pair’s relationship – though that’s still a big part of the story – with Seydoux taking more of a back seat during the first and final acts. When we first meet Adèle she is at school: quiet, a little bit shy, but still managing to experiment with girls and boys as she explores her sexual identity. She has changed by the end, in the sense that she is now a professional teacher, who wants children of her own, and she has been in love with a lesbian; her identity as a bisexual woman is seemingly more clearly-established, too, the writer-director teasing a possible burgeoning relationship with actor-turned-estate agent Samir (Salim Kechiouche) during the final moments. If I can conveniently leave personal clashes and stories about working conditions aside for a moment, Kechiche is a fine director, using the titular colour well throughout, and working several recurring motifs into the narrative – hair, food, for example – that subtly reveal personal development and shifts in time. It’s superbly acted by all the cast members, but particular mention must go to the two leads, who bravely tackled the sex scenes and deliver believable, complicated characters, helped though they are by an excellent script. Even if we do not get to see any more of Adèle in the future, at least the two stars have made their names, and at least this film exists. (****½)