Recent Viewing #13

Author: The JT LeRoy Story (Feuerzeig, 2016): This is a fascinating story of an infamous literary ‘hoax’: acclaimed author and late-90s literary sensation Jeremiah ‘Terminator’ LeRoy supposedly had an upbringing that involved prostitution and vagrancy, which informed several short stories and novels, but he was in fact the brainchild of a writer named Laura Albert, whose own upbringing differed to that of JT’s; on top of this, Albert’s sister-in-law Savannah Knoop appeared in public as JT for several years, becoming a bit of a darling within artistic circles – (s)he received the famous ‘Bono Talk’ at one point – and entering into brief relationships with the likes of Michael Pitt and Asia Argento, who would go on to make a film based on one of LeRoy’s books. The eventual ‘unmasking’ of JT around a decade ago caused a fuss within the literary world and also led to acrimonious court cases, though the reaction and recriminations discussed here seem more than a touch extreme. After all, authors have used pseudonyms or pen names for millennia and artists today – within many countries, anyway – are free to experiment with identity and gender fluidity. The documentary does lean heavily towards Albert for a point of view, though, and not those parties angered or let down by the whole episode to the extent they felt cheated and ready to litigate. It’s an engaging watch, but the style of the opening half hour is much busier than the rest of the documentary, so it’s a little uneven. And, quite predictably, Courtney Love appears at the exact point that you’re thinking ‘I bet Courtney Love shows up in this any minute now’. (***½)

The Sugarland Express (Spielberg, 1974): Steven Spielberg’s second feature-length film is a warm-hearted chase movie, but oh my god there are soooooo many cars on screen, and the action rarely deviates from the highways of Texas, so it starts to become a bit of a drag long before the end is in sight (unless you like watching a series of seemingly endless shots of vehicles and asphalt, in which case knock yourself out). Goldie Hawn is good, though, and Ben Johnson stands out among the sea of otherwise interchangeable cops chasing her and her on-the-lam hubbie. (***)

the-wizard-of-ozThe Wizard Of Oz (Fleming, 1939): Well I’m not going to go up against popular opinion; there’s so much to love about Victor Fleming’s 1939 film and it’s all so well known I suppose there’s not much point in me repeating any of it here – but hey, I will anyway. The songs are iconic and the performances are excellent, particularly Margaret Hamilton as the Wicked Witch of the West, who is one of the truly great screen villains. The explosion of colour that occurs is one of the single most joyous moments in cinematic history, and the sets are beautifully-designed. Also, I challenge you to name a weirder film. This one has a talking lion, flying monkeys, a man made of metal, a revolving all-seeing flying disembodied head, magical shoes, an army of ‘munchkins’ (who, by all accounts, liked to party) and a mass heroin overdose (sort of). It makes David Lynch look like the fucking Dardennes. (*****)

Saving Private Ryan (Spielberg, 1998): I’ve been on a bit of a Spielberg kick of late, just because… well, I don’t ever want to take him for granted. At some point I’ll have to get round to two very, very famous and highly-respected films by the director that I’ve never seen – clue: it’s not 1941 and Hook – but a rewatch of Saving Private Ryan was long overdue; in fact this is the first time I’ve seen it since it was on the big screen in the late 90s. Of course it holds up, and there’s barely anything wrong with it, though I was surprised to find that Matt Damon’s acting in the third act leaves a lot to be desired. I’d forgotten Ed Burns was in it (whatever happened to… etc. etc.), and also that there are brief appearances by Ted Danson, Paul Giamatti and Vin Diesel. Bryan Cranston’s there, too, according to IMDB, though I completely missed him. Anyway… it’s still one of the best modern-day war movies, with its visceral battle scenes, not least the recreation of the D-Day landing and the final, intense firefight. (*****)

26-southsidewithyou-w750-h560-2xSouthside With You (Tanne, 2016): A slight but charming walking-and-talking movie that chronicles the (day-long) first date shared by Barack and Michelle (Robinson) Obama, played here by Parker Sawyers and Tika Sumpter respectively. Linklater’s Before series is an obvious touchstone, though there’s added historic interest here and a completely different cultural landscape, which informs the dialogue throughout; the most intriguing scene comes after the couple watch Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing at a cinema and discuss the film with a white and senior fellow lawyer outside, who subsequently undermines Michelle’s position as a young, ambitious, black, female professional. It’s a smart and likeable film, and as you’d expect both characters are written as intelligent, conscientious, switched-on and mutually-respectful individuals. Alas, that means no nookie, at least until someone decides to make Southside With You 2: The Long, Hot, Sticky Summer. (***)

I Saw The Light (Abraham, 2016): A drab and dreary biopic, which is a shame, as its subject Hank Williams was by all accounts anything but. There’s clear effort by Tom Hiddleston in the lead role and Elizabeth Olsen supporting, with the former even performing his own take on Williams’ hits, but when the screenplay isn’t up to scratch what can realistically be expected of the actors? The film flopped and barely made any of its budget back, and though it isn’t awful by any means I’m not surprised that audiences stayed away. (**)

mean-streets-stillMean Streets (Scorsese, 1973): Famously Martin Scorsese blew half of his budget on the soundtrack – those doo-wop and Brill Building hits keep on coming throughout the film, dovetailing with grander classical numbers – so part of the appeal of Mean Streets is its cheapo roughness, caused partly by the depleted funds; the handheld camera is used because the director couldn’t afford to lay tracks down for smoother movement, though of course this enabled Scorsese to ape the jittery, freewheeling style that informed much of the French New Wave 10 or 15 years earlier. It also suits the nervous energy of the low-level mob hoodlums here perfectly. One of my favourite scenes is the one where Keitel’s Charlie stumbles drunkenly through a bar, the camera fixed to his chest, looking up as the actor sways around. There are others: De Niro’s an electric presence as the unpredictable liability Johnny Boy, and pretty much every passage in which he kicks off an argument or fight is gold. You could say there’s a heavy-handedness in terms of the inclusion of all the religious iconography, and the way the film incorporates themes of salvation, Catholic guilt and forgiveness, but overall it’s a superb gangster film that finds the pulse of the street, though much of it was filmed in LA, despite the fact it’s regarded as a quintessential New York movie. It crackles with wired energy, and over time its director has bettered it on a number of occasions, but it still holds up today. (****½)

La Loi Du Marché (The Measure Of A Man) (Brizé, 2016): Sharing similar ground with Ken Loach’s Cannes-winner I, Daniel Blake, as well as the current wave of European social realist cinema more generally, Stephané Brizé’s The Measure Of A Man follows Vincent Lindon’s out of work machinist as he takes on a new role as a supermarket security guard, subsequently entering into a moral quandary when he is forced to deal with broke shoplifters and rule-breaking members of the minimum-wage staff. It’s a slow, ponderous film and sometimes it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, but I can see it appealing to anyone that likes quiet, understated Euro drama. Several scenes do seem to go on and on, but some, such as the ones that incorporate supermarket CCTV footage, are at least soporific and oddly watchable. Brizé has gone for a completely different tone to Loach, and admittedly I prefer the latter’s combo of humour and simmering anger: I found too much of this film a tedious drag to sit through. (*½)

06chi-raq1-master768Chi-Raq (Lee, 2016): As with Woody Allen, the phrases ‘a return to form’ or ‘a return to former glories’ seem to be bandied about with every new Spike Lee release, and in fairness there are times during Chi-Raq when the sheer force of the director’s righteous ire or the quality of his wit and wordplay would back-up such a suggestion. The story – set in Chicago and dealing with gang-related murder – is based on the classical Greek comedy Lysistrata by Aristophanes, in which a group of women band together and decide to abstain from sex to force their male partners to wage peace, rather than war. The dialogue, though delivered in a classical Greek style, has mostly been brought up-to-date, and though some of it doesn’t quite come off ultimately you have to admire Lee and co-adaptor Kevin Willmott’s talents and bravery as writers: to attempt this, and for some of it to actually work, requires considerable skill. There’s plenty of energy in the delivery of these lines, and during the big song-and-dance numbers, especially from Teyonah Parris as the film’s heroine Lysistrata; I enjoyed the ridiculously over-the-top turns by Nick Cannon and Wesley Snipes as warring gang leaders Chi-raq and Cyclops too. Elsewhere Samuel Jackson pops up frequently as a one-man Greek chorus (sic), which is similar in its effect to his earlier role as a DJ commentating on proceedings during Lee’s Do The Right Thing, while John Cusack looks a little nervy playing a white church leader. It’s a shame, then, that some of the lines are clunky as hell (and really not particularly funny), while the film never quite manages to tread the line between broad comedy and tragedy successfully: Lee follows up the heavy-hitting image of a mother scrubbing her dead son’s blood off the pavement with fast-flowing repartee of a decidedly lighter nature, for example, and includes throwaway silliness such as a scene in which Isiah Whitlock Jr is wheeled out to briefly repeat the funny, signature line that belonged to his character Senator Clay Davis in The Wire. As such it’s little wonder this one was criticised in some quarters for treating gang- or drug-related deaths too lightly when it was released in the US last year, though you can’t really argue with Lee’s overall positive messages about taking direct action to put and end to such killings. Overall, then, Chi-Raq is certainly worth a look; I don’t think it’s up there with the director’s finest work, but at times it absolutely shares the vibrancy, anger, ideas and general sense of edgy creativity of his late 80s and early 90s movies. (***)

Busanhaeng (Train To Busan) (Sang-ho, 2016): I must admit that prior to watching this South Korean hit – the country’s biggest box office success ever, it says here – the prospect of watching yet another zombie apocalypse film didn’t fill me with much glee. However, as far as the horror sub-genre goes this is a pretty entertaining, non-taxing watch, with ever-increasing hordes of flesh eaters tearing into the trapped passengers on board a commuter train as it speeds across South Korea towards the titular mainline station. The train-based claustrophobia is occasionally relieved by excellent scenes taking place within grand, modern stations along the way, and director Yeon Sang-ho certainly keeps the tension ratcheted-up, with cleverly devised set pieces placing the characters in all kinds of perilous circumstances. It also uses growing pile-ups of zombies in a terrifying fashion, much in the same way that the ill-fated World War Z did a couple of years back. It doesn’t re-invent the wheel, but it’s good fun and I liked it. (***½)

Comments 10

  1. ckckred December 22, 2016

    Bryan Cranston’s in Saving Private Ryan? I don’t remember seeing him at all as well.

    There is definitely a roughness to Mean Streets, but that really adds to the film’s charm. It’s one of my favorites by Scorsese, and like you said it still holds up.

  2. Jordan Dodd December 25, 2016

    I’ve never seen any of these films, ‘cept for Mean Streats and SPR, both a loooooooong time ago.

    In fact, it was my memories of how SPR was handled that made me dislike Hacksaw Ridge so much. Sure there was a bit of gore in SPR, but a lot of it was much more psychological – that scene of the guy sloooowly driving a knife into his enemies chest will never leave my mind, sooo powerful. And the scene where the sniper looks at the tank, and the turret slowly rises towards him… damn, I gotta watch this movie right now!

    I’ll have to have a closer look at some of the other films you listed. It seems that I have so many blindspots

    • Stu December 27, 2016

      Ach we all have them mate! You should see some of the films on my blind spot list for 2017… it’s embarrassing!
      That scene you mention really stayed with me, too, when I first saw it; it’s a completely different kind of warfare to the beach landings, obviously, but just as powerful. The acting by Adam Goldberg in that couple of minutes is excellent – especially when he realises he has lost the fight and starts pleading for his life. An incredible scene and one of the best in the film for my money.

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