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There’s a scene in Faces, Places, the new documentary film Agnès Varda has made in collaboration with photographer and mural artist JR, in which this ostensibly odd couple – a 65-year age gap exists between them – chat with a group of male French dock workers. It won’t come as a surprise to anyone familiar with Varda’s work that she instinctively asks the men if she can meet their wives, and before long the two artists are introduced to the three relevant women, two of whom – like their husbands – work on the docks.

The basic premise of the film is that Varda and JR travel around France meeting people (generally those who live and/or work in rural or smaller communities), before taking their pictures and then printing large images that are subsequently flyposted onto buildings or large objects. Having met the three women, and feeling suitably inspired by them, Varda and JR ask them to pose for portraits and then decide to plaster the larger-than-life pictures onto a huge stack of cargo containers, with the women themselves eventually emerging from behind the doors of container stacked high at the very top. It’s an extremely powerful visual statement – made in conjunction with a small group of people who appear to work for JR – in a film that’s littered with them, and yet it’s also completely indicative of the film’s humanism, the makers’ genuine interest in ordinary working class people and the rather likeable way that they are lionised in ways that also brings attention to their surroundings and the histories of certain places.

For most of the film Varda and JR travel around in his van, which has a large-scale printer adapted to fit in the back. They meet farmers, people from former mining communities, retirees and young children along the way. As they do, the documentary slowly evolves into a work that’s also about the power of images, as well as society, the influence of political decisions taken elsewhere, mortality and the act of seeing. One thread that’s weaved throughout pertains to Varda’s deteriorating eyesight, while in another Varda regularly chastises the younger man for his desire to ‘hide’ behind his sunglasses at all times, something that occasionally causes a small degree of friction between the two. (JR, like the English artist Banksy, places much value on his own anonymity.)

Despite the odd minor clash between Varda and JR – she quickly puts him in his place when he patronises her – Faces, Places is very much a feelgood film: the two artists make for an extremely sympathetic, likeable duo, and the obvious differences between them – age, height, etc – soon become irrelevant in the face of their shared respect for and interest in others. As well as their time together talking to people – which sometimes recalls Varda’s earlier The Gleaners & I – we’re treated to lots of footage of the pair travelling together, hanging out in Paris and even dashing across the Louvre in a light-hearted homage to Jean-Luc Godard’s Bande à Part.

It comes as a surprise, then, when Godard himself casts a rather unfortunate shadow on the film late on. JR arranges a surprise visit to the house of the notoriously reclusive director, who was one of Varda’s New Wave colleagues and someone who she considers a long-term friend, even though she hasn’t seen him in years, but the meeting and the trip becomes something of a non-event — grinding uncomfortably to a halt as a result of what appears to be mean-spirited pettiness on the part of Godard, perhaps driven by a rather unfortunate mixture of insecurity and thoughtlessness. Given what we’ve seen before it seems like a particularly cruel act to reduce Varda to tears, but her positive, forward-thinking outlook is irrepressible, and the male director’s actions ultimately seem like an irrelevance as she figuratively picks herself up, dusts herself down and gets on with her life. The simple fact is that nobody can stop the positivity that radiates from Varda and from this wonderful film, surely one of 2018’s finest. (4.5/5)

straight outta comptonNWA biopic Straight Outta Compton heralds a new era in hip hop’s near 35-year relationship with the movies, a period that can be broken down into several distinct parts. The 1980s for example saw the transition from docudramas like Wild Style, Breakin’ and Beat Street to comedy star vehicles for the likes of The Fat Boys and Kid n’ Play. The 1990s saw a proliferation of crime and hood dramas – from Mario Van Peebles’ New Jack City to John Singleton’s Boyz N The Hood – before a slew of comic films (Don’t Be A Menace To South Central While Drinking Your Juice In The Hood, the NWA mockumentary CB4) began to lampoon the posturing and career choices of gangsta rappers. A decade later 8 Mile and Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ were the highest profile releases, both of which were vehicles for Eminem and 50 Cent that used fictional characters based almost entirely on the earlier lives and careers of their stars (with very different results: 8 Mile remains one of the best hip hop movies to date, while Get Rich is unequivocally one of the worst).

Now, however, hip hop finally has a successful, straight-up music biopic (and the most financially-rewarding one of all time, to boot, delighting cultural commentators by knocking Walk The Line off its perch). It’s long overdue, and the strong box office showing of F. Gary Gray’s film will presumably pave the way for more of the same; at the very least a decent dramatic film needs to be made about the birth of hip hop or, perhaps more specifically, the careers of Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaataa, while the brief incursion into the world of Death Row Records in Straight Outta Compton suggests a drama about Suge Knight’s label will surely arrive one day (when someone is brave enough to write it). Whatever happens in the future there’s a sense now that the hip hop-related movie has finally come of age, and it’s probably safe to say now that we are in mid-September that this film has been the surprise hit of the summer.

Whether it’s actually that good or not is a moot point, and one that seems to have divided critics. In telling the story of NWA – the culturally significant, commercially successful and controversial Compton-based group featuring Dr Dre, DJ Yella, MC Ren, Eazy-E, The D.O.C. and Ice Cube – Gray’s entertaining film follows many of the usual musical biopic conventions, dutifully detailing the rise, the fall, the highs, the lows, the breakdown of relationships, the reconciliations, the slick record company money men who don’t ‘get’ the artists and the teary moments (the premature death of Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell) at the age of 31 in 1995 gradually dominates the final act, though there’s a business-related epilogue tacked on as Dr Dre (Corey Hawkins) leaves Death Row to start his own label, Aftermath). Yet despite the familiarity of much of this material we haven’t really seen it applied to African-American artists from the past 30 or 40 years before, and certainly not to a hip hop group with this kind of history and background. Although they’re not filmed in an original way or outstanding fashion the scenes in recording studios and the re-staged live footage crackle with an energy that has been missing from all of the recent rock or jazz biopics that I’ve seen, give or take one or two sporadic scenes.

Straight Outta Compton packs plenty of punches into its long, 135-minute running time, most notably detailing the abuse the group’s members suffered at the hands of the police in the late ’80s and early ’90s (parallels with the Rodney King beating are drawn, and footage of the subsequent LA riots of 1992 is included). That said, the director and writers (Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff) have given the other outbreaks of violence that dogged NWA’s career an overly glossy sheen, or in some cases completely omitted them: there’s a frisson of excitement to be had watching tough, aggressive men repeatedly go head-to-head with other tough, aggressive men in hotel corridors, recording studios, meeting rooms, restaurants and so on, but in order to sweeten the story for mainstream cinema audiences the more controversial misogyny of Dr. Dre’s early life has been omitted (as widely reported, though it’s no surprise really, given that he’s one of the film’s producers).

As long as interested parties are still alive I dare say a great deal more unpalatable material has been left out too, but that can be applied to countless musical biopics, most of which are made with the intention of cementing a legend rather than deconstructing a myth. While the misogyny is the most obvious and serious omission, it’s also worth noting that the film trivialises the contributions of DJ Yella (Neil Brown, Jr) and MC Ren (Aldis Hodge), keeping both firmly in the background while Dre, Eazy-E and Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson, Jr, the rapper’s real life son) are placed front and centre; MC Ren took to social media to vent his anger at the slight, claiming that true fans were aware of the extent of his lyrical contribution, though he fares better than Arabian Prince, a founder member of the group who is all but written out of history by the screenplay.

At times the film sags a little, dutifully running through the money-related fallouts, group implosion and subsequent public disses that occurred in the wake of worldwide fame and notoriety, but for the most part it hold your attention and it’s difficult to think of a music biopic of recent years that has anything near the same level of vibrancy (I haven’t seen Get On Up, which many people claim is similarly energetic). The acting is generally solid, with Hawkins, Mitchell and Jackson, Jr shouldering the weight of the drama well enough, while R. Marcos Taylor steals all of his scenes as the imposing and ruthless Knight. Sadly there are no prominent female roles in what turns, as expected, into a very macho film; as for the rest of the cast, various other prominent musicians of the era – Chuck D, Warren G, Snoop Dogg, Tupac Shakur – are briefly and incongruously shoehorned into the story (there are way too many scenes here in which people are introduced to one another for the first time before being promptly forgotten about), and Paul Giamatti delivers a so-so turn as manager Jerry Heller.

Directed by: F. Gary Gray.
Written by: Jonathan Herman, Andrea Berloff.
Starring: Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, O’Shea Jackson, Jr, Paul Giamatti, Aldis Hodge, Neil Brown, Jr.
Cinematography: Matthew Libatique.
Editing: Billy Fox.
Music: Joseph Trapanese, NWA, Various.
Certificate: 15.
Running Time: 146 minutes.
Year: 2015.

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selma002-679x350Selma arrives on these shores having already attracted significant criticism in the wake of its US release (mainly regarding the historical accuracy – or rather inaccuracy – of some important elements of Paul Webb’s screenplay) and also having been controversially snubbed in several of the high profile Academy Award and BAFTA categories. Ava DuVernay’s film, an outside bet for Best Picture in the upcoming Oscars, details the historic 1965 Selma to Montgomery voting rights marches in Alabama, led by Martin Luther King, Jr, who is played with consummate skill by the British actor David Oyelowo. It’s a stirring, emotional dramatisation of this recent and shocking period of American history, and Webb and DuVernay’s joint examination of civil rights, discrimination and prejudice has been hailed for its timeliness, given that the film highlights police violence and the subsequent lack of culpability in the 1960s; President Obama’s administration has, of course, recently been contending with riots in the Midwest and demonstrations elsewhere resulting from similar ongoing problems with law enforcement agencies today.

Oyelowo, arguably, is the person involved who has been most wronged by the Academy’s voting, though it’s worth iterating that such trivialities detract from, and really pale into insignificance when compared with, the subject matter of this film. His magnificent performance is the bedrock of Selma, and he is entirely believable whether depicting King’s struggle with private doubts and concerns, his discussions about them with family and advisors, his rousing, defiant public speeches or his involvement in a series of strong-willed showdowns with President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson). Oyelowo captures the style and manner of King’s orations although the real speeches – which incorporated several lines that have become iconic in the ensuing years – are not used here; King’s estate had already licensed them to a different studio, reportedly to be used in an as-yet-untitled Steven Spielberg project. Unfortunately no agreement could be reached, and DuVernay’s unenviable task of re-writing them has been carried out with considerable skill, keeping the message and the emotional punch intact. The words certainly feed Oyelowo’s showreel moments, which are numerous and powerful, but just as impressive is the actor’s ability to bring a man to life on screen, rather than a refuelling of a myth. As the review for Selma in Sight & Sound magazine pointed out last month, there have been surprisingly few depictions of King on the big screen to date, and for decades the general perception in the media has been of a Gandhi-esque figure, or simply of a more appealing alternative to Malcolm X (an idea briefly riffed on in Selma). One of the main achievements of DuVernay’s film, and of Oyelowo’s performance, is the creation of a credible suggestion of the person behind the speeches and the soundbites: a man not necessarily racked with self-doubt, but certainly thoughtful, occasionally uncertain and often concerned about the effects of his decisions and infidelities.

In keeping with this, when first see King, uncomfortably accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, he is clearly more concerned with the fight looming on the horizon as well as the way in which his appearance in Oslo will be perceived by his peers. At his side is his wife Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo), who spends most of the film in a largely supportive role to her husband that arguably diminishes her own real life achievements. The next scene, deliberately emphasising the irrelevance of the Prize at this juncture, shows the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church of Birmingham, Alabama, which took place a year earlier. Then we see Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey) being denied the right to vote in Selma, a key factor in the identification of the town by King’s SCLC as the ideal battleground to draw attention to their cause.

The film’s moving and harrowing scenes cover the violent incidents that subsequently occurred in and around Selma, first showing King and the SCLC marching with local residents to the courthouse to register to vote, where a confrontation results in numerous arrests. A night march ends in tragedy when police officers, supposedly under orders from Alabama Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth, struggling throughout), violently beat the protesting, peaceful crowd and the young activist Jimmie Lee Jackson (Keith Stanfield) is murdered. Then the marches from Selma to the state capitol Montgomery take place: for the first King is advised not to attend, and more state trooper brutality occurs, this time on the Edmund Pettus Bridge under the watchful gaze of the media. For the second the marchers are joined by white Americans for the first time, many from different religious denominations and most spurred into action by the scenes they have witnessed on TV as much as King’s plea for help. Wallace is unmoved, and though the troopers offer a way through, King believes it to be a trap and turns around; a third march is needed.

The blot on the copybook of this otherwise excellent film is that the relationship between King and Johnson is warped for dramatic effect (this is a drama, admittedly, but it is otherwise apparently truthful), and their confrontations are designed to sit a little too conveniently next to those mentioned above; the two men do not enter into brutal clashes, of course, but their conversations are mini-conflicts, with Johnson clearly portrayed as an obstructer, and one of the villains of the piece. Critics of Selma have been dismayed that Johnson only acts when public pressure becomes so great his only option is to overrule the defiant Wallace, something the character does with reluctance. This fictional version of the President is more concerned with his own legacy, and how he will be perceived 20 years later, rather than the real issue at hand. Wilkinson – who captures a powerful, confident and authoritative figure well enough – is even required to spit ‘Get me J. Edgar Hoover’ down into a telephone receiver at one point, which is a ludicrous return to the ‘Get me the Pentagon!’ and ‘Get me the President!’ chomping of movie days of yore. (Hoover, incidentally, is the far more obvious choice for villain, if such a role must be occupied. He is largely a background figure here, played by Dylan Baker, though his obsession with King’s private life and movements is constantly referred to by DuVernay, who flashes up short, de-classified FBI status reports on screen, a device that I found suddenly jolted me ‘out’ of the film.)

The depiction of Johnson has riled so many because, in reality, this particular President had a commitment to social justice that has rarely been matched before or after by any occupant of the Oval Office. Serving during a period of intense change, which incorporated the start of the Vietnam War, race riots and the space race, his supporters have quickly pointed out that he was the first American leader in nearly 100 years to arrest and prosecute members of the Ku Klux Klan, following the murder of civil rights worker Viola Liuzzo, and was apparently keen to work with King in enacting the Voting Rights Act, identifying it as a priority when he came into office.

Unfortunately the furore has detracted attention away from the film’s main character to a certain degree. While the media is partly responsible for this disappointing turn of events, which has seen significant column inches spent on the examination of a portrait of a Caucasian leader, DuVernay and Webb don’t have to search too far if they’re looking to apportion the rest of the blame. It is something they could have avoided.

There are some choices made that I’m not too keen on, though my usual dislike of modern songs during or at the end of period films didn’t stop me from at least appreciating the relevance of ‘Glory’, the main theme by John Legend and Common (who also appears in the film as James Bevel), even if the song itself is god awful. However I do feel a certain ambivalence toward the slow-mo used during several of the beatings and killings that occur in the film; some of it has been widely praised, such as the violent, smoky scene on the bridge during the first march, but for me DuVernay’s decision to add a touch of visual flash is unnecessary and ostentatious. I wonder whether showing these scenes in real-time would be more in-keeping with the look of the rest of the film, while perhaps also emphasising the experience of those watching live on TV in 1965.

Despite a few problematic elements Selma demands admiration as a confident piece that is successful in identifying and detailing the key moments in this long struggle, and as a study of Martin Luther King it is indeed every bit as fascinating as you would expect it to be. With one or two exceptions the supporting performances are good – I haven’t mentioned him above but Henry Sanders stands out as Cager Lee, the grandfather of Jimmie Lee Jackson – but the film’s clear highlight is the performance of Oyelowo. I don’t want to go on too much about the whole Oscar thing, as it’s all been said elsewhere, but how this hasn’t been identified as one of the five best performances of the year is a mystery to me. As great as Keaton is, as great as Redmayne is, as good as all the others are … this would be my Best Actor winner, for what it’s worth.

The Basics:
Directed by: Ava DuVernay
Written by: Paul Webb
Starring: David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, Carmen Ejogo, Tim Roth, Common, Oprah Winfrey, Keith Stanfield, Wendell Pierce, Lorraine Toussaint, Giovanni Ribisi, Cuba Gooding, Jr, Colman Domingo, Ruben Santiago-Hudsen, Andre Holland, Tessa Thompson, Martin Sheen
Certificate: 12A
Running Time: 127 minutes
Year: 2014
Rating: 8.3

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