Reviewed this week are Get on Up, The Homesman, No Good Deed, Winter Sleep, Mary is Happy, Mary is Happy
The huge success of The Help was tainted by accusations that it was a film about the struggles of white people masquerading as a film about the struggles of black people. Tate Taylor's follow up, a biopic of James Brown, one of the most influential black men of the twentieth century, with an almost exclusively African American cast, should avoid such accusations. Although it follows a fairly traditional biopic path with inevitable integration of personal facts, ultimately it focusses on Brown's career rather than what he felt or what drove him.
Many of the cast of The Help appear here in small roles. Viola Davis plays his mother, who, during the grinding poverty of his childhood in 1930s Georgia, was a loving figure then just left. His feelings on that are not discussed but what is clear is that he was talented, driven, determined and tyrannical. Octavia Spencer and Alison Janney have cameos and there is great support from Nelsan Ellis and Dan Akroyd as Brown's long time collaborator, manager and friends Bobby Byrd and Ben Bart. But the film belongs to Chadwick Boseman, whose turn as the singer is nothing short of mesmerising.
Mick Jagger was both producer and music supervisor and all that great music is integrated into Boseman's performance. He doesn't sing, but the man can move. Boseman can be difficult to understand, the chronological meanders can be vague and 138 minutes is too long but, overall it is an incredible story, the music is fabulous and Boseman amazing, even for non-fans.
The Homesman is not the first time Tommy Lee Jones has taken the director's chair (2005's The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada was sterling work) but Jones' more natural habitat is in front of the camera and this idiosyncratic western finds the veteran hardman charting fresh acting frontiers at the age of 68.
Based on a 1988 Glendon Swarthout novel, Jones' film is a more bemusing and macabre take on the genre, sharing DNA with the Coen Brothers' reimagining of True Grit (2010). Set in the 1850s, Jones is pickled claim jumper Briggs, saved from capital punishment by Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank). She needs Briggs to help her escort three insane local women to Iowa for care.
Swank, however, is the centrifugal force of the film, depicting a smart, brave woman, clearly ahead of her time, yet desperate to find a husband. Cuddy's switching between manhandling Briggs and caring for her hysterical charges is full of symbolism, while Briggs' grizzled wits are key to the caravan surviving a journey laden with dangers and cameos (James Spader, Meryl Streep, John Lithgow).
Sinewy and committed, this is Swank's best turn since Million Dollar Baby. It's refreshing, meanwhile, to see Jones finally essay a character trembling with vulnerability and tragedy between the tobacco-chewing.
Genres collide in handsome fashion - flecks of the absurd, semi-occult dread, the great western road movie - and while part of you likes that there is something for everyone, the juxtapositions between chuckles and recoils, frivolous and ultra-dark, can be a bit hard on the gut. Which is itself remarkable.
When women play the baddie issues are raised about misogyny. When the baddie is poor there are issues about social stereotypes and when the baddie is black, there are issues about racial stereotypes.
And so it has been with No Good Deed, where Idris Elba plays escaped convict Colin. We first meet him facing his parole board, a scene intertwined with a news reporter explaining the back story. If it were really a news report, it would be libellous, and so it is unrealistic.
Although convicted of manslaughter in a bar brawl, Colin is suspected of being a serial killer. During his parole hearing it's equally clumsily laid out that he is a 'malignant narcissist', nothing to do with race, gender or class. He is clever and charming and lethal. Surely it's borderline sexist / racist / classist to see an -ism in making anyone but a white middle class male the bad guy.
Colin escapes and inveigles his way into the home of Terri (Taraji P. Henson) a former DA, now slightly bored stay-at-home mother, whose husband is away. It takes a while for Terri to see the threat that she has allowed into her home, Colin is clever and charming after all. And gorgeous. It's derivative and formulaic but the film's biggest flaw is that it's clumsily delivered. It is clear where it wants to go with tone and undercurrent, that part does not work, but it's fine as a simple thriller and there is a market for it.
Turkey may be a long way from Torquay and the content here is much more profound but there remains a sense of Fawlty Towers for philosophers about Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan's latest work, Winter Sleep.
The comparisons come courtesy of the occupation and disposition of this film's central character Aydin (Haluk Bilginer). Aydin is the proprietor of an isolated hotel in picturesque Central Anatolia but as the first snows of winter fall, it quickly becomes clear that the hospitality industry and his personality are not a natural fit. A former actor, though he prefers to be considered a "thespian," Aydin has retired to the idyllic setting of The Othello Hotel where he lives with his younger trophy wife Nihal (Melisa Sozen) and his sister Necla (Demet Akbag). Rich and educated, his lifestyle is in stark contrast with the dirt-poor locals many of whom are his tenants. Splendid isolation may have been the aspiration but it's clearly far from the actuality. To paraphrase Shakespeare, it' s fair to say that now is the er.. winter sleep of his discontent. Aydin's marriage is in meltdown courtesy of differences that appear irreconcilable while the sardonic Necla is never slow to criticise his weakness for "pontificating." And then there are his reluctant dealings with the family of a local imam who are behind in their rent. Stunning performances, hypnotically good cinematography together with dazzling dialogue ensure that these narrative strands merge in a manner that is consistently captivating. A deserving winner of the Palme d'Or at Cannes, Ceylan has delivered a mesmerising meditation on the human condition that has prompted understandable comparisons with Bergman. It clocks in at a lengthy 196-minutes but it passes in a flash ... of brilliance.
Thai filmmaker Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit won an award for his 2012 film 36, which showed 36 shots in sixty-eight minutes. This, his second and much longer film, Mary is Happy, Mary is Happy is based on a series of real tweets sent by a girl, @Marylony and a story that Thamrongrattanarit created from those messages Mary sent into the ether.
The film begins with "tomorrow we gotta be faster," each tweet is accompanied by keypad noises and subtitles and when we are introduced to Mary (Patcha Poonpiriya) she has been made editor of her school's graduation yearbook. She and her best friend Suri (Chonnikan Netjui), are never apart which heightens Mary's concern about her friend leaving the following year for the "University of Austria". The first part of the film is supremely random. The building of their all-girl school is half-derelict, classes are haphazard and topics obtuse. Mary orders a jellyfish online, she and Suri go on missions in the jungle and Mary overdoses on magic mushrooms, Mary visits Paris where she is so exhausted she cannot stay awake.
The film develops a more traditional arc when Mary develops a crush on M and a new, invisible vaguely Kim Jong-Un headmaster takes over the school. She has run ins with a controlling teacher over the yearbook and when something enormous and awful does happen it merges into the same undersaturated, handheld randomness as everything else. When I said a "more traditional" arc, I just meant "less random."
There have been some very positive reviews of this film. For instance Variety said it is "skillfully edited to provide a sense of fragments from tangentially connected dreams slowly forming a meaningful whole," and interpreted it as "a believable, affecting and wryly funny study of its heroine's hopes, anxieties and frequent bewilderment with life at the intersection of adolescence and adulthood."
I tell you this for I can think of nothing go od to say about the film. I tend to think a film is poor if I am sitting there lamenting the fact that I could be cleaning toilets instead. However not only did I find it boring but I found it dreadfully self-indugent, it is 127 minutes long. I'm glad Mary is happy, someone had to be.