Beyond the Lights – 116 min, drama

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Nate Parker and Gugu Mbatha-Raw in Beyond the Lights

You may have noticed that when I write about films I don’t generally say too much about what they are about. The obvious conclusion is I just don’t want to spoil the movie before people have seen it, and it’s true I like to let people experience the film as it happens, but the main reason I don’t talk too much about the plot is that I actually believe that in the end it doesn’t really matter. Any story can be done well, and any story can be bad; it is the execution that makes or breaks it. Obviously some stories are more intrinsically interesting than others, but without good writing, without a well-chosen cast, and without a director who can capture the subtleties, you aren’t going to enjoy the ride. On the surface Beyond the Lights is the stuff of melodrama, a depressed pop star falls for the cop that saved her life, but in the hands of the writer/director Gina Prince-Bythewood and her two stars, Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Nate Parker, it becomes a nuanced exploration of relationships and identity. Continue reading

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The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys – 104 min, drama

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Kieran Culkin and Emile Hirsch in The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys
There’s a moment in The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys where Tim Sullivan, a brash 14 year old with a broken arm and a crumbling home played by Kieran Culkin, breathlessly talks about the genius of William Blake. This has been singled out by some reviewers as a false note in the script. Would a comic book obsessed eighth grader really be so fascinated by an eighteenth century romantic poet? Surely this is just a device the director, Peter Care, used to include the ideas of innocence and experience in his coming of age tale. Of course it is a device, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not also beautifully authentic; adolescence is full of the intoxicating blend of high and low art, to Tim and his best friend Francis (Emile Hirsch, in his film debut) William Blake and Stan Lee can be spoken of in the same breath. The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys allows its young protagonists to be troublemakers and thinkers, pushing the narrow boundaries of their provincial lives through their pranks (both childish and with serious consequences) and their questions. In short it takes its young protagonists seriously, even when the people around them still treat them like children. Continue reading

Dirty Pretty Things – 97 min, thriller

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Chiwetel Ejiofor in Dirty Pretty things

Few movies have been done as great a disservice by their poster as Stephen Frears’ Dirty Pretty Things. On it a naked Audrey Tautou emerges from the poorly airbrushed shadows, below her the title is playfully spelled out in colorful cut-out letters that belong on the poster of a teen rom-com, and above the tagline reads, “Some things are too dangerous to keep secret.” What in the world is this film selling? Surely a dark comedy about the kidnapping of a high-class call girl, or a Sapphic horror story set in an elite girl’s school dirtyprettywhere the beautiful new French teacher turns out to be a witch. Even “The provocative new thriller from the director of ‘Dangerous Liaisons’ and ‘The Grifters’” at the bottom drips with sex. When asked about the poster in an interview Tautou seemed genuinely perplexed, “I don’t know the culture here, so I don’t know if it’s a good poster in this country, or not. But when I saw it I was a bit surprised. […] I’m not a publicist. I don’t know what works. But that’s not the movie, not really.” (Carlo Cavagna, AboutFilm.com Aug 2003) She was confused because her character, Senay, is a virginal Turkish refugee, who illegally works as a chambermaid in a London hotel; she isn’t even the main character. Of course there was a rationale behind marketing the film this way, Dirty Pretty Things was one of Audrey Tautou’s first roles after her star-making turn in Amelie, and it was her only English-speaking one. The real star of the film was Chiwetel Ejiofor, who even now as an Oscar Nominee doesn’t headline films on his own, and back in 2003 was only known in London theater circles. Tautou was the recognizable face in a cast of unknowns. And the plot? Dirty Pretty Things is a thriller about the marginalization of the people clinging to the edges of society, the immigrants and refugees trying to scrape by in London without officially existing. Well, that and the illegal trade of organs on the black market. It’s no wonder that the marketing people threw up their hands and said, “Sex and Amelie! Done.” Which is shame because Dirty Pretty Things is an incredible film. Continue reading