Middle of Nowhere – 97 min, drama

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Emayatzy Corinealdi in Middle of Nowhere

It’s not easy to get a film about the interior life of a black woman made. In 2003 director Ava DuVernay, best known for her stunning 2014 Martin Luther King film Selma, wrote a script about a young med student putting her life on hold when her husband is incarcerated for weapons dealing. At the time DuVernay was a Hollywood publicist, working on the Laurence Fishburne/Derek Luke action film Biker Boyz. While on set she got to know the director, Reggie Bythewood and his wife Gina Prince-Bythewood (director of Beyond the Lights). They read her script and wanted to produce it. “So we went out and we attached Sanaa Lathan and Idris Elba and shopped it in the traditional way that you did in 2003 when you were in black Hollywood. You’d go to the studios and it was, ‘Oh, wow, great script, but we don’t make movies about the interior life of black women. If you want to make that, make that, and then we might be interested in an acquisition, right?’ That’s what we heard everywhere. Gina and Reggie were great. They got me into these rooms. The bottom line was the rooms. They weren’t ready then, and they still ain’t ready now for this type of story.” (Nekisa Cooper Filmmaker, 11/1/12) Continue reading

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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

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

Across the Universe – 133 min, musical

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Jim Sturgess in Across the Universe

The movie musical is a strange beast, you can’t linger on the shore, you can’t just dip a toe in, you have to dive in head-first and hope you don’t give yourself a concussion. Reserved detachment is not an option. Now this can be scary, there are a whole lot of bad movie musicals out there (I’m still recovering from the tongue lashing I got from Tom Hooper’s rendition of Les Misérables), but there is also something beautiful about surrendering yourself to a world so completely separate from your day-to-day existence. If the movie musical is a strange beast then the rock opera can be a monster; stringing unrelated songs together to form a narrative usually results in a nostalgic patchwork, doing justice to neither the story nor the source material. But against all odds Across the Universe is something special. Continue reading

We Are the Best! – 102 min, drama

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WE ARE THE BEST! – Mira Barkhammar, Mira Grosin and Liv Lemoyne – Photo Credit: Magnolia Pictures

I first encountered Swedish director Lukas Moodysson in a review by one of my favorite critics, Anthony Lane of The New Yorker. Lane opened his review of Moodysson’s second film Together with: “Just when I was starting to despair of ever finding a decent movie about life in a Swedish hippie colony in the mid-nineteen-seventies, along comes a perfect example.” For me at 15 this was the zenith of film criticism. I hung the quote on my wall and frequently referenced it, but it wasn’t until I was 20 when my Swedish roommate gave me Together for my birthday that I actually saw the film.

Together displays two of Moodysson’s sharpest skills: a gift for capturing the look and feel of earlier eras, and the ability to get startlingly good performances from child actors, but it is in his delightful 2013 film We Are the Best! that these strengths get the showcase they truly deserve. Based on the graphic novel Never Goodnight by Coco Moodysson (who also happens to be Lukas Moodysson’s wife) We Are the Best! follows the ups and downs of three 13 year-old girls as they start a punk band in 1982 Stockholm. Continue reading