Beasts of the Southern Wilds (2012)

Benh Zeitlin directs Quvenzhané Wallis, Dwight Henry and Lowell Landes in this grimy fantasy where a child and her alcoholic father survive after their hobo community is flooded.

For a year of my life I moonlighted as a librarian in a predominantly black girls’ school. I ran a movie club where I showed cinema that was appropriate and accessible to kids of their age. And I tried my best to make sure the DVDs chosen had positive representations of black communities and young women. It was a struggle. One movie I intended to screen, based on strong reviews and subject matter was this. I couldn’t get hold of an affordable copy at the time… And I’m so glad I didn’t. This is a very troubling view of race and poverty. I’m sure the naive intention is to show a beauty, pride and independence in living off the grid, being passionate and getting back to basics. But it just paints its lead characters as brutish, dirty, chaotic, destructive, abusive, overly emotional babies. A parade of retarded offensive tropes about how the hard headed bums and unfiltered lazy have it better and truer than us who engage in society. It is a work by a white writer and director. It stinks and feels exploitative of its child performer. Beyond that it is boring and brash and manipulative. Come see the beautiful squalor… no ta! I cannot believe I sat all the way through this trite misery porn. One of the worst and most troubling films I’ve been a witness to in quite a while. One that might have gotten me fired if it cost less than £15 in 2016, one that certainly would have lost me the trust of the kids who came and watched movies they’d never heard of on Tuesday afternoons.

2

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Tau (2018)

Federico D’Alessandro directs Maika Monroe, Ed Skrein and Gary Oldman in this claustrophobic sci-fi thriller where a kidnapped woman becomes an experimental guinea pig in a sealed off house run by an artificial intelligence.

Maika Monroe gives good scream queen as always; sexy, resourceful and tough. The film is bathed in glowing neon lights, entire sequences are washed and soaked in electric reds and blues. The computer and robot design is original and convincing. That makes this passable but it is essentially an update of Demonseed with no real thrill, transgressions or invention. Tau is no HAL. The geometric robo-enforcer is not as scary as ED-209 or Hardware. A lot of sheen covers up not a lot of pleasure.

5

Orlando (1992)

Sally Potter directs Tilda Swinton, Billy Zane and Quentin Crisp in this rehouse fantasy where an Elizabethan lord becomes immortal, lives throughout modern history only to find at the midway point he becomes a woman.

One of those achingly sumptuous glories of arthouse cinema – where the art direction, costume and set design trump any pretentious intentions. Swinton’s performance is mesmerising and witty. She’ll often turn to the camera (à la either incarnation of House of Cards) to confide in us a self-aware commentary on events unfolding… an asssuredness that we, the even smarter viewer, can often see the irony of a tragic hubristic over confidence. Despite these strengths, this still is essentially a formal exercise. There’s a certain coldness and lack of magnanimity to it as an entertainment.

7

Le Bonheur (1965)

Agnès Varda directs Jean-Claude Drouot, Claire Drouot and Marie-France Boyer in this drama where a happily married young family man starts an affair with a postal worker.

Beyond the film’s deceptively abrasive political and philosophical aims, this is a whirlwind of colours… one of the most visually vibrant pieces of cinema I’ve watched away from genre works. It is akin to Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, in that we are presented with an almost chocolate box vision of romantic fantasy that is then destroyed by reality. In her husband’s film, you get the feeling an uncaring fate pulls the lovers apart, here the less naive assessment is the man’s selfishness and lack of empathy… his unblinking entitlement to put himself first… is to blame. That message sneaks up on you… Varda blindsides you with the shock of the fallout. For much of the running time you feel like you are settling into a warm bath of free love and pastoral beauty. Then she pulls the plug and leave you out in the cold. It feels a slightly different beast than her other films I’ve watched… less optimistic, more angry. This is no bad thing.

8

Movie of the Week: The Unbelievable Truth (1989)

Hal Hartley directs Adrienne Shelly, Robert Burke and Chris Cooke in this indie romance where a recently released from prison mechanic falls for a teenage model in the small town he grew up in.

A lost favourite from when I first got into movies. This small, vibrant satire is archly funny, expertly framed and viciously perceptive. If you approach it like a blue collar Heathers, then you won’t be disappointed. There’s shared DNA in the swipes at Reagan’s America, the primary colour visual look and deadpan line readings. It is a more formally playful film than that cult classic, taking a maturer, less sensational look at hypocrisy of late 80s capitalist obsession. The romance crackles, Adrienne Shelley is incendiary and she has lovely rhythm with her enigmatic leading man. Jim Coleman’s hip score persuasively carries us through the will-they-won’t-they drama. Treat yourself and track this down, The Unbelievable Truth is an unjustly forgotten great.

10

Winter’s Bone (2010)

Debra Granik directs Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes and Dale Dickey in this hillbilly noir where a teenage daughter risks losing her own home unless she can find her fugitive father.

The movie that gifted us Jennifer Lawrence. Here she is all pinchable cheeks and steely determination as she faces off against a community that would rather beat her and leave her siblings homeless than let her find her ne’er do well daddy. The crime story runs itself in circles, but you (as always) care so much for Lawrence’s vulnerable yet unstoppable protagonist that even when the plot runs out of juice our attention never wavers. Granik captures the breadline politics and harsh living of the Ozark subculture with ease, it is a film where the biting cold spills through the frame. Also of note is John Hawkes (another favourite) who plays against type as a threatening uncle.

7

Close (2019)

Vicky Jewson directs Noomi Rapace, Sophie Nélisse and Indira Varma in this action thriller where a female bodyguard finds herself on the run in North Africa with a teenage energy heiress.

There’s a lot holding Close back. A horrid support performance by Sophie Nélisse, as the ward we are supposed to care for. A low budget that limits the scale and means certain locations are revisited for little narrative purpose. A childishly neat wrapping up of the problems and perils put in the protagonists way. A distasteful approach to foreigners where nearly every brown skinned man met is a psychotic betrayer. But there are glimmers of a better movie. Jewson is adept at taking the limitations of her set pieces and relying on logical tension rather than overblown action. One battle see Rapace artfully navigating a much bigger man and a shoal of fish and it is bizarre, effective and artfully memorable. Our faith in Rapace as a movie star helps. Nearly every face-off Rapace has to contend with is threat filled, yet solved with guile rather than brute force. You believe in her training and her superior skillset. She is too good an actress, to unique a cinematic presence, to be relegated to these small minded, poor man cash-in thrillers just yet. It is too early in her career. Get her back in Hollywood… she is great.

4

Captain Marvel (2019)

Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck direct Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson and Ben Mendelsohn in this superhero origins story set in space and 1990s Earth where a former airforce test pilot discovers truths about herself while on an intergalactic mission.

Captain Marvel is a perfectly acceptable one-watcher. Bright, silly, star driven. The good stuff is at the forefront. Brie Larson has a laconic dry wit in the exposition scenes and a heroic relaxed manner during the action. There was a moment early on, during a spaceship escape, where a close-up of Brie blowing her hair out of her face reminded me of the “another day at the office” cool Harrison Ford brought to his set pieces in his Lucasfilm franchises while all hell broke loose around him. That’s a nice movie star achievement to unlock. She also has wonderful chemistry with Samuel L Jackson (their one-on-one scenes are the highlight of the blockbuster). 95% percent of this has the pre-programmed look and plotting of a Marvel factory line hit, depressing but it works. There are flashback moments that are unusually explored. Memories are fast-forwarded through, skipped past, rewinded and changed angles on in a dazzling bit of storytelling early on. Giving us the audience glimpses of character building blocks while allowing the filmmakers to not just go through the motions establishing the backstory. It might be too experimental a sequence for a lightweight family film, but the playfulness is noted. There are fine laughs made out of the 1990s period setting plus a good soundtrack too, going for less obvious indie sounds of the decade. What stops Captain Marvel from matching Wonder Woman or Spider-Man: Homecoming as a superior origins flick is the action is unambitious and/or low level. A quickie subway train brawl, an elongated lurk around an installation basement, interstellar shoot-outs where the actors and creatives clearly clock out for the day and the effects boys take over. It is all kinda meh. We want to see Captain Marvel save the universe, best her opressers and betrayers… the second unit approach these sequences with all enthusiasm of a pantomime dame in late January. “Panto season is over, are we still making this, darling?!” Shame, as this lazy roteness holds back an otherwise solid entertainment.

6

Velvet Buzzsaw (2019)

Dan Gilroy directs Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo and Zawe Ashton in this horror comedy that satirises the conceptual art world.

Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler and Roman J Israel locked into unhinged characters whose outsider status was exacerbated by capitalist greed to criminal ends. They were superior cinematic character studies; gifting their respective movie star leads the chance to explore dark shadows in their range without going full “comic book villain”. One would have hoped Velvet Buzzsaw would have seen Gilroy and Gyllenhaal reunite to recreate that old Nightcrawler magic in the pretentious and mercenary art world. And while Gyllenhaal is fantastic as the bisexual taste gatekeeper ‘Morf’ and Gilroy does essay the corrupt ways this industry generates profit over preservation… it just is too unfocused. Not enough Morf, not enough comedy, and biteless horror. The scares, as gallery works come to life to kill, often feel like messy first draft afterthoughts. They lack irony and happen to characters who are so one-note awful you cannot care for them. Essentially you have a lot of talented people making a film that might have gone direct-to-video in the 1990s. It went straight to Netflix this year but I’m assuming all involved thought they were making a prestige project for the streaming service, not Wishmaster: The Jackson Pollock Years.

5