Wednesday 30 November 2016

The Birth Of A Nation, La La Land and more (The 60th BFI Film Festival Part 2)

Get up, stand up: Nate Parker's The Birth Of A Nation

Certain critics and commentators have urged a boycott of The Birth Of A Nation WW½, debutant filmmaker Nate Parker's drama about a real-life slave uprising in West Virginia in 1831 - and it's easy to see why. In the fallout from the #Oscarssowhite brouhaha, it was touted as an Academy Award frontrunner but soon became mired in controversy with the revelation that Parker - its star, writer and director - had been tried but acquitted of raping a young woman while he was at college some years before. The woman in question took her own life years later and, to put it mildly, the filmmaker has badly fumbled his attempts at damage limitation since.

I'm usually an advocate of separating an artist from his art but that is extremely difficult here, especially as Parker's attitudes to women are as problematic in his movie as they appear to be in real life.

Deliberately taking its name from DW Griffiths' influential but poisonously racist silent film of the same name, Birth follows Nat Turner (Parker), a literate slave and preacher, whose cash-strapped 'master' (Armie Hammer) hires him out to the owners of other cotton plantations hoping his sermons might calm the ire of fellow captives (Turner uses passages from the Bible to legitimise their suffering). However, following the savagery he witnesses on his travels and ultimately endures himself, Turner snaps and plans a bloody armed insurrection against the slave owners and their families (interestingly, he finds scripture that give this course of action the thumbs-up too).

A difficult Birth: Parker's film is stirring but problematic

Birth clearly owes a debt to Steve McQueen's superior 12 Years A Slave but the final half-hour is genuinely rousing and heart-breaking, culminating in a defiant image that probably deserved the standing ovations the film received at Sundance on its own. The problem is that there have now been enough movies and TV shows about slavery to have generated their own clichés and that is definitely the case here - so we have a whipping scene, a parade of monstrously one-dimensional white characters, a wedding which culminates in the bride and groom jumping a broomstick and an awful lot of cotton being picked. Less forgivably, considering Parker's aforementioned history (which, by the way, also includes an accusation of indecent exposure), are two instances of rape.

Now, neither is shown on screen and it's documented fact that the sexual assault of slave women was routine but here the incidents are used as little more than plot fodder to fire up Turner and the other male slaves, and thereby speed the story into its momentous final act. The women are given no agency whatsoever, their pain all but forgotten once the real action starts. The story of the West Virginia uprising is an important one but it's difficult to shake the feeling that perhaps it should have been told by someone without quite so much distasteful baggage.

On considerably less controversial ground is La La Land WWWW, a warm and witty romantic musical and director Damien Chazelle's follow-up to Whiplash. We're in modern-day Hollywood and Emma Stone is a struggling actress, Ryan Gosling a down-on-his-luck jazz pianist. But when the pair fall in love their passion becomes rocket fuel for their creativity and ambition. Unfortunately, Gosling's success as part of a (frankly god-awful) jazz-fusion band initially outstrips Stone's and their bond soon starts to fracture.

I feel using the word 'lovely' as a superlative is much underrated but lovely is what this is - old-fashioned, kind-hearted and shot through with longing. Additionally, you'd be hard pressed to find two leads as eminently likeable as Stone and Gosling, and the pair possess that lightning-in-a-bottle crackle of true chemistry certain other films this year would kill for (I'm looking at you, Allied).

It's a love letter to Hollywood, a love letter to jazz, a love letter to creativity and following your dreams. More than anything, though, it's a love letter to love - how it can make you walk on air one minute (quite literally here) and plumb the depths of despair the next.
There's a breathless, bravura 'What if?' scene right towards the end of the film that is simply stunning and if La La Land isn't amongst the Oscars I'll eat my hat (the horrible woolly blue one that would taste disgusting). Chazelle has conceded his film's debt to the likes of Singing In The Rain and The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg, and I'm sure some critics are going to lambast him for being corny and perhaps a tad indulgent. But the rest us will fall and fall hard for his movie's seemingly inexhaustible supply of bittersweet charm.

As for the songs, having only seen the film once, it's hard to tell if they are strong enough to make La La Land a copper-bottomed classic but I suspect it's awfully close.

Dancing in the street: Stone and Gosling in La La Land

On the subject of love, Toni Erdmann WWW arrived at the festival on a wave of critical adoration (its exclusion from any of the prizes at Cannes was met with absolute fury in some quarters). But while director Maren Ade serves up a couple of genuinely hilarious set-pieces, this German comedy does sag somewhat in the middle.

Chronicling the fractured relationship between Winfried, a fun-loving father (Peter Simonischek) for whom no prank is too silly, and his workaholic businesswoman daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller), it's really about the horrors of corporate life; how Ines and her similarly uptight colleagues are never off duty. If they aren't in the office, they're having drinks with clients or checking emails at home. Their job isn't so much a part of them, it is them.

Following the death of his old dog, Winfried surprises Ines with a visit in Bucharest, but all attempts at bonding with his frosty offspring are rebuffed. However, instead of flying home to Germany as intended, he assumes a new identity (the Toni Erdmann of the title, resplendent in ridiculous wig and comedy teeth) and sticks around to get under her skin. 

The first hour is terrific, as are the final 40 minutes or so, and it is genuinely very funny at times (Hüller's rendition of 'The Greatest Love Of All' was my personal favourite of the comic set-pieces although the naked birthday brunch ran it close). But Ade's problem is simply that at two hours, 42 minutes, her film is decidedly flabby and could have done with a hard edit. Some people actually walked out of the screening I attended
and I don't think it was because they were laughing too hard. It was because they were bored.

If anything, it reminded me of one of those '80s Hollywood comedies, usually starring John Candy, in which an overbearing but preternaturally wise man-child uses unorthodox means to teach the squares (parents, bureaucrats, fuddy-duddies) an important life lesson. Thing is, unlike Toni Erdmann, the likes of Uncle Buck didn't come garlanded in enough positive critical baggage to sink a battleship. They never ran close to three hours in length either.

The odd father: Toni Erdmann is hilarious but too long

If Toni Erdmann could have done with a chop then what of American Honey WW½, which runs even longer? Andrea Arnold's sprawling road movie resists a couple of obvious opportunities to bring itself to a neat end; instead, eventually, it just sort of shrugs and gives up the ghost like a knackered marathon runner.

Filmed in the old-fashioned, but seemingly quite hip again, square academy format (see Mommy, Meek's Cutoff and Ida), it focuses on Star (promising newcomer Sasha Lane), a young woman facing a bleak future as she 'skip dips' for food, accompanied by grubby kids that aren't even hers, and fends off the boozy advances of an older man who may or may not be her partner. After a chance encounter at a supermarket with Jake (Shia LeBeouf) and his gang, Star abandons her old life and jumps into their van, setting off across the American Midwest to, um, sell magazine subscriptions to people who really don't want or need them.

Apart from its punishing length, my biggest bugbear is that pretty much everyone in it is profoundly annoying and unsympathetic. The kids with whom Star shares her great subscription-selling adventure are just awful - a gibbering, braying, squealing, drugging, boozing, boring collection of unmitigated gits you'd leave the country to avoid. Oh look, here's the weird one who goes on about Darth Vader a lot, and here comes the one who keeps getting his cock out for some reason.

The chance to travel across the States with little money in a smelly van packed to bursting with some of the most objectionable people on Earth is not my idea of fun. Christ, if this is what modern American youth has come to it's little wonder that Trump got in. And that, I suspect, is precisely the point Fish Tank director Arnold is trying to make here - this is what 21st Century US capitalism has done to its working class young; marginalised them, and made them desperate. Just how desperate is something the British filmmaker returns to again and again in the course of her movie and suffice to say it isn't pretty.

There may be shortcomings, then, but American Honey does boast a very fine soundtrack (Rihanna, Mazzy Star and a bunch of great hip-hop) and, most significantly of all, Riley Keough is superb as Krystal, the gang's flint-hearted boss. She may be every bit as unpleasant as the other characters, but at least has the decency to be a fascinating force of nature with it. The movie's most memorable scene features Krystal wearing a skimpy Confederate flag bikini as she barks instructions at LeBeouf, who she is making apply suntan lotion to her body while Star watches in horror and embarrassment. The corporate ladder-climbers in Toni Erdmann might be made to suffer for their supper, but it has nothing on this.

A taste of Honey: Newcomer Sasha Lane

UK cinema release dates
The Birth Of A Nation: December 9
La La Land: January 13 2017
Toni Erdmann: February 3 2017
American Honey: in cinemas now (DVD, Blu-ray and VOD February 20 2017)

WWWW - Wonderful
WWW - Worthwhile
WW - Watchable
W - Woeful

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