Reviews

Partisan Cinema: THE CHILDHOOD OF A LEADER (2015) – A Genesis of Fascism

In a recurring feature called Partisan Cinema, A. J. Black looks at movies from a political slant, gleaning insight from them about how they relate to society then, and indeed now…

The Childhood of a Leader is a fascinating piece of cinema, especially given it’s not only a debut piece of work, but the debut piece of work from an actor best known for playing Alan Tracy in the execrable Jonathan Frakes’ Thunderbirds movie.

Brady Corbet’s film is about the birth of fascism. Not in a political sense of being a historical depiction of the rise of Adolf Hitler, but rather the human genesis of a fascist mind. It plays out in the form of a strange psychodrama, one with almost verite touches in its final moments, strange not just thanks to it’s unusual post-World War One setting but in how it pivots around the key developmental moments of a young boy.

Trying to describe the very premise of The Childhood of a Leader would be extraordinarily difficult, something Corbet was acutely aware of when he started writing the script; he at first pulled back on it, convinced thematically it was “too big” for a debut feature, but his wife Mona Fastvold encouraged him to continue and together they developed the screenplay.

From the Vault #26: THE ROOM (2003)

From 2012 onwards, before developing this blog, I wrote a multitude of reviews on the website Letterboxd. In this irregular series called From the Vault, I’m going to haul these earlier reviews out of mothballs and re-purpose them here.

This one is from August 30th, 2015…

Let me give you a piece of advice about The Room. Don’t watch it alone.

Not because it’s scary, though the fact this abomination of cinema ever got made is slightly terrifying. Rather because it needs to be experienced with a crowd, ideally of like minded people who understand it’s probably the worst film ever made, and yet appreciate and love it for that fact. This was my recent experience of Tommy Wiseau’s romantic drama (though it’s very little of either) and it was glorious.

In a packed cinema of enthusiasts, we whooped and cheered at everything Wiseau throws at us – terrible lines, scenes with no direction, characters with no discernible dramatic arc, other characters who appear out of nowhere and disappear, transitions that last forever of the San Francisco skyline, and easily the worst protracted sex scenes ever committed to celluloid. The result was, easily, one of the most enjoyable cinematic experiences in recent memory. If you’ve ever heard the phrase “it’s so bad, it’s good” then The Room is the apex of that philosophy.

Take it as a comedy, you’ll have the greatest time ever.

ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI: a stylish, urban black history fable (Movie Review)

First reviewed as part of London Film Festival 2020…

On one calm evening in 1964, in the heart of Miami, four men gathered who would, in their own way, influence not just black culture but 20th century American history.

One Night in Miami… is that story, the ellipsis at the end of the title in service of the urban fable that such a confluence suggests. This quartet reflect four quadrants of experience as the Civil Rights movement was gathering steam in counter-cultural America, each overlapping the other. Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), founder of the Nation of Islam and black power scion; Cassius Clay (Eli Goree), the self-proclaimed greatest boxer there ever is, ever was or ever will be, on the verge of Muslim conversion; Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), NFL linebacker and legend who has grown weary of his path; and Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr), one of the greatest voices in soul who ever lived, currently trapped within a sphere of white middle-class appeasement he cannot escape.

Regina King’s debut feature is a contained night in the life; a reckoning between four black cultural and political titans heading in the same direction while treading very different roads to get there.

Partisan Cinema: THE FIRST PURGE (2018) – Ultraconservative Horror to fear?

In a recurring feature called Partisan Cinema, A. J. Black looks at movies from a political slant, gleaning insight from them about how they relate to society then, and indeed now…

Given The First Purge is first and foremost a horror movie, this may seem like a redundant question. Blumhouse Productions naturally want us to be afraid of a picture designed to make audiences jump and scream, but The Purge franchise has never been simply a series of jump-scare horror films. The most recent prequel, depicting how the concept of the Purge came to be, presents a deeper, more existential question which, by the day, seems to grow in power.

Should we be scared that The First Purge could actually, in some form, one day happen?

The deeper sociological and political quandaries posed by Blumhouse and writer-director James DeMonaco’s franchise have always been more intriguing than the storytelling itself in these movies. Don’t get me wrong, after the somewhat listless 2013 entry that opened the franchise—which presented itself more in the vein of a home invasion horror in the wake of successes such as The Strangers or Funny Games, no doubt to accentuate The Purge along more of an axis horror fans had responded to in the past—the franchise has steadily with sequels Anarchy and Election Year evolved into more of a grotesque action-thriller/horror spectacle, and benefited from that direction.

From the Vault #25: A TRIP TO THE MOON (1902)

From 2012 onwards, before developing this blog, I wrote a multitude of reviews on the website Letterboxd. In this irregular series called From the Vault, I’m going to haul these earlier reviews out of mothballs and re-purpose them here.

This one is from October 21st, 2015…

Georges Melies, perhaps the grandfather of cinema itself beyond the Lumiere Brothers, made a staggering 520 pictures in his lifetime, 300 of which he starred in himself simply because the concept of a ‘star’ had not yet even been realised.

That is how far back into the history of motion pictures this goes, with A Trip to the Moon a pioneering piece of film and still the defining piece of work Melies is remembered for. Though only running fifteen minutes, featuring no dialogue and no character stories essentially, Melies film is one of the very first to employ not just a basic narrative structure but equally display, visually, concepts that would later be classified as science-fiction.

The plot concerns a group of Parisian scientists who launch a steampunk-style rocket to the Moon, only to be captured by the native Selenites, before escaping with a Selenite captive back to a celebrating Paris. It takes an enormous cue from primarily the groundbreaking 19th century works of Jules Verne & H.G. Wells, while stylistically pulling from French theatre and operetta. Though naturally over a century on it looks extremely primitive and different to film as we recognise it, just take a step back and imagine how incredible this would have looked to the eyes of a person circa 1902.

It would have been staggering.

Partisan Cinema: THE BIG SHORT (2015) – Broken Economics

In a recurring feature called Partisan Cinema, A. J. Black looks at movies from a political slant, gleaning insight from them about how they relate to society then, and indeed now…

America very much feels like a country which has powerfully lost sight of its own morals, ideals and values. This has become apparent over the last two years since the rise of Donald Trump to the Presidency, and there’s an argument it has been escalating and building since the death of John F. Kennedy ushered in a darker era of sociological tragedy for the American experience, as discussed when I talked about 1993’s In the Line of Fire.

If there has been a modern trigger, an encapsulating moment for the loss of American belief in idealism, then it’s arguably the 2008 global recession explored in The Big Short. Though presented as a jet black, if not indeed cold-hearted, satire, Adam McKay’s movie is concerned with reminding American audiences in particular just how close they came to economic Armageddon, and how a group of quite remarkable money men almost got away with the ultimate long con against their own people.

The whole project stemmed from a book, The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine by Michael Lewis, which blew open the biographical tale of the stock brokers and Wall Street financial number crunchers who saw the writing on the proverbial wall when it came to the American, nay global economic market. From a narrative perspective, it’s a goldmine of a story; the ultimate heist tale, in its own way, about a group of somewhat amoral individuals working out a crippling deficiency in the housing market and planning a way to exploit it to make billions–yes, billions–of dollars off the backs of homelessness and unemployment.

McKay’s adaptation, written alongside Charles Randolph, doesn’t shy away from that moral conundrum, but equally doesn’t quite want you to take what is a very serious matter all that seriously while doing so.

From the Vault #24: GET OUT (2017)

From 2012 onwards, before developing this blog, I wrote a multitude of reviews on the website Letterboxd. In this irregular series called From the Vault, I’m going to haul these earlier reviews out of mothballs and re-purpose them here.

This one is from March 17th, 2017…

Less a title and more of a demand, Get Out is less provocative than it sounds but packs the kind of wallop you barely expect from a horror picture, and certainly not from a breakthrough, debut feature.

To set the record straight, Jordan Peele hasn’t just made a horror movie but rather a modern, skewed take on Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? if Spencer Tracy by the end didn’t learn any lessons and, well… let’s not spoil what Get Out has to offer. Its stage is psychological, its battlefield not the haunted house or zombie-filled shopping mall but rather the mind. A tense, creeping drama that gets under your skin, makes you laugh and then, finally, explodes outward in the most satisfying, pulpy of ways. Get Out is all of those things.

It also may be one of the best films you see in 2017. Get out! No, really. …

Partisan Cinema: DARKEST HOUR (2018) – Mythologised Heroism

In a recurring feature called Partisan Cinema, A. J. Black looks at movies from a political slant, gleaning insight from them about how they relate to society then, and indeed now…

Of all the major historical figures of the 20th century, the British have arguably mythologised Sir Winston Churchill above all others. He was the epitome of fighting, British ‘bulldog’ spirit – a powerful, legendary orator whose speeches have cascaded across the last seventy years of history as a nationalist rally against the forces of darkness. Darkest Hour, therefore, marries the mythological Churchill alongside the romantic fantasy of a righteous war.

Joe Wright’s picture focuses on a very tight three-four week period in the early summer of 1940, in which milquetoast appeasement-favouring Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain is ousted on the back of the German push into Western Europe and up steps Churchill to fill the void, and take on what is considered by most of Westminster an impossible task. Darkest Hour’s entire raison d’etre is to take Churchill from the bullish, anti-fascist old war horse without the backing of his government and King—if not the people—to the proud war *hero* giving the “we will fight them on the beaches” speech in Parliament, his single most remembered delivery in a career filled with verbose oracy. It’s designed as an inspiring call to arms which makes a man, essentially, into a legend.

What this does, almost immediately, is characterise Darkest Hour as much less a historical movie and far more of a dazzling piece of spin driven by an admittedly magnificent central performance by Gary Oldman, who loses himself in his unrecognisable makeup as Churchill, only occasionally letting his native cockney betray the actor within. Wright uses historical truth to construct a fantasy which, while less theatrical than Anna Karenina or less emotional than Atonement, feels no less in keeping with his cinematic style. Wright’s pictures are often confections of sound, colour and lighting, with elegant production design, and Darkest Hour is no exception.

You may just be surprised at the tone it takes, not to mention its relationship with personal and historical truth.

Partisan Cinema: INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL (2008) – Better Dead Than Red!

In a recurring feature called Partisan Cinema, A. J. Black looks at movies from a political slant, gleaning insight from them about how they relate to society then, and indeed now…

Politics and Indiana Jones have always gone hand in hand, despite the series being the epitome of adventure serial derring do extrapolated for a modern blockbuster audience.

Raiders of the Lost Ark and Last Crusade both featured Nazi villains in advance of the Second World War, seeking supernatural arcanum to help win a conflict they had yet to start. In the latter, Harrison Ford’s hero Indy even comes face to face with Adolf Hitler himself, amidst a terrifying Nazi rally in the burning cauldron of 1938 Berlin. While the films avoided any significant political commentary, opting instead for action, spectacle and mystery, the ideological differences between the Allied and Axis worlds were clear. The Nazis were grave robbing parasites determined to pillage history for their own pure blood gain, while Dr. Jones represented a noble America, a land of heroic saviours of antiquity.

“It belongs in a museum!” Indy would bark at corrupt inversions of himself. “So do you!” they would bark back, perhaps presaging his own irrelevance.

Steven Spielberg is not a creative who ignores history, or whitewashes truth. He has given us some of the more pointed political tracts about WW2 and the echoes of that conflict of the last fifty years. His Indiana Jones pictures are nevertheless simpler, designed first and foremost to entertain rather than convey polemic. Temple of Doom, the middle child film between two masterpieces, paints a picture of the British as colonial saviours in pre-partition India, saving poor locals from the murderous Thuggee cult. This is a pleasant fiction and one many audiences can accept, particularly American ones. Yet the most recent film in the series, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, wears its politics more clearly, befitting perhaps its arrival in a more polarised era, in the shadow of a Great Recession, as opposed to the bombast of blockbuster Reaganite excess the original trilogy embodied in the 1980s.

Here, set toward the end of the ‘50s, Indy is painted as a suspected Communist as, for the first time in the series, the existential threat comes home.

SOUL: a moving, colourful affirmation of the self (Movie Review)

A. J. Black reviews the latest Pixar animated epic…

Pixar’s penchant for life affirming messages holds firm for Soul.

They really do have this down to a fine art now as the world’s premier animation outlet, their ability to fine tune very clear conceptual ideas and frame them in the context of extraordinary worlds and scenarios. Soul, co-directed jointly by Pixar chief Pete Docter and writer Kemp Powers, focuses exclusively on the ephemeral without leaning too heavily into the spiritual. It frames the individual journey, the meaning of existence itself, through vivid representations of an ‘alien’ world. The animation here is truly outstanding, even for Pixar, combining the buoyant realism of New York with geometric shapes, childlike landscapes and glorious star scapes.

In this sense, it moves away from the quest narrative of Onward, which never quite reconciled its Weekend at Bernie’s central plot with the broad fantasy trappings of the story, and moves closer to the cartoonish depiction we saw in Inside Out. The souls of the ‘Great Before’ might look like the Adipose fat creatures from Doctor Who at points but they more adequately represent ‘pre-emotions’, blank slates on which life experience has yet to be etched, and Docter & Powers look to tell a story about what that experience, what life, can do to the soul, and what we really should place importance in.

By the end of Soul, there is no doubt this crystallises the traumatic experience of 2020 as an existential year, and is undoubtedly the reaffirmation we all needed as we leave it.