Thoughts on ‘Jackie’

It’s a strange experience to watch a biopic of a person of whom you’ve heard, but with whom you’re not especially familiar. The Kennedy era preceded my birth. Hell, my parents were both just one years old when President JFK was assassinated on November 22nd 1963 in Dallas, Texas. I never watched any of JFK’s speeches as I have done with Michelle and Barack’s. I never saw Jackie’s televised tour of the White House. Or John’s inauguration. As I expect is the case with most people of, and before my generation, I know them through the lens of tragedy. Perhaps more than most, thanks to a visit to Hyannis, Cape Cod and an intense passion for American history. But even then, JFK and Jackie are legends, not people.

As a woman with many monikers and identities; Jacqueline Bouvier, Jackie Kennedy, Jacqueline Lee Kennedy Onassis, Jackie O, she is essentially unknowable. She is many things to many people and thus defies the classification that biopics tend to dish up. Aside from Todd Haynes’ experimental, multi-faceted unravelling of Bob Dylan in I’m Not There, I can think of few that don’t somehow reduce the very person they aim to glorify. By simply titling the film Jackie however, director Pablo Larrain, in his first foray into English-language cinema, infers that this will be a much more intimate and penetrating view of America’s beloved First Lady.

And indeed it is. By deconstructing Jackie’s public persona and excavating beyond the superficiality that she herself so masterfully, and somewhat manipulatively moulded, and instead depicting her in moments of astonishing anguish; mourning her husband, her identity and her place in the world, whilst at the same time navigating the crisis that was losing a President, we see a side to Jackie that has been little explored. It doesn’t lay claim to knowing the whole story, or attempt to condense her entire existence into a two-hour yarn. Rather, at a nimble 100 minutes, it offers an insight into a very particular and defining moment.

By simply titling the film Jackie however, director Pablo Larrain, in his first foray into English-language cinema, infers that this will be a much more intimate and penetrating view of America’s beloved First Lady.

What’s more, Jackie avoids the fate of many sycophantic biopics by refraining from lavishing its subject with unreserved reverence. Jackie, as depicted by Larrain and portrayed by Natalie Portman (giving Emma Stone a very good run for her money in the Best Actress Oscar stakes) is a prickly, tenacious creature, unafraid of exerting the influence she has accrued. However the film also appraises her with sincerity, subtlety and compassion. Jackie is refracted through many angles, and as such the film becomes a complex composite of all her colours and emotions. In this film she is so much more than the pink two-piece she was wearing on that fateful November day. An icon yes. But a woman first. A woman whose future is in jeopardy and who is striving to retain her relevance and sense of self, as well as the more immediate, concrete concern of her economic stability.

In its deconstruction of character, Jackie cleverly employs or rather recreates historical artefacts, such as the televised tour of the White House that Jackie gave in 1962 to exhibit the renovations she had made (a bizarrely staged and mannered affair). Or the interview with Theodore H. White (here simply known as ‘the journalist’ and played by an understated Billy Crudup), where Jackie blatantly states that she will revise whatever is said and approve what makes it into print. After a particularly uncharacteristic and extemporaneous admission of grief, she adds, ‘Don’t think for one second I’m going to let you print that’. There’s a particularly wry moment of abridgment where Crudup audaciously suggests he mention Jackie’s habit of smoking in print. No sooner than she takes a dispassionate drag of her cigarette, she replies, “I don’t smoke”. Jackie places herself as the subeditor of hers and John’s history; abbreviating and polishing to the exclusion of anything considered improper, determined to secure their legacy in United States history. Candor is not the currency through which the Kennedys, or indeed any First Family trades. Whilst her motivations are desperately poignant, there’s also playfulness to Portman’s Jackie in these moments. She is a woman fully aware of her authority and wielding it most forcefully at the time it’s being called most into question. Of course the very existence of this film suggests her ambition triumphed.

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Portman is a force of regal nature. Perhaps taking inspiration from her Oscar-winning turn as a ballet dancer in Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan (who was slated to direct this at one point), her Jackie is poised and precise, at once a figure of extreme beauty and strength, but also of innate sadness. Her face is at the fore of every frame, and never once does it betray her. Despite the contrivance of Jackie’s unique, whispery and melodious drawl and the scrupulousness of her image, all structured silhouettes and dignified accessories, revealing the machinations of the political system, Portman is free of any such woodenness. Through her you see not an impression of an icon, but rather you feel the anguish of a widow. Slight of frame and diminutive in stature though Portman may be, it is more than compensated for by her incandescent, imperial onscreen presence.

Two distinct moments of her performance particularly awed me. The first takes place near the beginning of the film. No sooner has JFK been wheeled off to the morgue than Jackie must preside over the swearing in of his successor, Lyndon B Johnson (John Carroll Lynch). Portman is a picture of paralysed disbelief, where only the flash of a camera is capable of jolting her out of this nebulous nightmare. Larrain cleverly begins the scene with Jackie at the centre of the frame, with Johnson reciting the presidential oath off-screen. Gradually however she is pushed farther and farther towards the edge until physically removed from the picture. You see the realisation creep onto Portman’s face and it’s heartbreaking.

Slight of frame and diminutive in stature though Portman may be, it is more than compensated for by her incandescent, imperial onscreen presence.

The second is towards the end of the film, whereupon, until now, Larrain has refrained from depicting the events of the assassination. In visceral, gory detail – after Jackie has admitted to a priest (John Hurt) of being able to remember everything – JFK’s brain literally explodes across the screen. The astounding thing however is not that image. Rather, it’s Portman’s reaction to it. At first, shock and outrage. But then her instinct becomes harrowingly practical. She picks the pieces of her husband’s shattered cranium off the bonnet of the car and attempts to hold it together, whilst no doubt falling apart on the inside. Portman reconciles these two conflicts – of public vs private – beautifully. Her Jackie is at once wrecked and stoic, restrained and powerful, ethereal and relentless, and the result of all these fragmented identities being played out on screen is nothing less than astonishing.

Natalie Portman as "Jackie Kennedy" in JACKIE. Photo by Stephanie Branchu. © 2016 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

In keeping with this sense of performativity, is the aesthetic of camp which Larrain flavours his film with. Indeed Susan Sontag noted that

Camp taste has an affinity for certain arts rather than others. Clothes, furniture, all the elements of visual décor, for instance, make up a large part of Camp. For Camp art is often decorative art, emphasizing texture, sensuous surface, and style at the expense of content”.

This exert practically summarises Jackie’s concerns throughout the film; a woman obsessively passionate with the preservation of historical artefacts and décor in the White House, her affinity for fashion, surfaces, image and perception. A legacy which is surreally and brazenly tackled when Jackie is confronted with mannequins, ready to adorn shop windows, in exact replica of her funereal ensembles. Indeed Robert Kennedy (a scintillating Peter Sarsgaard) fears that his family will just be remembered now as “the beautiful people.”

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However, the pinnacle of these theatrical inflections comes during a sequence in which Richard Burton’s ‘Camelot’ blares from the stereo as Jackie drunkenly parades through the White House in various outfits of incredible extravagance; a frenzy of jewellery, designer gowns and dressing up, the flamboyance of her female-ness on full display. And yet the whole affair, however exquisitely photographed, is underscored by sadness and lugubriousness, framed by the interview in which she laments the life marrying the President bestowed upon her. This sadness is reiterated by that histrionic tour of the same building, to which Larrain keeps referring. As if Jackie has now become one of the ghosts that she acknowledged.

Speaking of which, Danish actor Caspar Phillipson could actually be a long-lost relative of the Kennedy’s, such is the uncanny resemblance he bears to the bygone president he plays, and yet for most of his screen time he is merely glimpsed, obscured or simply peripheralized in favour of Jackie. The effect, aside from cementing this as very much her narrative, is creating a sort of mythical, phatom quality to JFK. Just as life eluded him, he eludes the screen.

The score, composed by Mica Levi, only accentuates this ghostly timbre. It is a quivering, grandiose melee of strings, lacerating woodwind, lingering chords and woozy glissando. The effect is eerie and chilling, which, when combined with the fragmented, memoiristic editing – as if Larrain is attempting to depict a collage or impression of trauma –  as well as the claustrophobic interiors and tight close-ups give the film the texture of a chamber horror piece, not all that disparate from the unnerving alien world of Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, on which Levi made her scoring debut. Before the first shot of Portman graces the screen, the music; a reverberating, siren-like outpouring of grief, sets the tone. This will jar with the image of Jackie – composed, fragile, elegant – we might have hitherto entertained. This score and this Jackie, is fierce.

Costume and production design are of equal importance and do a splendid job of resurrecting the era, whilst the grainy, archival texture to the footage lends the film a certain seriousness and heft. Though there’s more to it than that. The uncanny reproduction of history invites you to scrutinise its appearance, to see it as performance, wherein each detail is a carefully selected choice. From the gloves to the drapes, nothing has been put there accidentally. A motif that resurfaces throughout the film is that of Jackie looking through reflective surfaces such as mirrors and windows and emphasises the sense of her multiplicity. In one such striking shot there are literally three fragmented Jackies.

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This film is nothing if not preferential towards reflexivity, constantly calling attention to the way the Kennedy’s were constructed and consumed. In a moment of wry self-awareness, Jackie and the journalist enjoy the following exchange:

JACKIE

The truth? Well I’ve grown accustomed to a great divide between what people believe and what I know to be real.

JOURNALIST

Fine, I will settle for a story that’s believable.

JACKIE

That’s more like it. You know I used to be a reporter myself once. I know what you’re looking for.

JOURNALIST

I’m sorry?

JACKIE

A moment-by-moment account. That’s what you came here for, isn’t it?

But don’t be mistaken, this isn’t an unmasking of Jackie Kennedy. Despite the scenes of her removing bloodied stockings, or rinsing of the blood of late husband in the shower, in the end Jackie maintains her veil. And whether she was this sort of woman in real life, I guess we’ll never know.

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Verdict: A vivid, mesmeric, tightly-controlled and searingly poignant interpretation of events, shot with a crisp, confident majesty. Much like Larrain’s subject, his film will leave a lasting impression.

And Best Supporting Actress goes to…a woman of colour. Hollywood’s diversity problem as reflected by this awards season

As the red carpet is rolled out, and awards season rolls around once more, the question on everyone’s lips is will #OscarsSoWhite become a thing of the past? Has Cheryl Boone Isaacs’ initiative to make the Academy of voters more inclusive worked? Or will they be doomed to repeat the hegemonic mistakes of 2016? 

It doesn’t look that way. Already IndieWire have reported that several films boasting racially diverse casts and crews are battling it out for Oscar inclusion and will inevitably disrupt the status quo. However, before we wax lyrical about Hollywood’s newfound commitment to diversity, there’s another worrying trend that has caught my attention….

As campaigns gain momentum and various nominations are revealed – both the Golden Globes and the SAGs were announced this week – one thing particularly struck me. If you take a look at the four main acting categories (Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress), across the predominant awards announced or decided thus far (Golden Globes, SAG Awards, Critics Choice, Indie Spirit Awards; the Oscars have yet to be announced), diversity is far less of an issue in the Supporting arena than it is in the Leading one.

The main Best Actor contenders this year are as follows:

  • Casey Affleck – Manchester by the Sea 
  • Joel Edgerton – Loving
  • Andrew Garfield – Hacksaw Ridge
  • Ryan Gosling – La La Land
  • Tom Hanks – Sully
  • Denzel Washington – Fences
  • Viggo Mortensen – Captain Fantastic

Denzel Washington is also a bit of a misnomer because he’s transcended the typical risk-aversiveness to black actors by securing a status of bankability.

The main Best Actress contenders this year are as follows:

  • Amy Adams – Arrival
  • Annette Bening – 20th Century Women
  • Isabelle Huppert – Elle
  • Ruth Negga – Loving
  • Natalie Portman – Jackie
  • Emma Stone – La La Land
  • Emily Blunt – The Girl on the Train (an SAG anomaly, not really a contender, to put it, well, bluntly).
  • Meryl Streep – Florence Foster Jenkins

Represented across these two categories you have 2 people of colour out of 15, so roughly 13%.

The main Best Supporting Actor contenders are: 

  • Mahershala Ali – Moonlight
  • Jeff Bridges –  Hell or High Water
  • Ben Foster – Hell or High Water
  • Lucas Hedges – Manchester by the Sea
  • Dev Patel – Lion
  • Michael Shannon  – Nocturnal Animals
  • Aaron Taylor-Johnson – Nocturnal Animals
  • Hugh Grant – Florence Foster Jenkins

And finally, for Best Supporting Actress we have: 

  • Viola Davis – Fences
  • Greta Gerwig – 20th Century Women
  • Naomie Harris – Moonlight
  • Octavia Spencer – Hidden Figures
  • Janelle Monae – Hidden Figures
  • Nicole Kidman – Lion
  • Michelle Williams – Manchester by the Sea

Whereas in the supporting category you have 6 out of 15, where the percentage increases to 40%. This trend is particularly prominent in the Best Supporting Actress category, where out of 7 contenders, 4 are black women.

If we were to rewind and take a whistle-stop tour of the Academy Awards from it’s inception, this trend is repeatedly confirmed. That is, that women of colour are far more likely to be nominated, and to win a Best Supporting Actress Oscar than they are a Leading Actress one.

And even then, the odds are unfavourably stacked.

Hattie MacDaniel was the first black woman to win Best Supporting Actress in 1939 for Gone With the Wind. It then took 51 years until the next: Whoopi Goldberg for Ghost in 1990. Another 16 years passed before Jennifer Hudson took home the gong for Dreamgirls.

To keep things recent, if we look at the period between 2000 and 2016, there’s been a comparative flurry of wins and nominations for women of colour in this category:

  • Lupita N’yongo won in 2013 for 12 Years a Slave
  • Octavia Spencer won in 2011 for The Help
  • Mo’Nique won in 2009 for Precious
  • In 2008, both Viola Davis and Taraji P. Henson were nominated for Doubt and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button respectively.
  • Ruby Dee was nominated in 2007 for American Gangster
  • Jennifer Hudson won in 2006 for Dreamgirls
  • Sophie Okonedo was nominated in 2004 for Hotel Rwanda
  • Shohreh Aghdashloo was nominated in 2003 for House of Sand and Fog
  • Queen Latifah was nominated in 2002 for Chicago

Whereas in the Leading Actress category Halle Berry remains the first and only woman of colour to have accepted the award, for her performance in Monster’s Ball in 2001.

There have been a handful of nominations through the same period:

  • Quvenzhané Wallis was nominated in 2012 for Beasts of the Southern Wild
  • Viola Davis was nominated for The Help in 2011
  • Gabourey Sidibe nominated for Precious in 2009
  • Catalina Sandino Moreno was nominated in 2004 for Maria Full of Grace
  • Salma Hayek was nominated for Frida in 2002.

But the success rate is paltry when compared with Supporting Actress. Indeed, black actresses are 5 times more likely to win Best Supporting, than Best Leading Actress. And if that doesn’t hit home hard enough, a brilliant chart released by TIME last year visualises the scarcity of nominations at the Oscars for actors of colour. It’s a veritable sea of whiteness (or in this case yellow dots, which stand for white actors nominated).

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And this year looks to be no different. Despite attention being given to Ruth Negga for her performance in Loving, as well as the ensemble casts of Moonlight, Hidden Figures, Fences, odds are on Natalie Portman or Emma Stone to walk away with the Oscar.

The SAG nominations released on Wednesday saw three women of colour nominated in the supporting role category; Naomie Harris as a crack addicted mother in Moonlight is joined by two other black actresses (Fences‘ Viola Davis and Hidden Figures’ Octavia Spencer), marking the first time women of colour have been nominated in the majority.

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N.B. Entertainment Weekly incorrectly reported that this also happened at the 15th SAG Awards in 2009 where Taraji P. Henson, Viola Davis and Penelope Cruz were all nominated, alongside Kate Winslet and Amy Adams. However Cruz is Spanish and therefore considered White, not Hispanic.

It’s a highly competitive category, but my money’s on Davis, Harris or Williams to win, once again placing the chances of a woman of colour securing a highly prestigious award with Best Supporting, rather than Leading. Which might seem like the epitome of a #FirstWorldProblem. ‘Oh no, you get to wear a beautiful dress and Hollywood applauds you whilst you pick up a shiny gold man and thank everyone you know in front of the entire world. Poor you’. Right? Except this trend speaks to a wider issue within the industry, and that’s the vitiation or peripheralization of women of colour in film.

So why is that? It can’t be coincidence that ethnic female actresses are more likely to get nominated in the supporting category. And you’d be right. It’s not coincidental. At risk of sounding like the chorus of Greased Lightning, it’s epidemic, systematic, bureaucratic and quite frankly racist. The issue is far more deep-rooted than governing bodies such as HFPA, AMPAAS and SAG-AFTRA are simply more willing to recognise women of colour in supporting than leading roles. It’s that the leading roles don’t exist in the first place for them to be recognised.

Viola Davis has spoken out about the relegation of black actresses to marginalised roles. She believes that there’s “a dozen white actresses who are working over age 40 in terrific roles” which young white actresses can look up to. “You can’t say that for a lot of young black girls.”

Indeed, the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University report examined the 100 top-grossing films at the US box office in 2015, noting the ethnic and gender makeup of 2,500 characters. Executive director Dr Martha M Lauzen found that women made up just 22% of key players, up from 12 per cent in 2014. The proportion of female characters was the highest since records began in 2002, when the previous best figure of 18% was posted.

The same upwards trend wasn’t discovered for female actors of colour, however. The survey found their representation in top Hollywood films was largely unchanged compared with 2014: 27% of leading female characters and 13% of all female characters were identified as being from ethnic-minority backgrounds in this year’s report.

If the representation isn’t there, then the critical reception and subsequent awards recognition simply can’t be.

As a report for The Economist delineates,

For most of the past 15 years, the Academy has largely judged what has been put in front of them: minority actors land 15% of top roles, 15% of nominations and 17% of wins…. The view behind the scenes is perhaps more revealing. Blacks really are much more under-represented in the director’s chair, where they account for 6% of directors of the top 600 films, according to the Annenberg study. Black women are nearly nonexistent there (two of the 600, Ava DuVernay being one).

If consumers want their films to reflect the society in which they live—as they do their parliaments and executive boards—it is these areas that must see improvement.

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However, the representational issue is largely an economic one.

Studios, ultimately, hold the financial power to greenlight which movies get made and which don’t, and sadly they’re the crux of the issue when it comes to Hollywood’s homogeneity problem. Because believe it or not, most of the Hollywood’s top dogs and studio executives are white men. If you want to click through a depressingly honest slide-show that evidences this fact, be my guest. And in a very insightful breakdown of who has ‘greenlighting power’, The Wrap illuminates the fact that aside from Warner Bros. Entertainment’s chief executive Kevin Tsujihara, the top leaders of the 10 biggest movie studios in the world are white. And two are women. (Though this was published in 2013, so the dynamics might have shifted slightly…but you can guess where the majority still remains).

Martha Lauzen agrees that we’ll “see greater diversity on-screen when we see greater diversity behind the scenes”.  It’s a problem that needs solving from the inside out. But herein lies the obstacle. Studios don’t like when there’s not a precedent for something. They like reliability. They like established fan bases. They love franchises.  And there isn’t a precedent for all-black movies with a plethora of roles for women of colour, because this be America y’all and if the election of Trump taught us anything it’s that the US is profoundly sexist and racist, and so the likelihood of those kinds of movies getting made isn’t just slim, it’s anorexic.

The average production budget of a studio film is between $50M and $100M, on top of which there are marketing costs, which is a hella zeroes. Hence why studios are overwhelmingly reluctant and hesitant when it comes to backing films, especially when they’re new and innovative and don’t possess that all-important template for success. Hence why they prefer to pump their money into Transformers 9 and Mission Impossible 7.

Don Cheadle spoke candidly to Robbie Collin for The Telegraph in promotion of his Miles Davis biopic Miles Ahead, in which he laid bare the realities of film financing and the risk-averse (read: mainstream, read: white) nature of the industry;

Problem one was finding people to fund an unusual jazz biopic with a black lead character. As Cheadle says, “Everyone but everyone wanted to be the second person to say yes.” In the end, he had to chip in an undisclosed sum himself.

“It was a chunk,” he says, wadding up the last word like papier-mâché in his mouth. “Biggest investment of my life, no question”.

Similarly, Viola Davis and Tom Hanks in their ‘Actors on Actors’ interview for Variety confirm that a racially diverse cast, or indeed a predominantly black cast, does not yet equal ‘commercial success’ in Hollywood and as ever, ethics comes second to economics. (Now would be the point I’d trot out my Abraham Lincoln abolished slavery to win the American Civil War, not because he was a moral crusader argument, but that’s another essay).

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“I’m used to playing housewives and maids and crack-heads…if it is a black movie, at best it’s a biopic”, says Davis on Hollywood’s diversity problem. Writers, casting directors and studios are still confined to stereotypes, generalisations and broad-strokes when it comes to characters of ethnic backgrounds. The nuances and realities are simply not there.

Hanks goes on to confirm “a film has to play overseas to make its investment back…it becomes a barrier to [diversity]”.

This filters back to the Oscars, because, you guessed it, those campaigns cost money. Earlier this year, AdWeek reported that according to conservative estimates, anywhere from $3 million to more than $10 million is invested to lobby academy voters on behalf of the Best Picture nominees alone”. Ultimately, this means that films being distributed by bigger studios (Paramount, the Weinstein Co., Universal) are more likely to get their players in the game, because they have the cash to splash. Certainly independent studios and outfits are starting to penetrate that elite circle and films with smaller budgets are increasingly earning wider audiences, as proved at the 2016 Oscars when Fox Searchlight’s Brooklyn, A24’s Room and Open Road’s Spotlight landed a combined 13 Academy Award nominations. But, look at the casts of those films – not a single one contains a minor role, let alone a leading one for women of colour.

The obstacles to racial equality in cinema are monumental and whilst this means we must celebrate every nomination a female actress from an ethnic background achieves, we must also be careful to vindicate this year as a ‘sea-change’. It might be a turning point, but it’s only a starting point.

Without trying to minimise the achievement that is earning a Best Supporting Actress nomination, we shouldn’t consider this ‘job done’ and think that one year where an awards season is more reflective of diverse talent pool signifies the end point for this conversation. Just because there’s no hashtag, doesn’t mean the debate has died. Women of colour are capable of more than supporting, and enabling their white co-stars. They should be elevated to the title of leading actress wherever possible and given the platform and support that increases their visibility, both during awards season and in general. They have stories of their own to tell, and the film industry needs to do better at sourcing, producing and green-lighting those stories.

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So yes, based on last year, awards season has become a picture of progressiveness. But that wasn’t exactly difficult. The Oscars literally left a blank, stark white canvas beckoning to be coloured. The issue here is that recognition in the Best Supporting Actress category is still a marginalisation of sorts. For women in general, who are more often than not circumscribed by ancillary characters. And for women of colour, who are still usurped by the ruling class, who must watch as their white female peers get nominated once again for Leading Actress, whilst they settle for the next best thing. Sure, Best Supporting Actress is a pretty fancy consolation prize. But bottom bunk is still bottom bunk.

Review: Bleed For This

Ben Younger knows how to make a boxing movie.

And in Vinny Pazienza, a loud-mouth Rhode Islander known as ‘The Pazmanian Devil’, Younger has found an ideal subject. Who better to embody the boxing genre’s recurrent theme of ‘overcoming adversity with sheer determination’ than a fighter who returned to the ring – and won a title –  a mere thirteen months after a potentially career, and spine, crippling car accident. It’s the stuff of a screenwriter’s dreams.

But in bringing his story to the screen, Younger fails to inject it with any stylistic ingenuity. He merely slots a round peg into a round hole; signalling Paz’s party-going lifestyle, his managerial issues, introducing a new washed-up trainer who immediately makes the change needed to kickstart Paz’s flailing career, the resulting triumph, the unexpected accident, the naysayers, the baby steps as Paz tries to make his comeback and finally the comeback itself. Etcetera, etcetera.

The tropes and emotional beats are hit with such a consistency, it’s as if Younger is using a punchbag himself. And therein lies the disappointment. Is Bleed For This entertaining cinema? Undoubtedly. Is it a good film? Not especially.

It’s hard to believe that 2014’s Whiplash was the last good Miles Teller film we’ve seen. He’s has 8 dubious credits to his name since then, and Bleed For This barely escapes being the 9th. Teller is far and away the best thing in this film; and given good material he can make a strong showcase for being one of the most charismatic actors of his generation. He brings an intensity, a bravado and a likeability to Vinny that certainly makes him easy to root for. And who’s to argue with the physical transformation? The reveal of his ripped and shredded body, adorned in merely a pair of leopard print panties early on in the film is testament to Teller’s commitment. He might as well be shouting ‘TAKE ME SERIOUSLY’.

If you can tear your eyes away, there’s some ‘worthy-of-mention’ performances happening elsewhere. Predominantly in Aaron Eckhart’s corner, where he plays the boozy, bellied coach Kevin Rooney, newly ditched by none other than Mike Tyson. With this and the recently released Sully, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a sturdier supporting actor than Eckhart. Meanwhile, Ciarán Hinds and Katey Sagal as Paz’s brash, flashy, Catholic parents somewhat overcook the accents and the era.

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There are a couple of moments that eschew affectation and speak to the inventiveness of which Younger is capable. Certainly the shot of Pazienza’s head-on car collision is depicted in a novel and sickeningly real way, whilst the energetic camerawork and evocative production design serve up a believably gritty view of working-class America. And if you come away remembering one thing from the movie it should be Willis Earl Beal’s track ‘Too Dry To Cry’ which injects the narrative with the perfect dose of soul and swagger.

It’s interesting to discover that Pazienza returned to the ring thirteen months after the accident and beat future WBC World Jr. Middleweight Champion Luis Santana via a 10-round decision. However the film chooses to depict his comeback fight as against Robert Duran. Perhaps because in the former he won via unanimous decision, where in this fight Paz won on the line via decision – making for a greater tension-filled finale. And yet strangely, Younger bleeds his film dry of tension. From the get-go his film establishes a tone where you simply expect Paz to pull through and that completely decimates any nerve-shredding, nail-biting impulses we might have. The only time you’ll be on the edge of your seat is when Paz is getting his metal halo removed and chooses to have the screws extracted without general anesthesia.

Bleed For This tries to have its cake and eat it too. By inserting real archival footage of Paz in the ring, it’s trying to convince us of its authenticity – and certainly with Raging Bull’s Martin Scorsese wearing the hat of executive-producer, there’s a whiff of someone that knows how to shoot a fight. But with a good amount creative liability, Younger has created an alphabet soup biopic, bobbing and weaving where he sees fit, but without ever landing a punch.

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The final scene rather serves as an explanation why. Younger’s film bows out not with the ‘we-all-saw-it-coming’ moment of blood-stained, hard-earned, sweat-drenched glory, but with a moment of pensive reflection. Pazienza is being interviewed, and is asked what was the biggest lie he was told. He replies: “It’s not that simple,” – alluding to the naysayers; his doctors, his family, the media, his coaching staff –  that repeatedly told him full recovery was impossible. Paz continues. “Actually, it is that simple.”

And that seems to encapsulates the issue with Younger’s approach. It’s too cut and dry. Too damn obvious. Whilst the story itself is completely true and inspirational, Pazienza’s triumphant rehabilitation makes for a diluted and strangely cautious cinematic subject.

Review: American Honey

I recently watched Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights and was struck by its tactile ferocity. The way almost every touch and glance simmered with raw, vengeful intent. Each shot throbbed with the sense that something urgent and new had to be said. If Arnold’s adaptation of Bronte was distilled to its quintessential themes of pain, anger and love, then American Honey – her fourth feature in ten years –  could just as easily be outlined as such, except with the added inclusion of hope.

Despite the notable use of Rihanna’s ‘We Found Love’ (in a hopeless place), against a backdrop of a poverty-stricken America where children appear to roam as free as chickens, Arnold’s vision is never as unflinching or brutal as Precious, Winter’s Bone or other films with young women in destitute situations. Instead it fizzles with an exuberant, and frequently, erotic energy. And so Arnold continues to prove herself a superlative storyteller of narratives of female sexual awakening.

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Our insight into this world comes via the wily yet naive Star, an Oklahoma-dwelling Texan native, played with immense magnetism and mischief by newcomer Sasha Lane. So incandescent is Lane as the impetuous teenager who abandons her downtrodden existence for an uninhibited life on the road, it’s no wonder Arnold spotted her on a beach in Panama City and offered her the part, captivated by her myriad tattoos and free spirit, no doubt sensing that her audience would be too.

In the most economic sequence of the film, Arnold quickly establishes Star’s dead-end day-to-day; scavenging through dumpsters for dinner, hitchhiking for rides with her weary half-siblings in tow and resisting the advances of her leering father.

So when Shia LaBeouf makes eyes at her across the aisles of a Walmart to the soundtrack of an anthemic pop song (a 21st century meet-cute if ever there was one), we have reason to suspect this is the first time Star has reciprocated attraction for her male admirer. And therefore it makes sense in this context that Star might up and leave to join a rat-pack of strays and tearaways who stay in ramshackle motels and flog magazine subscriptions to midwestern Americans.

LaBeouf is Jake; the No.1 sales guy in this motley crew of mag-merchants and the rat-tailed rebel without a cause.  But for all his hubristic flirtation and ‘give-a-shit’ persona, the head honcho of the operation is Krystal – a devil in a metallic bikini – embodied with steely-eyed un-sisterly-ness by Riley Keough (extraordinary in the TV series The Girlfriend Experience). She immediately senses a rival for Jake’s affections and it’s clear from the off that her provision of bed and board for her ‘employees’ doesn’t extend to protection.

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And so as Star’s journey begins with dangers and diversions aplenty, the plot sort of retires, instead favouring a ravishing, sprawling, glistening dream sequence approach, where encounters with cowboys, truckers and bears all merge into a meditative and frequently, explosive experiential soup. Star’s fellow companions are a tangle of limbs and dodgy highlights, who fizzle and fight with a liquored-up frenetic energy, but whom we never find more out about than from what state they came from. Arnold’s focus is unerringly on her increasingly daring heroine, who rejects the tried-and-tested sob story sales technique, in favour of the ‘truth’ and lands herself in more than a handful of hot-water situations.

One of which is the rousing chemistry she and Jake share; illustrated in two of this year’s (or perhaps any year’s) most tender and tangible sex scenes. If they can overcome Jake’s volatile temper and Krystal’s watchful eye, the idea of a future beyond petty crime and alcohol-swilling suddenly seems graspable. It’s a red-blooded, Badlands-esque romance brought to kinetic life by committed, scorching performances from Sasha and Shia.

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Part of the reason this film resonates is because of its loyal focus – to the exclusion of almost all other perspectives – on Star’s story. Female road trip narratives are hard to come by; that sort of transgressive, primitive trajectory was inherently masculinised, a self-made mythology woven into the fabric of the West and at odds with the domesticated experience women were expected to have. Therefore to have been gifted with a film that not only depicts what that might look like, but does so in such an illuminating, coruscating and unending way, must be applauded.

True, the endless repetition of fighting, drinking, partying and pilfering begins to tire as the road stretches forever onwards, but never seems to go anywhere. However, no-one could argue that this isn’t a beautiful and atmospheric journey to go on. Arnold’s recurrent cinematographer Robbie Ryan gives a virtuoso performance, capturing the landscape – at once gritty and ethereal – in a series of sun-dappled, light-speckled, honey-coloured hues. If it’s romanticised, it’s only because it’s filtered through the hazy lens of ecstatic youth.

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The soundtrack and editing likewise do more than pull their weight in anchoring this vision of Americana nirvana. From the kaleidoscopic musical accompaniments, featuring everything from Springsteen and Lady Antebellum to Ludacris and Lil Wayne, to the freewheeling yet often tightly-focused camerawork, each element serves Arnold’s hallucinogenic adventure. Despite the vast terrain and protracted running time, Arnold’s is a searingly intimate picture, reinforced by her favoured use of an Academy aspect ratio.

In that sense, American Honey never tries to be more than a surreal, soulful and subjective depiction of one young woman being catapulted into a world far more unpredictable than she imagined. And for that reason it succeeds – perhaps not on a narrative level, but on an emotional and visual level, it soars.

Review: Manchester by the Sea

Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester By the Sea, which had its UK premiere at the London Film Festival on Saturday night, is his mere third outing as a director. And his tertiary effort might just be his most mature, melancholic and majestic work yet. A story about a working-class Massachusetts family, to whom fate has not been kind, and the ubiquity of grief, Manchester By the Sea is the kind of subdued, sobering experience that doesn’t lend itself to mainstream attention. But seek it out and you’ll discover something of wrenching power and quiet, arresting beauty.

Casey Affleck, building upon a roster of roles he’s tackled with a tortured intensity, (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Gone Baby Gone) is Lee Chandler, a man whom life has chewed up and spat out and whom when we meet him is barely existing. Alternately abrasive and aloof, Lee is a competent if uncongenial handyman for 4 apartment buildings in Boston. Between the bar where he instigates fights with strangers to the one-bed squat where he falls asleep in front of the TV, beer in hand, there’s a sense of deadening routine which scarcely manages to distract from the deep-seated troubles which appear to plague our protagonist.

On a morning like any other, snow shovel looming mid-air, Lee receives a call that obliges his return to the humble New England hometown he vacated a few years previous. His affable, and well-liked older brother Joe (played by real-life Chandler, Kyle) has died of a cardiac arrest and bestowed guardianship of his 16-year-old son Patrick (a vibrant Lucas Hedges) upon a reluctant Lee. This abrupt, though not altogether unforeseen bereavement, forces Lee to confront a place and a past sheltering an unspeakable tragedy that splintered the community, and continues to reverberate amid these tight-knit people.

Seek it out and you’ll discover something of wrenching power and quiet, arresting beauty.

Lonergan, the eloquent mind and steady hand behind the handsomely-mounted, character-driven dramas You Can Count On Me and Margaret, continues to demonstrate an ear poetically attuned to the nuances of quotidian speech and the inadequacies of it in communicating our emotions. Manchester By the Sea is a richly textured tapestry of awkward moments, strained interactions and everyday encounters, coursing with authenticity and elevated by the electrifying humanism with which they are depicted.

As Lee drags Patrick through the requisite funereal proceedings, their interactions are at once endearing, comedic and searingly sad. Affleck and Hedges possess a chemistry that surpasses some of the most memorable romantic duos, their heated back and forth enlivening the morbid circumstances with pacy, familial rhythms. Both are desperate to get back to their fragile normalities. For Patrick this involves hockey and band practices, dating two girls at the same time and looking after his father’s boat. For Lee, that’s recoiling to his stony, siloed existence in Boston as quickly as arrangements dictate. Both must negotiate the ripples that this event has on their futures.

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As such, this story toes a familiar line, but with a seldom-seen ability to capture a smorgasbord of human emotion. Moments of wrenching poignancy are punctuated with a tart, caustic humour; from a freezer-induced meltdown to a bungled attempt at lovemaking, you’ll find the laughter catches in your throat as tears roll down your cheeks. As Lonergan invokes this melting pot of love, frustration, anguish, hilarity and clumsiness, he deftly eschews cliche and melodrama, instead leaving incisive, elegiac impressions, as his characters amble their way through the mire, clashing and compromising and composing themselves as well as they can.

Casey Affleck is given the lead role he deserves in Lee Chandler, and hits every grief-stricken note with painstaking aplomb.

Lonergan and his director of photography Jody Lee Lipes (who has done phenomenal work on indie movies such a Martha, Marcy, May Marlene and the underrated Bluebird), do a sensational job of capturing the stillness and sameness of the landscape. Lensed with a crisp elegance, the harsh winters and choppy waters are beautifully rendered, giving sense to a place and a people frozen in time. Less effective is the sound design, which sometimes threatens to overpower; especially when the other elements are so subtle and restrained.

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Still, it’s easy to forgive when the film is otherwise utterly engrossing. Lonergan continues to excel at coaxing naturalistic and heart-breaking performances from his actors. Casey Affleck is given the lead role he deserves in Lee Chandler, and hits every grief-stricken note with painstaking aplomb. Lucas Hedges, meanwhile, is a quick-witted and wilful screen presence, nailing the self-centred braggadocio of a popular teenager but with an impressive charm and sensitivity. Kyle Chandler is reliably rugged and paternal as the pillar of the Chandler family – it’s a talented actor who can really make you feel their absence when their death occurs before they’ve even appeared on the screen. Speaking of minimal scenes, Michelle Williams also gives a shattering performance in her all-too-brief role as Lee’s ex-wife Randi; effusing the kind of verisimilitude for which she was praised in Blue Valentine, and which should hopefully garner her supporting actress nominations come awards season.

Manchester By the Sea could be accused of dealing audiences an unsatisfactory ending, but it works in the context of a film that resounds with a muted ache and authenticity. I can’t stop thinking about it – in the way that all films possessed of this much wisdom, warmth and woe – leave you reeling and feeling fortunate to have seen it.

Review: The Childhood of a Leader

What sounds like a dictator’s pre-pubescent biography transmutes into a tapestry of tales copped from the collective childhood’s of the 20th century’s worst enemies. Borrowing its title from Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1939 short story, indie actor Brady Corbet’s (Eden, While We’re Young, Melancholia) directorial debut The Childhood of a Leader is a thoroughly art-house affair that will win critic’s affections, but no doubt alienate mainstream audiences. Still, amid Corbet’s predilection for the melodramatic, there is something distressingly original to be unearthed from a filmmaker who, it seems, is just flexing his muscles.

Robert Pattinson might be gracing the covers of The Times and Vanity Fair alongside Corbet in promotion of their festival-feted tour-de-force, but Edward Cullen devotees be warned, his appearances are scant. The real headliner is Tom Sweet, a girlishly striking young actor plucked from obscurity and burdened with carrying the effectiveness of the film on his bony shoulders. His, after all, is the childhood in question. Born to a German mother (The Artist’s Bérénice Bejo) and an American diplomat father (Game of Thrones’ Liam Cunningham), aiding President Wilson in the rebuilding of post-WW1 society, Prescott is the fruit of a frost-bitten harvest. All too aware of the wandering eyes and language barriers that afflict the already chilly relations between his parents, Prescott has been raised in an environment where callousness and commands take precedence over compassion. Tracing disobedience which builds to deviance and eventually flourishes into full-blown despotism, The Childhood of a Leader plays like a period We Need To Talk About Kevin, which says enough about the kind of mood you need to be in to watch it.

With ferocious singularity, Corbet and his eclectic menagerie of a cast deliver a potent piece of cinema that will linger in your mind.

childhoood-of-a-leader-2015-002-tutorial-two-shotThe film is structured in three acts, each labelled as tantrums and as one might expect, each escalating to have eye-widening ramifications. Boredom, might have something to do with it. Prescott, newly acquainted with his French chateau digs, has yet to make friends and finds reprieve in acting out. Whether it be throwing rocks at Parishioners in the family’s local church or humiliating his French tutor (Nymphomaniac’s Stacy Martin) with a series of calculated moves, Prescott discovers – not childish delight – but cold-hearted content in the chaos he is able to create. Status, appearance and religion are that which the family hold dear, something which Prescott recognises and learns how to unsettle early on. This is a child with an uncanny ability to undermine and override adult authority; revealing it to be fragile and performative.

With discipline failing and attempts at ‘befriending’ their child proving futile, Bejo and Cunningham – both efficiently effective in their roles – alternate between acquiescing entirely to their temper-prone spawn, or discussing providing him with a sibling, as if to erase his presence altogether. Though the triptych arc of Childhood is compelling in it’s setup, you can’t help but feel short-shrifted in terms of context and emotional depth. When Prescott’s third and final tantrum rolls around and a hostile environment – on both a personal and historical level – culminates in a dinner party with grave consequences, the explanations, or lack thereof errs on the frustrating side. For a film that projects anything but subtlety, it’s ironically prudish regarding the reasons behind the child’s maniacal tendencies.

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A delirious and stylistically salient epilogue infers the result of all this bad behaviour, heavily alluding to World War Two and the appearance of a leader whom made his beliefs devastatingly known. Though the interim period might’ve done with a touch more fleshing out. A bizarre twist of sorts – slash – casting choice (best not to IMDb this one before watching) does nothing to alleviate the air of confusion.

All of this being said, with ferocious singularity, Corbet and his eclectic menagerie of a cast, deliver a potent piece of cinema that will linger in your mind. What begins as a simmering study of childhood malevolence ignites to something much weightier and indeed, timely. Despite its languorous pacing, this is a tightly-wound narrative and Corbet’s is a film that never wastes a single moment. Each glance or exchange is significant and frequently informs a later action.

With a strident score and deft camera movement, Childhood persistently places you on the back foot, making you aware that something sinister is brewing but distinctly not in a position to stop it. You can only look on – through splayed fingers, such are the mounting levels of tension – as the tantrums progress and the consequences worsen. There’s a particular moment, about halfway through, where the camera tracks Prescott from behind as he ascends the stairs to his bedroom; the musical orchestrations mounting and gnawing away at your insides. Prescott enters his bedroom, turns around and promptly slams the door in our face. His is not a perspective we are ever given insight into.

Corbet’s is a handsomely-mounted and atmospheric debut; presented with a decided amount of operatic theatricality. Shot by cinematographer Lol Crawley, who most recently worked on 45 Years, the colour palette of Childhood is a bewitching mixture of foreboding darkness and translucent shafts of light; menacing images occasionally punctured by cherubic beauty. The house meanwhile, is adorned with opulent curtains, through which Prescott makes several entrances and Corbet frequently frames his characters in wide shots, as if you are watching them on stage rather than screen. Interestingly for all the wealth and power tied up in this family, the house ripples with cracked walls and peeling paint, as if signifying postwar dilapidation and the fraying familial relationships. This was an era after all when everything appeared to be unravelling at the seams. (Did I use the word timely already?)

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Despite his American background, Corbet’s cast and directorial sensibilities reflect a resume speckled with European influences. Written with his Norwegian partner Mona Fastvold, with whom he also collaborated on The Sleepwalker, a brilliantly unnerving and underrated thriller starring Christopher Abbott, there are semblances of Trier, Haneke, Force Majeure’s Ruben Östlund and Assayas. No doubt absorbed from Corbet’s time spent on their sets. After working for a great many auteurs, it comes as little surprise that with Childhood, Corbet exhibits the makings of a great one.

5 Scene Stealing Cats

Amid Britain’s political turmoil and the likely devastating impact on its creative sector, I thought I’d try to bring some levity to bear. And what better way to do that than to talk about cats.

So here are cinema’s most recent entries into the feline hall of fame…

Nasty Baby | Sula

Cat_001Freddy’s feline friend ‘Sula’ is director Sebastián Silva’s actual cat, an unsurprising discovery given the scant privacy she affords him. In a series of touching scenes, the cat’s presence becomes more than just a gimmick, but undoubtedly the one during which Sula wins the affections of the audience is the bath scene. With trademark curiosity and playfulness, her gentle prodding of Silva’s forehead lend the moment an air of tenderness, befitting the film’s raw and improvised tone.

Listen Up Philip | Gadzuki

Cat_002Like a child in a faltering marriage, Gadzuki the cat, in Alex Ross Perry’s lacerating comedy Listen Up Philip becomes a pawn in the drawn out break-up of Philip (Jason Schwartzman) and Ashley (Elisabeth Moss). Gadzuki is a staple throughout, sharing several heart-warming exchanges with Moss, and even garnering his own voiceover mention and narrative resolution, but his shining moment occurs roughly one hour in. When Philip returns to New York to win Ashley back, Gadzuki serves as proof that Ashley has moved on and is even used as a puppet to express Ashley’s newly unearthed dislike of her ex. It’s an empowering scene for Ashley, and perhaps a slightly exploitive one for Gadzuki, but the duo make a charming pair and you can’t help but feel they’ve got each other’s backs.

 

Inside Llewyn Davis | Ulysses

Cat_003The Coen Brothers’ poignant exploration of the Greenwich Village folk scene in 1961, arguably features the most characterful cat ever to have graced screens. Indeed, Oscar Isaac’s flame-haired companion has inspired endless critical evaluations. What is its significance? Is the cat Llewyn? The consensus seems to be that the cat amplifies Llewyn’s quest for an identity outside of his folk duo, joining him on a journey of self-reflection and giving him a sense of purpose when he so desperately needs one. Even if that is just retrieving said cat from various escapades.

The Grand Budapest Hotel | Persian Cat

Cat_004The most ill-fated cat of the bunch begins his cameo in the arms of Jeff Goldblum’s Kovacs and ends it dispatched from the clutches of Willem Dafoe’s Jopling. A particularly fluffy specimen, though the Persian’s appearance is short-lived, it’s a memorable addition to Wes Anderson’s bevy of whimsical characters. What’s more, his exit allows for a signature Andersonian visual gag; even the cat’s corpse is perfectly symmetrical.

The Voices | Mr. Whiskers

Cat_005Unlike the other films where the cat is a somewhat comforting presence, in Marjane Sartrapi’s black-comedy The Voices, Mr. Whiskers is a manifestation of Jerry’s (Ryan Reynolds) more deranged thoughts. As Jerry spirals downhill into a murderous pickle, Mr. Whiskers – the sardonic Scottish-accented sociopath to Bosco the dog’s more optimistic offerings – steals every scene he’s in with his morbid diatribe.