My week in film: Beyond the Lights, Brooklyn and Joy

Viewed this week, three films about female lives that in different ways present the difficulties of balancing a personal and professional life.

Gina Prince-Blythewood’s Beyond the Lights went without a cinema release in the UK last year, despite its excellent cast (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Minnie Driver, Danny Glover) and pertinent plot – it concerns a young R&B singer struggling with fame and self-perception – and critics felt that this might be due to an expectation of the audience’s racial bias, among other reasons (The best films you won’t see in cinemas, Telegraph). Now on Netflix, the film is well worth seeking out. Mbatha-Raw plays Noni, coached by her mother (Driver) from a young age to succeed at all costs in the tough music business, who is on the brink of releasing an album that will ‘change everything.’ Clearly unhappy with the enormous pressure, after an awards show, Noni attempts suicide but is talked down from her hotel balcony by the police officer (Nate Parker) assigned to her. What follows is Noni’s uncertain navigation of her future – everything has changed for her, but her mother/manager ignores her internal struggle.

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Minnie Driver and Gugu Mbatha-Raw

Beyond the Lights isn’t without cliché, its bodyguard/singer central pairing is very familiar, but what’s refreshing is the way Prince-Blythewood creates a world for her authentic characters that feels utterly convincing and deeply sympathetic to Noni’s journey towards emancipation. Taught at a pivotal, early stage in life that only winning is of value, regardless of what is costs, Noni must learn to value herself first, instead. Mbatha-Raw’s performance is immensely affecting, as she balances Noni’s public and private personas with skill.

Another enjoyable performance is at the heart of Brooklyn, now nominated for three Oscars (Best Film, Best lead actress*, Best adapted screenplay) and six BAFTA’s (Best film, lead actress, supporting actress, best screenplay, best costume design and best make-up). Adapted by Nick Hornby from the novel by Colm Tóibín, the 1950’s set Brooklyn tells the story of Eilis (Saoirse Ronan), who moves to New York from Ireland to work, leaving behind her sister, Rose and mother. Eilis, at first homesick, eventually settles into her life working at a department store, taking night classes in accounting and living at Mrs Keogh’s (Julie Walters) boarding house, all arranged by Father Flood (Jim Broadbent). Eilis even falls in love, with Tony (Emory Cohen), and their tender romance is the final element that will bond her to her new home.

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Emory Cohen and Saoirse Ronan

Again, it’s the expectations of others that Eilis must rebel against. When drawn home, it appears to Eilis that the life she never thought she’d have in Ireland might be possible after all, and director John Crowley makes much of her homeland’s charms, just as her friends and relatives appear desperate for her to stay. As in Beyond the Lights, it’s the search for freedom that is essential to the character. Though both films have romantic elements, neither Noni or Eilis are motivated entirely by their relationships with men, rather it’s their desire to discover a life that will be true to their own ideals and values that drives each narrative.

In David O. Russell’s Joy, with Jennifer Lawrence in the title role, the struggle for financial success plays a greater part in the story, where Lawrence’s divorced mother of two pursues her dream as the inventor of a self-wringing mop. Living with her permanently bed-located mother and her ex-husband and father in the basement, whilst maintaining a job as a travel agent with an unreliable car, much is made of Joy’s chaotic life. Like David Lynch before him (but with half as much style), Russell uses the camp of soap operas as an analogue for Joy’s messy life, where the stakes are high and a large cast of characters are all invested in the outcome of her invention.

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l-r Edgar Ramirez, Elizabeth Rohm, Dascha Polanco, Isabella Rossellini, Robert De Niro Jennifer Lawrence, Diane Ladd

There’s lots to enjoy here- Virginia Madsen’s affectionate performance as Joy’s mother Terry, the lolloping pace, which seems to progress the film’s plot in spirals, and of course, just the presence of Isabella Rossellini. There’s something a little bit bonkers about Joy, too though, and not in a way that feels purposeful, as was the case with the delightful and thoughtful I Heart Huckabees. It’s an American Dream tale after all, and the many set-backs Joy faces feel somehow artificial, (but maybe that’s the point) as though she must overcome an ever increasing number of hurdles in order to truly appreciate being able to have power hair and wear a power suit and be the entrepreneur her granny always knew she would be. Where Joy fails and Brooklyn and Beyond the Lights succeed, is in giving a sense of who their central characters are, rather than just being an accumulation of personal struggles.

Also watched: Slow West (John Maclean), which was somewhat unconvincing.

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My week in film: The Master, Silver Linings Playbook and two films by Ben Wheatley

The Master by Paul Thomas Anderson is one of the most talked about and highly praised films of the year, making it very hard to approach without preconceptions. Nevertheless, this was my attempted approach. A tale of two halves – two astonishing performances – from Joaquin Phoenix as psychologically damaged Freddie Quell and Philip Seymour Hoffman as the man who thinks he can fix him, Lancaster Dodd. Anderson loosely based Dodd and his movement, The Cause on the emerging teachings of L. Ron Hubbard’s Scientology in post WWII America and certain aspects, such as ‘processing’ of patients (which Freddie undergoes) are akin to auditing in Dianetics.the master_water

Rather than a straight biographical exercise, The Master is so much more, becoming a portrait of emotional unrest and struggle of power, the narrative of which unravels and sprawls and happily doesn’t provide a neat conclusion. There’s something unreachable about the characters, perhaps because Anderson doesn’t ever suggest that their actions will have the kind of consequences we might expect from a conventional narrative. We see Dodd take Freddie under his wing and the latter’s steadfast loyalty would suggest that his susceptibility might allow him to change, but what kind of change can be expected from such aggressive methods?THE MASTER

The two leads aside, Amy Adams is compelling as Dodd’s wife Peggy: a woman who appears to follow her husband’s lead only to reveal her true power in the final act. Peggy is perhaps the true Master, able to control her ‘base’ urges more convincingly than Dodd, whose outbursts when confronted only show his similarity with Freddie. I can’t say that The Master had the same emotionally confrontational effect on me that Anderson’s There Will Be Blood (2007) or Magnolia (1999) did  – despite all three films having in common central, powerhouse, male performances – but its certainly a thought provoking, beautiful, more challenging film than the average. Perhaps a second viewing (in Anderson’s preferred format, 70mm) will enrich my appreciation.

Down-TerraceAhead of the release of Ben Wheatley’s Sightseers I caught up with all the enthusiasts of his previous films and watched Down Terrace (2009) and Kill List (2011). The formers’ blue grey palette, naturalistic performances and documentary style camera work make for a fresh and unnerving viewing experience. Centred around a crime family – mother Maggie (Julia Deakin), father Bill (Robert Hill), and son Karl (Robin Hill) and beginning with the release of the latter two from jail, the plot concerns the unravelling of the family’s trust in their network of associates and friends as they suspect each of informing on them to the police. Set mostly in the interior of the family home, much of the black comedy comes from the incongruity of combining British home life with the ‘necessary violence’ enacted to maintain the family’s code of retaliation.

Kill-List-007Kill List also uses a family dynamic to contrast domestic banality with psychological torment and horrific cruelty – this time carried out by Jay (Neil Maskell) alongside friend and fellow hit man Gal (Michael Smiley, also in Down Terrace) as they set about a three-kill job. Leaving wife Shel (MyAnna Buring) with their son Sam (Harry Simpson), in their well-furnished home whilst he undertakes the job that will solve their money trouble, Jay and Gal begin to question the nature of the task in hand, resulting in an altogether more dense and unsettling – even scary – trail of murder and revenge. Original music by Jim Williams is uncompromisingly uncomfortable, constantly maintaining the tension of an unexpected threat. This, combined with some deft framing and editing, not to mention brilliant performances make for an impressive viewing experience and a film that lingers after the credits have rolled. I’ve no reason to doubt that Sightseers will live up to its positive acclaim.

silver-linings-playbook-trailerOn current release is the charming and engaging Silver Linings Playbook directed by David O. Russell, who – it could be argued – has rejuvenated the romantic comedy here in the same way he added edge to the boxing drama with 2011’s The Fighter. Actually Silver Linings Playbook has more in common with the director’s screwball, existential crisis comedy, I Heart Huckabees (2004) as Bradley Cooper plays recently diagnosed bi-polar, Pat, attempting to improve his mental and physical health after a spell in a psychiatric hospital. Agreeing to partner the also troubled Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) in a dance contest, in exchange for her help in contacting his estranged wife, Pat shares a determination and single-mindedness much like Tommy (Mark Wahlberg) in Huckabees. The relationship between widowed, raw, Tiffany and initially oblivious Pat, and all their Psychiatric-jargon infused exchanges is similar to that of Tommy’s ‘other’ Albert (Jason Schwartzman), as each must benefit from their interactions: Tiffany wants to break her habit of generosity without reciprocation.

In this way, Silver Linings Playbook is better considered as a compassionate comedy about the human condition, even if this does belie the inevitability of its romantic comedy conventions. Oh, and Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver are brilliant as Pat’s parents.

the-world-of-apuThis week saw my completion of The Apu Trilogy with Satyajit Ray’s The World of Apu (1959). The previous films Pather Panchali (1955) and Aparajito (1956) concern Apu’s childhood years living in relative poverty (a state that he never really manages to escape) with his family, and following this, his entry into education and discovery of science. It would be foolish to attempt to summarise the myriad moments of excellence in these three films, suffice to say if you like Ozu or Renoir, Ray’s most famous trilogy is essential viewing, demonstrating him as a filmmaker of true humanity and skill.

Foregoing exhaustive reviews of every film seen this week, but sticking to the journal format, a small list of the others – which demonstrate a soft spot for schmaltz – should suffice:

Men in Black 3, Barry Sonnenfeld, 2012

The Mighty Ducks, Stephen Herek, 1992

D2: The Mighty Ducks, Sam Weisman, 1994

WAL·E, Andrew Stanton, 2008