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Monday, 7 March 2016

A Cinephile Diary - Shaun Heenan's week of the old and the new

As always, Spike Lee is furious. This time, as shown in Chi-Raq (Spike Lee, USA, 2015), he’s furious about the level of gang violence in Chicago, which the title likens to a warzone, and about the likelihood of innocent victims getting caught in the crossfire. He’s furious about the idiotic machismo which helps this keep happening, and he’s furious about the free trade of weapons which make it possible. In an unusual move, Lee has channeled this rage through a modern day hip-hop musical retelling of the ancient Greek story Lysistrata. In both stories, a woman named Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris), desperate to end a war, recruits women from both sides of the conflict to join her in withholding sex from the men involved, until they agree to peace. Most of the film is shown in either song or rhyming verse, and is narrated by Samuel L. Jackson.

The form is fascinating, if not always completely successful, and the message is vital. There’s no room left for subtlety when children are dying, and in one incredibly powerful scene a preacher (John Cusack) literally shouts an anti-gun sermon at the camera, in full. Unfortunately, for every scene in Chi-Raq that works, there are three which don’t. Awkward writing to fit the rhyming structure is the most frequent offender. Still, I have never seen a movie anything like this one, and it’s certainly a big step up from Lee’s other recent film: the near-unwatchable vampire movie Da Sweet Blood of Jesus (Spike Lee, USA, 2014).

I found The Lady in the Van (Nicholas Hytner, UK, 2015) supremely irritating. Maggie Smith plays a grouchy homeless woman who lives on the street in an old van, driving to a new location each time she’s threatened with a parking ticket. She eventually ends up parking in the driveway of the writer Alan Bennett (Alex Jennings), where she stays for fifteen years. It’s a true story, based on aan autobiographical memoir that was later turned into a play by Bennett. The baffling choice has been made to portray the author as two characters: the artist and the public face, and the two bicker incessantly. This conceit doesn’t work for a second, and Jennings’ dual performance is truly annoying.

I understand why people would like this film (and why many do). Theoretically, this is a story about the way we choose to ignore the situations of those less fortunate than ourselves. We know they must have lived full lives, and they must have hopes, dreams, talents, knowledge and histories, but it’s easier not to care. Bennett barely ever even lets her enter his house. Maggie Smith has previously played this role on stage and on the radio, and she inhabits the character well. Despite this, I didn’t find the role half as charming as I suspect was intended. The film ends too cleanly, letting us know there is a revelation to be made, and then negating it entirely, oversimplifying an important part of a real person’s life. I was sick of the film long before it limped to that ending.

A friend’s recommendation on Twitter led me to Domino (Tony Scott, USA/France, 2005), an action film based very loosely on the life of female bounty hunter Domino Harvey. Harvey is played by Keira Knightley with a love for chaos, and the filmmaking matches this attitude. Perhaps it matches a little too well. The film is presented almost entirely in stylistic flourishes, from the overbearing yellow and green lighting to the rapid cutting during simple scenes. This film can’t sit still for a minute, and the frantic presentation accents the insanity of the plot.

According to the film (which jokingly claims to be ‘sort of’ based on reality), Harvey discarded her wealthy background for a life of excitement, joining a group of bounty hunters who found themselves mixed up in a $10m heist, through a series of misunderstandings too labyrinthine to recount here. There’s a mob boss lurking in the background of the events, raising the stakes above even those of Harvey’s normal work. The film is overflowing with unique, high-energy characters and astoundingly weird situations (one example sees Queen Latifah appear on Jerry Springer, arguing with the audience about new terms for racial subgroups). Between this and the non-stop eye-popping editing, it’s a little disappointing the film takes its main plotline so seriously. The film is much too long at 127 minutes, but there’s some scattered fun to be had along the way.

Without a doubt, the best film I watched this week was Atlantic City (Louis Malle, Canada/France, 1980). This film is heartbreaking. Everyone in it has given up on dreaming big, but we watch as they fail to reach even their own lowered expectations. Sally (Susan Sarandon) works at the seafood counter in a hotel, but she’s training to become a casino dealer because she hates the way the produce makes her smell. Her husband ran away with her sister, now pregnant, and they’ve returned to mooch from Sally while they try to sell some stolen cocaine. Across the hall lives Lou (an elderly Burt Lancaster), who used to have minor mob connections, but oversells how deeply he was involved to prop up his own self-worth. He now works for a woman whose claim to fame was competing in (but not winning) a beauty pageant 40 years ago. The city itself is a miserable wreck too, but with the recent legalization of gambling, it can one day hope to become a chintzy tourist destination.

Malle finds wonder in the way these sad sacks interact.  None of them believe the stories they peddle, and none of them believe anybody else’s story either, but at least they can lie about their lives together, falsely smiling at one another. It’s a profoundly sad movie, created with great skill. It was nominated for five major Oscars, but didn’t win any of them. How fitting.

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