MUDBOUND***** Excellent


This superb movie (Another challenge to Hollywood by Netflix) is an epic, small-scale film (There could be no more than a dozen or so characters) that, confidently, tackles the huge issue of (black) servitude – the legacy of slavery – and the struggle for freedom.

The story centres on two, dirt poor, families – neighbours – in rural Mississippi. One family, the McAllan’s is White and the other, the Jackson’s is Black. After being suckered by a sheister, the McAllan’s find themselves sharing a (symbolic) common plot of mud-drenched farmland with the Jackson’s. It’s a come-down in life. They see the land as a curse. The Jackson’s see it as a blessing. But despite the commonalities of their circumstances – the unforgiving rain, a long shared history, a family structure that almost mirrors each other’s, the daily grind to eek out a living from the land- the divide of race remains a barrier that can never be surmounted.

Even seventy five years after the end of slavery, the master/slave dynamic remains hard wired into the muscle memory; into a sense of identity, bound to a status quo that demands that the Blacks know their place: one of servility and deference. The scenes of rural poverty, of people literally stuck in the mud suggest that the belief of (White) racial superiority is the only thing there is to offer these poor Whites some semblance of self-respect. Without it, there is nothing. Only poverty (and Trump).

The two women in the families, Laura (Carey Mulligan) and Florence (a superb Mary J. Blige) share some sort of recognisably human bond (They’re both also meant to “know their place”): in times of trouble, Laura, herself trapped in a miserable life, depends on the healing hands of Florence. There are moments when human compassion and empathy override the racial relationship that defines their lives, when two people see each other as people, not racial types. But it is Poppy McAllan (Jonathan Banks), an embittered, racist KKK member, whose unrelenting hostility sets the tone.

The problem comes when the two sons, Jamie McAllan (Garret Hedlund) and Ronsell Jackson (Jason Mitchell, so very good in “Detroit”) return from the (2nd World) war. This war of liberation has for them become the theatre of their own personal liberations; their own personal epiphanies. For Jamie, the simple verities of White masters and Black slaves have been shattered by the necessarily shared values of fighting shoulder to shoulder (and by being saved by a Black fighter pilot). For Ronsell, the shock of being regarded as a liberator, as an equal, has so shifted his world-view that the demeaning servility expected of him back home becomes unbearable.

The two men form a bond, a band of brothers in a minor key.

But Jamie, with his not understood PTSS and Ronsell with his uppity ways, are strangers in their own town. And this cannot be permitted. The tradition of racism, so knitted to identity and self worth, must defend itself against the post-war disease of equality. The old ways will never yield to the new (as the KKK do their thing).

But director Dee Rees’ thesis that the individual can transcend his/her history and find fulfilment no matter the odds, leads to an ending that feels shoe-horned onto a gloomier and more honest conclusion.

It’s a minor blemish to a major work.

Apart from the excellence of this movie, there’s something radical and groundbreaking about it: many of the production crew (cinematographer, editor, composer, writer) buck Hollywood tradition: they’re mostly Black and they’re mostly women.

Way to go Netflix

 

MUDBOUND. Dir: Dee Rees. With: Carey Mulligan, Garrett Hedlund, Jason Clarke, Jonathan Banks, Rob Morgan, Jason Mitchell, Mary J. Blige. Writers: Virgil Williams (Who wrote most of the “24” TV series), and Dee Rees from a book by Hilary Jordan. Cinematographer: Rachel Morrison (“Cake”); Production Designer: David Bomba (“Walk the Line”, “Godless”)

 

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PADDINGTON BEAR 2**** A Christmas Joy


THERE ARE A couple of scenes in this marvelous movie that are guffawingly funny. When the brilliantly realized, thoroughly clutzy, Paddington (voiced by Ben Wishaw) decides he has to earn some money cleaning windows, Director Paul King (who directed the first movie) unleashes a series of comedy routines that are simply priceless.

This revisiting of Michael Bond’s good natured bear and his adopted family (or is it the other way around?) is as good as the first.

King’s fluid, roaming camera (that takes you with him to the edge of thunderous waterfalls and swoops over rooftops) gives the story (of a bear in search of a stolen book) an energy and a stylishness that’s irresistible. You can’t blame Hugh Grant’s (we presume apocryphal) story that his father queried whether the bear were real. As far as I’m concerned, Framestore’s magic made it so.

And as you’d expect in a story like this, there’s a hissable baddy: said Hugh Grant as the dastardly Phoenix Buchanan

This is Grant’s movie-dominating, scene-stealing, triumphant tour de force return to the movies (a return he tempted us with in “Florence Foster-Jenkins”). Even if you hate “kid’s movies” see it just for him. Grant isn’t just one baddie, but several. He’s a devious washed-up actor, desperate for some extra cash; and he’s a shifty nun, a piratical Magwich, a Medieval knight in armour, a bumbling bald train conductor and an all round deliciously entertaining comedian.

He’s backed up by a who’s who of Brit cinema: Brendan Gleeson as a career criminal who falls for marmalade, Sally Hawkins and Hugh Bonneville as Paddington’s adopted parents, Michael Gambon, Richard Ayoade, Jim Broadbent, Joanna Lumley being Ab Fab, Peter Capaldi, still nasty, Imelda Staunton and others

Here’s a version of England as the England – community spirited, diverse, forgiving – as we’d all like it to be. And giving the entire enterprise a jolly pep to its step (as in P1) is a swaying, smile-making Trinidad calypso band (D Lime featuring calypsonian Tobago Crusoe).

Who could want for anything more

 

PADDINGTON 2. Dir: Paul King, With: Hugh Grant, Ben Wishaw, Brendan Gleeson, Hugh Bonneville and Sally Hawkins. Written by: Simon Farnaby (from the books by Michael Bond) along with Paul King. Cinematographer: Erik Wilson. Production Designer: Gary WIlliamson

 

MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS*** Occidental Tourists


THE CHALLENGE FACING Kenneth Branagh in his stylish re-imagining of Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express” was how to make a dated, preposterous story, engage an audience well accustomed to very high class murder mysteries on TV.

As a reminder of the story: Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot (Branagh), sporting (or I should say, fighting against) an absurd clownish mustache, finds himself on a train with an eclectic cast of characters, one of whom is brutally murdered. The train (said Orient Express chugging through snowfall from Istanbul to London) gets stranded by an avalanche and it behooves the world famous detective, armed only with his formidable intellect (and without even the aid of Google) to solve the mystery and reveal the murderer.

Branagh’s solution to his problem is to offer us a conjurer’s trick. He invites the audience to slip back into the effortless glamour of 40’s Hollywood, when everyone looked fabulous; when the clothes, like the complexions glowed with an otherworldly gossamer of elegance and sumptuous wealth. And not just the people: the scenery, the sets, the locations are all gloriously beautiful. There is one particular moment when the detective’s motor launch steams into the Bosporus that is picture postcard perfect.

And it’s while we’re engaged, preoccupied, by all this visual spectacle that he sneaks in a crudely cartoonish, tension-free version of Cluedo. Was it the butler with the hammer in the library or the count with the spanner in the bedroom?

The story presents us with a series of broadly drawn stock caricatures that this high quality ensemble of actors struggle to transcend. Judi Dench is the haughty Princess with her fussy dog, Daisy Ridley is the deceptively sweet governess, Johnny Depp (mercifully contained) is the brash gangster, Derek Jocobi is the snooty man-servant, Michelle Pfeiffer is the flirtatious American, Olivia Coleman is the dowdy German lady in waiting, Penélope Cruz is the distraught sinner etc. The twist of course is that below the caricature, there are real beating hearts, one of whom is a murderer. But caricature wins out over the beating hearts, whose stories never quite make it to the surface despite an endless yawn of interrogations.

Christie’s writing may have made this absurd assemblage easier to digest by colluding with her readers’ imaginations and escapist fantasies. But writ large on the big screen in a post “Gone Girl” world, these cartoonish characters all seem shop worn and passé.

In the end, the big, deliberately theatrical reveal, with a Poirot burdened with his choice between the law and Justice, seems all very anti-climatic.

That said, as a lover of great cinematography (Haris Zambarloukos of “Denial” and “Thor”), brilliant production design (Jim Clay of “Woman in Gold” and “Love Actually”) and inventive wardrobes (Alexandra Bayne of “Doctor Strange” and the “Avengers” franchise), it was a very watchable film. (Far more watchable, say, than the much-lauded faux jollyness of “Thor: Ragnarok” which, at best, was a great cure for insomnia)

 

MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS. Dir: Kenneth Branagh. With Kenneth Branagh, Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Daisy Ridley, Leslie Odom Jr., Tom Bateman, Johnny Depp, Derek Jacobi, Lucy Boynton, Michelle Pfeiffer, Olivia Coleman. Writer: Michael Green (“Blade Runner 2049”), Composer: Patrick Doyle (“Thor: Ragnarok”)