If Beale Street Could Talk, the new Barry Jenkins film.


If Beale Street Could Talk.

If Beale Street Could Talk is the keenly awaited follow up to the surprise hit that Barry Jenkins had in 2016, when he won the Academy award for Best Film with Moonlight. And if that weren’t pressure enough, it’s a James Baldwin adaptation. 

Tish and Fonny are childhood sweethearts, but the latter is in jail having been falsely accused of rape. And Tish is pregnant with their first child. So she and their two families are trying desperately to somehow raise the cash needed to pay for what will almost certainly be a fruitless attempt at legal redress. 

Beautifully shot and impeccably crafted, Jenkins takes an elliptical approach to the narrative as he moves back and forth through time to construct his story one piece at a time. Essentially it’s a love story with shades of Romeo and Juliet, as Fonny’s mother looks down from a height at the match her son has disastrously made with his unworthy mate.

This is brilliantly captured in what is in effect the central scene, as they two families square off from one another as Tish’s parents announce the happy news of her pregnancy. And therein lies the rub. For this scene is what the first third of the film culminates with. And although the rest of the film is perfectly fine, indeed mostly very good, the rest of the film never quite lives up to that first third.

Mahershala Ali and Alex R. Hibbert in Moonlight (2016)

This, you’ll remember, is exactly what happens with Moonlight, which I reviewed earlier here. That film is divided into three parts, and the first two, and especially the first, are excruciatingly moving. But the third is ever so slightly underwhelming. Well, to put it in Wildean terms, to fail to ratchet up the dramatic tension of your story once is forgivable, but to do so twice feels like carelessness.

James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk.

All drama must needs move through an arc, rising and rising, before finally falling. You need to pass through E C C C C; Exposition, Conflict, Crisis, Catastrophe before final Catharsis. And dramatically speaking, both of Jenkins’ two principle films flatline after the drama of their first halves.

If Beale Street Could Talk is still a very good film, it looks ravishing and it’s a wonderful antidote to all that green screen nonsense. But Jenkins will need to work with someone on structure and the building of dramatic tension if he’s to avoid becoming but a brilliant stylist.

You can see the trailer to If Beale Street Could Talk here.

Sign up for a subscription right of below and I shall keep you posted every month, on All the very best and worst in film, television and music!

Subscribe here for regular updates. And get your FREE GIFT of the first 2 chapters of my book, A Brief History Of Man.

Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, clever video game, dreary drama.


Black Mirror:Bandersnatch.

Erstwhile television critic and screenwriter Charlie Brooker launched Black Mirror in 2011 on Channel Four, and in 2015 he and it moved over to Netflix for its third season. 

Sort of a cross between the Twilight Zone and Tales of the Unexpected, each episode presents a one-off, stand alone fable that explores a technological dystopia set in the very near future.  Invariably, the stories revolve around a societal What if question that is taken to its logical extreme.

The topics that each episode explore are momentarily intriguing, and it’s all glaringly au courant, that is to say trendible, so the first twenty minutes are generally fairly entertaining. But invariably the episode soon fizzles out, because Brooker is not really concerned with, and therefore not much good at, drama. He’s all too easily dazzled by the cleverness of his initial conceit. And his latest, Bandersnatch, continues the trend.

Black Mirror.

Nominally a feature film, it’s his and Netflix’s attempt at that much heralded hybrid, the interactive film. The idea of an interactive film emerged about 25 years ago as the digital revolution took off, and there were a number of factors that brought it into being.

First, DVDs replaced video, and with them came the advent of the deleted scene. At the same time, a new generation of video game consoles arrived, offering massively more sophisticated graphics. And the evolving world of Virtual Reality promised an even more impressive visual landscape, from which who knew what might emerge. 

So viewers began to ask themselves, what if we could decide what happens in a story? Could we choose a version of the film with those deleted scenes, instead of the one that the film makers ended up deciding on? And if so, what other things could we change about the stories we watch? Bandersnatch is the realization of that fantasy.

Your first decision, to ease you in.

So, as ever, for the first twenty minutes, you’re intrigued. You get ten seconds to make a black or white, Yes or No decision. And the story progresses, and ends, according to the decisions you make. Except it doesn’t.

Inevitably, if you make the “wrong” choice or choices, the film ends prematurely, and you’re offered the opportunity to go back to your “wrong” decision, and choose the other option. Of course you could politely decline, turn off your devise and pick up a book instead. But obviously you don’t, you go back to follow the alternative story lines, with their choice of endings, to see what other ways the story could have gone. 

Our hero’s been offered a deal, what does he do?

Which is an interesting idea, and it’s all terribly meta and frightfully clever. But as soon as you can go back and change your decision, that decision no longer has any weight or value. So any sense of tension and all the drama is immediately neutered. 

When one character says to our hero, one of us is going to jump off this building, who’s it going to be…And the action freezes for a jagged 10 seconds, and youhave to decide who, that’s exhilarating, and frightening and thrilling. But as soon as you can go back, and make the other decision, just to see what happens, before you know it, you’ll be glancing at your phone to see what you’ve missed since you started playing the game. 

And there’s the rub. Because interactive dramas already exist. They are called video games, which is what this is. And as a video game, it’s really interesting. Because what it shows is that the future of video games lies not with VR, but with live action. Bandersnatch is what video games will look like the day after tomorrow. 

Which is a really interesting polemic. And a polemic, like all the other Black Mirror episodes, is what this should have remained as. Had it appeared as an article in Vanity Fair, or in one of the Guardian supplements, it would have provided for a really interesting distraction. But as a drama, never mind a 90 minute plus drama, it’s woefully dull and progressively tedious.

Sign up for a subscription right or below, and I shall keep you posted on All the very Best and Worst in film, television and music!

Subscribe here for regular updates. And get your FREE GIFT of the first 2 chapters of my book, A Brief History Of Man.

A cult classic road movie from the 70s.

Two-Lane Blacktop.

Two-Lane Blacktop is exactly the sort of film everyone expected there to be hundreds of after the global success that Easy Rider enjoyed in 1969.

Easy Rider starred and was written by Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda, together with Terry Southern, who’d previously worked on the script for Dr. Strangelove and was credited by Tom Wolfe as having pioneered New Journalism. It cost just $400,000, but went on to gross over 60 million dollars. 

Both a commercial and a critical sensation, it ushered in the New Hollywood era that blossomed throughout the 70s with the likes of Robert Altman, Hal Ashby, Martin Scorsese, Francis (ex of Ford) Coppola and Paul Schrader.

Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider.

Surprisingly, Easy Rider has aged remarkably well and is definitely worth a look if you haven’t already seen it. As is this, its spiritual sequel.

Two-Lane Blacktop, the blacktop being the open road on which our latter day cowboys face up to one another on, came out in 1971 and was directed by Monte Hellman

A driver and a mechanic prowl the open road looking for likeminded loaners to race, living off of the proceeds. Inevitably, they pick up a girl looking for a, ahem, ride, and what plot there is revolves around their pursuit of her, and their confrontation with the older outrider they square off against on their respective steel steeds.

But neither the film nor its principle characters seem terribly interested in pursuing their objects of desire. Instead, it’s the spirit of Antonioni that reigns supreme. His regal Zabriskie Pointe (reviewed by me earlier here) had come out the previous year, and, as there, the predominant mood is one of existential ennui. 

Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point.

This is further accentuated by the casting. The two male leads are played by James Taylor and Dennis Wilson. The former went on to establish himself as the archetypal 70s singer songwriter, while Wilson was the least naturally gifted of the three Beach Boy brothers, musically speaking. And was so insanely young when the whole Beach Boys thing happened – he was 23 when Pet Sounds came out at the endof their heyday – that inevitably, he spent most of his thirties in a drug-addled haze, before drowning tragically at just 39.

Harry Dean Stanton, in a brief cameo in Two-Lane Blacktop.

So instead of the sort of performances with a capital P that you would have expected from a Dennis Hopper or a Jack Nicholson, they amble they way through the film in exactly the right state of disinterest, not so much by design as by default. Pleasingly, you suspect that their casting was similarly happenstance. They just happened to be there when that particular joint got passed around.

It doesn’t quite give the heady hit that Easy Rider produces. But it is a curio well worth investigating and is a pleasing antidote to all that green screen nonsense. 

Sign up for a subscription right or below, and I shall keep you posted every month on All the very Best and Worst in film, television and music!

Subscribe here for regular updates. And get your FREE GIFT of the first 2 chapters of my book, A Brief History Of Man.

The Beguiled and Dunkirk, a fab new shampoo ad and video game

The Beguiled.

The Beguiled.

Dunkirk and the Beguiled are the latest his and hers films from Christopher Nolan and Sofia Coppola. And if nothing else, they’re a slight improvement on the ones that they last produced.

Back in 2006, they’d offered up another pair of matching his and hers films, with the Prestige and Marie Antoinette. The former has a denouement that’s so mesmerically obvious, that you immediately dismiss it as soon as it occurs to you, oh, about 90 seconds into the film. Only to discover hours later, that yes, that is the explanation – it’s the explanation you always suspect when it comes to magicians.

The Prestige, really?

The Prestige, really?

It’s like listening to one of those jokes that nine year old boys tell. You know what the punchline is hours before they get to it, but you indulge them anyway. While Marie Antoinette is like watching his eight year old sister parading in her brand new dress, which she refuses to take off for days. And each time you encounter her, you’re expected to gasp dutifully in cowed admiration. Marie Antoinette is so vacuous and so vapid, that you’d have had difficulty sitting through the entire three minutes had it been offered up as a sub-Adam Ant pop promo.

What usually happens to everyone at that age is that, almost over night, they grow up. So that one year later, they are each mortified at how juvenile their behaviour was, when they were the tender ages of nine and eight, all that year ago. But every one in a million, the boy and girl fail to grow up. And they continue parading their new dress and telling their endless and remarkably unfunny, shaggy dog stories well into their twenties and beyond.

Marie Antoinette.

Marie Antoinette.

Here we are then ten years on, and the pair have produced another couple of films that, once again, are completely devoid of any real substance.

The Beguiled is a wholly un-necessary remake of a Clint Eastwood film, with Colin Farrell stepping in as the solitary man waylaid in a household lorded over by women. Had it been the latest 60 second Timotei ad, we could all have sat back and luxuriated in its glamorous, glitzy, glossy surface. But ninety minutes of pretty girls in vintage dresses, their immaculate hair back-lit just so, gliding in and out of the house from the garden begins to pall after a while. I love soft porn as much as the next guy, but even I drifted off after a while.

Dunkirk.

Dunkirk.

While Dunkirk prides itself on not giving any of its characters any sort of back story or history, robbing them all of any depth or individuality. What you have instead is a cast of interchangeable dark haired soldiers, let’s call them Players, who need to get from the bottom of the screen (France) to the safety of the top of the screen (England). But in their way, and coming at them from all directions, are a succession of creations designed to prevent them – torpedoes from the sea, Messerschmidts from the air, and orders from above etc.

MV5BMTc1ODcyNjk2MV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNjcyOTYwMTE@._V1._CR50,63,895,1375_UY1200_CR75,0,630,1200_AL_The only individuals who are given any form are the Mark Rylance and Cillian Murphy characters, because they’re isolated from everyone else on a small boat on its way in the opposite direction, from England to France, which after all is what the story is supposed to have been about. So that they literally get given space to stand out from the crowd.

Other than which, it’s just the loudest, most technologically sophisticated version of Space Invaders you’ll ever see. But you won’t be able to play it. This is one of those video games you can only watch, and who the hell wants to watch a video game you can’t play?

A Separation.

A Separation.

If you want a real test for Dunkirk, try watching it on your iPhone. Then try watching, say, A Separation – reviewed earlier here. Of course you should never watch a film on anything other than the largest screen with the finest sound system you can find. But two minutes into A Separation, you’ll be lost in the depths of its mesmerising story. Two minutes into Dunkirk you’ll be wondering if there’s anything happening on your Facebook page. Because if you’re watching a film on your iPhone, you’ll obviously be somebody who regularly checks up on their Facebook page.

You can see the trailer for the Beguiled here, and for Dunkirk here.

Sign up right or below for a subscription, and I shall keep you posted every month, on All the very best and worst in film, television and music!




Subscribe here for regular updates. And get your FREE GIFT of the first 2 chapters of my book, A Brief History Of Man.