Monday, December 14, 2015

Fine Films You May Have Missed

This year, I had the great opportunity to do reviews in a few episodes of Arise On Screen, the weekend film review and interview show that aired on Arise TV.  Some of the films I loved did not get major attention when they opened.  Attention from film reviewers or moviegoers.  But these releases are well worth a look during your holiday free time.  Let me begin with a little gem from Great Britain starring Eddie Marsan.                                                      
If you watch Ray Donovan, the Showtime TV drama, you know Marsan as the ex-boxer stricken with Parkinson's Disease.  I first noticed his brilliance when I saw him as the hot-tempered driving instructor who reaches a boiling point in Mike Leigh's Happy-Go-Lucky.  Poppy, played terrifically by Sally Hawkins, has an optimism and good humor that cannot be dented or derailed.  This drives him nuts when they're on the road.  He's red-faced and shouting at the sweet optimist.  He's quite the opposite in STILL LIFE.
Three of us black critics on Arise On Screen saw this movie and gave it high marks.  Marsan plays John May, a case worker who works for the deceased.  He seeks relatives or other loved ones of people who died alone.  He's often the only person at some of their funerals.  He's determined to give dignity to the dead.  His life is simple, conservative and a bit sad without being maudlin.  He wears the same somber-colored business clothes, lives alone, eats alone and doesn't seem to have anyone who loves him.  In short, he needs a life.  He's rather like the Alec Guinness character in 1950's Last Holiday.  Then, one day, a lovely young lady brings some color into John May's life.  Marsan is marvelous in this poignant film.  John May is a character you care about and you're eager to see where this new color in his life will take him.  Here's a trailer for Still Life.

It is a gigantic, shameful oversight that actor Celyn Jones is not a Golden Globe nominee or got Oscar buzz for his performance in 2014's SET FIRE TO THE STARS.  What a knock-out he is as poet Dylan Thomas.  He's completely compelling.
This black and white drama is a based on a true story.  Elijah Wood, doing some of the best work I've seen him do in a non-fantasy film, plays John Brinnen.  Brinnen basically has to be wrangler, escort and confidante to the hard-drinking Welsh poet during a New York City engagement in the 1950s.  Celyn Jones makes you feel the heartache that gives the poet his hunger for drink.  His Thomas is a wise, scared, talented, tormented, passionate man.  Brinnen needs some passion, some messiness in his too tidy life.
The story takes place in New York and Connecticut.  However, the movie was shot within a month overseas in Wales.  This movie really deserved more attention than it got here in the States.  Here's a trailer for Set Fire To The Stars.
It's well-written, well-directed and gorgeously photographed.  The black and white cinematography adds to the emotional depth of the story.  And, as I mentioned earlier, Celyn Jones is blazingly good as Dylan Thomas.  Jones co-wrote the script with director Andy Goddard.  Elijah Wood co-produced the film.

Another foreign import shot in black and white is a vampire story.  OK, you may be tired of vampires but this one is highly original.  It's a feminist vampire story, a definite thriller, with wit and political overtones.  A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT introduces us to a female vampire who likes skateboarding and music by the Bee Gees.  Yes, she's cute to look at but do not forget that she is a ruthless vampire.  The story takes place in Bad City, a rundown Iranian town on the ragged end of nowhere.  She goes out at night to feed on men who disrespect women.  She's in a place where women are treated like second class citizens.  She wears the attire men want women to wear in that city.
Mean men are her prey.
Then one night, she goes out in search of a victim.  She sees a guy who partied a bit too much.  But he's a gentleman.  He treats her with respect.  And he was at a costume party.  He happens to be dressed old Hollywood movie vampire.  A very unlikely romance begins.  But where will it go?  He's a mortal and kind of a sweet doofus.
Ana Lily Amirpour wrote and directed one of the freshest, low budget fright movies I've seen in years.  Just like with Set Fire To The Stars, her choice to shoot it in black and white was not only economical, it's the right choice for this movie.  It's outstanding.

To experience another fierce female force, you need to see a documentary that streamed on Netflix this year.  WHAT HAPPENED, MISS SIMONE? is one of the best features I saw this year.  Revealing, relevant, surprising and memorable.  We learn what made Nina Simone the great Nina Simone.  What forces of family, society and politics shaped her into the brilliant, outspoken singer/musician and activist that she was.  Nina was black power.  She was friends with Dr. Martin Luther King, Langston Hughes, and James Baldwin.  My mother used to say that Nina Simone was the only artist who held concerts and she didn't hope the audience liked her, the audience members nervously entered hoping she would like them.  Nina was that formidable a presence.  Her daughter is interviewed and describes her mother as "brilliant," yet someone who could be "a monster."  That's what I like about this documentary.  We get the real story and we do learn what happened to this larger than life American artist.  Here's a trailer.
Director Liz Garbus did a mighty fine job with this project, still streaming on Netflix.

Here's another film we reviewed on Arise On Screen.  We hoped it would bring Imelda Staunton a second Oscar nomination.  I still feel she should've been a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominee for PRIDE.  This movie is based on a true story that happened in the U.K. during the days of gay liberation and the beginning AIDS crisis.  It was a total surprise because I didn't hear about this story here in America when it happened.  Pride is the uplifting story about opposites that join forces for a common cause of equality.

Staunton was a Best Actress Oscar nomine for 2004's Vera Drake.  Millions of kids know her as mean Professor Umbridge in the Harry Potter movies.  This year, she racked up some absolutely sensational reviews for her performance as Rose in a London revival of the classic Broadway musical, Gypsy.  It was such a hot ticket that some Americans flew to London just to see her.  In 2014's Pride, gays and straight coal miners on strike during the Margaret Thatcher days join forces.  They gays and lesbians unite to help the striking coal miners.  Initially, some miners don't want help merely because it comes from gay people.  That changes.  The striking, financially struggling miners in Wales need help.
Staunton is one of the pro-diversity ladies.  This film has great heart and it's one of those rare films that shows the beginning of strong friendships between straights and gays.  This story took place in 1984.  There's a scene with Imelda Staunton and Bill Nighy.  On the face of it, they're just two longtime friends in a kitchen making sandwiches, but there's so much more going on in that scene and those two pros play it beautifully.
Yes, this true story that made British headlines gets a bit of a feel-good treatment, but what's wrong with being entertained?  The cast is quite likable.  There's Staunton and Nighy -- one of my favorite actors -- and Dominic West (from TV's The Affair) and Paddy Considine as the hetero miner who realizes the bravery and importance of the gay/lesbian alliance.  He's the alliance's first friend.
There's conflict and tenderness and a few tears in Pride.  Trust me on this, you'll love Imelda Staunton. I'm glad this chapter in gay and lesbian history inspired a film.  I knew nothing this strike and this union of outsiders marching together for a common cause.  Pride is quite enjoyable.

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