Friday 6 December 2013

Review: Black Nativity

Year: 2013
Director: Kasi Lemmons
Screenplay: Kasi Lemmons
Starring: Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett, Tyrese Gibson, Jennifer Hudson, Mary J. Blige, Jacob Latimore, Vondie Curtis-Hall, and Nas.

Despite what my family and friends may think, I am more interested in the voices of others than my own. So listening to the assorted mutters and murmurings of the other patrons of this screening was far more exciting, than me sprouting off any so called film "cred". I shuffled myself into the corner next to the nibbles and earwigged on the nearby conversations.

As the screening of the film was for the new family feature "Black Nativity" the conversations were of course on just where the "Black" movie went. It was invigorating to hear excited voices talk about the 90's boom where films with an Afro-centric cast were a lot easier to discover then now. Even Tyler Perry doesn't make British shores (despite decent minority presence and Perry making top dollar in his native land). It seems fairly obvious that there’s an audience that wish for more movies of this ilk, and while the likes of Blue Caprice, 12 Years a Slave and Fruitvale Station have started to make waves, it still seems to be a struggle to see Afro-centric films in lighter affair. 

Enter Black Nativity which despite dealing with quite typical themes of poverty, religious elders and run away baby daddies, tries to imbue festive cheer by taking the Langston Hughes play of the same name and re-envisioning the material as a modern hip-hop musical. The outcome is more than a little uneven.

Jacob Latimore plays Langston Cobbs (check the namesake), a young and rebellious teen whose mother (a spirited but stilted display from Jennifer Hudson) forces him to move from his (newly evicted) home in Baltimore to his estranged grandparents in Harlem, New York. Here he finds himself on a spiritual and emotional journey which helps him find not only a meaning of Christmas but family identity as well.

Black Nativity is a film which likes to think that meaning well will be enough for it to get by. Its mawkish screenplay and awkward editing, do a lot to hinder a film that wishes to place a fresh spin on a well worn narrative. The film often leaps haphazardly from sensitive moment to heavy handed, obvious message musical at the drop of the dime. You can’t dismiss the quality of the music production and the cast, but you can really raise an eyebrow to the often awkward tonal shifts and simplistic lyrics. One may also wonder why certain famous faces appear in the film.  The likes of Mary J Blige and Nas appear if only to try and engage a certain target audience. This wouldn’t be so much of a problem if we got more from their performances, but their aural displays haven’t lost their shine.

The film is left up to the older guard to pick up the slack and Forest Whitaker and Angela Bassett happily oblige. Both Whitaker and Bassett light up the humorous and dramatic scenes that they feature in and give the film the grounding and energy that Black Naivety sorely needs. This is much needed as Latimore (Vanishing on 7th Street) struggles to carry the film where it needs to go. His surliness feels more wooden than anything and the character himself is tough to love at the best of times.

That said, this is the point of Black Nativity. It reminds us that family is not just in name but in blood and while the character’s themes and turns are obvious and the film holds no real surprises, the story that surrounds it has enough small moments to connect with its target base. I also have to say that while the film didn’t stir me emotionally, it did direct me towards the works of Langston Hughes; the black writer whose works became an integral aspect of what was known as the Harlem Renaissance, a cultural movement which explored the lives of African Americans during the 1920’s. While Black Nativity doesn’t have the same sense of commune and spirit that those works brought to people. It clearly shows a wish to try and reach such a depth. It’s safe to say that a cynic like me may find Black Nativity a little hard to swallow, however I will not be surprised if many get caught up with the films music and message.  I do feel the film will keep the people talking. Hopefully such talk will get louder and more interesting productions will be brought to the foreground because of it. The film may rest on its good intentions, but in comparison to bigger films I’ve seen this year, at least it’s has them.

Review: Captain Phillips

Year: 2013
Director: Paul Greengrass
Screenplay: Billy Ray
Starring: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Adbi, Faysal Ahmed

Synopsis is here

I’m still trying to figure out in my mind if Captain Phillips is a stunning film all together, or if the films climax is so strong that we forget that its first act feels quite plain. I considered the film that helped make Greengrass such a viable director in America; United 93 and found myself more engrossed with how that film looked at preparation and meditation. United 93 had a perfect balance of dread and procedural in its beginning, with its quiet moments betraying the impending chaos. Here Greengrass tries a similar thing but with less success to the tone. We see the films two captains going through their routines, blissfully unaware of how both will place each other through their paces. Phillips (an on form Hanks) and his wife (Catherine Keener in a small cameo) debate their son’s future before he sets off for his long haul. On the other side we find Adbuwali Muse (Adbi) lead a group of Somali pirates towards Phillips ship in search of ransom.

Greengrass’ ace in the hole, much like United 93 and Green Zone, is his ability to remind us that there are two sides to the story we’re watching. The time we spend with the pirates is vital, as we witness just what survival means to them. Unfortunately while the build up of character is needed for later on, there’s a distinct lack of urgency and blandness towards proceedings I cannot place my finger on. I can honestly say I can’t remember too much of the film before the clash of cultures.

Once Muse and Phillips meet, the screws begin to tighten. The idle chit chats and work grumblings that littered Phillips’ ship before are exchanged for frightened glances and hushed tones. The Pirates invade the ship both visually and orally. Their demands are yelled at a near unintelligible pitch and tensions accelerate to their peak because of this alone. The fear of their guns is obvious, but the combination of this along with the alien sound of another language being screamed constantly brings a worry we don’t often think about. Is someone demanding for you to do something or a commanding someone else to shoot you? This maybe based on a true story and yet I still found myself gripping my chair arms until my knuckles went white. I feel now it’s important for you to look at my profile picture as you will then realise the extremity of the tension.   
From that moment on, Greengrass’ powerful use of space takes hold. We alternate from tight claustrophobic close ups of desperate faces before switching to vast landscape views which show a lifeboat as a mere pin prick on an endless sea. Like Gravity; power of Captain Phillips comes from just how powerless the protagonists are rendered.  Both films are also superb at using tech to shove us within their characters headspaces. Twenty years ago, this film would seem an even more arduous task to comprehend. The work of Greengrass’ crew is overwhelmingly intricate, that I’m not surprised that more nauseous viewers avoided it due to seasickness. It’s that seamless.

The cast are equally unerring with Barkhad Adbi and Faysal Ahmed keeping up with the ever dutiful Hanks at every step. It’s important to remember that these are first-time performers and their ability to show the right amount of intensity and humanity should be well noted. We should not enjoy their acts, but the displays shown by the actors create an empathy that is difficult to attain.   

Like all filmed true stories, Captain Phillips clearly takes liberties. It’s amusing to see that Phillips does the same walkie talkie move I witnessed two days after when I watched Harrison Ford in Air Force One (if that was actaully done was it life imitating art?).  It’s also clear that the pirates run under certain archetypes. We have The Captain, the Kid, and the hot head all on show so it’s fair to say that there is a certain poetic licence in play. Yet while it’s based on true events, we’re supposed to gain the feel of what it’s like and not a full documentation. There are places to gain “more truth” I came for the film. And this is what Greengrass brings after a rather mundane beginning.

I watched this on the opening weekend of Catching Fire and the film has already seemingly dropped out of critical discourse, as is the way of many movies these days. Would people still be writing about Phillips if the beginning was stronger, or is this how we treat all films these days? That seems a shame if it’s the latter as Greengrass’ final stunning moments hit harder than many others films complete running times. That in itself is worth talking about alone.