Sunday, 28 February 2021

Film Review: "The United States vs. Billie Holiday" (2020).


"Her voice would not be silenced." This is The United States vs. Billie Holiday. This biographical drama film directed by Lee Daniels, written by Suzan-Lori Parks and based on the book Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs by Johann Hari. The legendary Billie Holiday, one of the greatest jazz musicians of all time, spent much of her career being adored by fans across the globe. Beginning in the 1940’s in New York City, the federal government targeted Holiday in a growing effort to escalate and racialize the war on drugs, ultimately aiming to stop her from singing her controversial and heart-wrenching ballad, Strange Fruit.

In September 2019, it was announced that a Billie Holiday biopic was in development based on Hari's 2015 book with Lee as director. By early October, Andra Day was cast in the title role with Trevante Rhodes, Natasha Lyonne, Garrett Hedlund, Rob Morgan, Tyler James Williams, Erik LaRay Harvey and Dana Gourrier. At the same time, principal photography commenced and wrapped in mid December. Filming took place in Montreal, Québec, Canada. The film was originally scheduled for a February 12, 2021 release date. But in November 2020, it was moved two weeks to February 26.

The film. stars Day, Rhodes, Lyonne, Hedlund, Morgan, Williams, Harvey and Gourrier. The film is a thought-provoking and beautifully acted one thanks to the performances given by the talent cast, especially a truly mesmerizing performance from Day.

While Daniels directs individually moving scenes in the film, he fails as a whole to create an integral, coherent or convincing drama. Don't think of it as a Best Picture wannabe, think of it as a socially-conscious picture book-something with a Caldecott medal on its cover to place on Barnes & Noble endcaps during Black History Month. Not the most subtle of movies overall, but does offer some valid insights into the evolution of modern race relations in America. A formidably cast epic that eclipses over a decade of a woman's life in a landsape of evolving racism, Daniels lets his material speak for itself, while history calls the shots. Though the film's tidy sentiments can be cloying, it's hard to remain unmoved-and unimpressed by the stubbornly authentic performance by Day, which will likely be remembered at Oscar time. There are missed opportunities and weak moments in the script to be sure, but not enough to discount it, and the stellar acting by Day is what will make this movie memorable long term. It's a shame that the excellent central storyline gets so obstructed and mucked up by all the noise, spectacle, and pageantry. Daniels' lack of self-awareness actually works in his favour here, letting the director's emotions run and resulting in a work that has fire in its belly beneath the shiny surface. This is a tough line to walk, being both upfront with your message and managing subtle critiques, but luckily for viewers Daniels manages to find the right balance and deliver a winning movie.

Simon says The United States vs. Billie Holiday receives:



Also, see my review for The Butler.

Film Review: "Pelé" (2021).


From Netflix comes the remarkable journey of the 'King of Football' - Pelé. This documentary directed by Ben Nicholas and David Tryhorn. Against the backdrop of a turbulent era in Brazil, this documentary captures Pelé’s extraordinary path from breakthrough talent to national hero.

On 23 October 1940, the Brazilian former professional footballer, Edson Arantes do Nascimento, also known as Pelé, was born. At age fifteen, Pelé began playing for Santos and the Brazilian National Team at sixteen. During his international career, he won three FIFA World Cups: 1958, 1962 and 1970, the only player to do so. Pelé is the all-time leading goalscorer for Brazil with seventy-seven goals in ninety-two games. At club level he is Santos' all-time top goalscorer with six hundred and forty-three goals from six hundred and fifty-nine games. In a golden era for Santos, he led the club to the 1962 and 1963 Copa Libertadores, and to the 1962 and 1963 Intercontinental Cup. Credited with connecting the phrase "The Beautiful Game" with football, Pelé's "electrifying play and penchant for spectacular goals" made him a star around the world, and his teams toured internationally in order to take full advantage of his popularity. Since retiring in 1977, Pelé has been a worldwide ambassador for football and has made many acting and commercial ventures. In 2010, he was named the Honorary President of the New York Cosmos. Regarded and labeled by FIFA as one of the greatest, if not "the greatest" player, he was among the most successful and popular sports figures of the twentieth century. During his playing days, Pelé was for a period of time the best-paid athlete in the world. In 1999, Pelé was voted World Player of the Century by the International Federation of Football History & Statistics, and was one of the two joint winners of the FIFA Player of the Century. That same year, Pelé was named Athlete of the Century by the International Olympic Committee and was included in the Time list of the 100 Most Important People of the 20th century. According to the IFFHS, Pelé is the most successful top division scorer in the sport with five hundred and forty-one goals in five hundred and sixty games. His total of one thousand, two hundred and seventy-nine goals in one thousand, three hundred and sixty-three games, which included friendlies, is a Guinness World Record.

The film completely captures the power of the story the man inspired and the fickle nature of mythmaking itself, even if the myth is all we are left with. As an engrossing documentation of the price of fame, the ups and downs of a player who took a major gamble in Brazil, during the 1964-1985 military dictatorship, and went from hero to zero in the nation's eyes, the film succeeds. It's all here: the great games, goals and great scandals. It teems with life and is unlike most biopics about a sports legend. That is, it actually delivers a pungent sense of the atmosphere surrounding him.

Simon says Pelé receives:


Sunday, 21 February 2021

Film Review: "Ammonite" (2020).


From the director of God's Own Country comes Ammonite. This romantic drama film written and directed by Francis Lee. In 1800s England, acclaimed but unrecognized fossil hunter Mary Anning works alone on the rugged Southern coastline. With the days of her famed discoveries behind her, she now searches for common fossils to sell to tourists to support herself and her ailing mother. When a wealthy visitor entrusts Mary with the care of his wife Charlotte Murchison, she cannot afford to turn his offer down. Proud and relentlessly passionate about her work, Mary initially clashes with her unwelcome guest, but despite the distance between their social class and personalities, an intense bond begins to develop, compelling the two women to determine the true nature of their relationship.

In December 2018, it was announced Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan were cast in a romantic drama film, loosely inspired by the life of British palaeontologist Mary Anning, penned and to be directed by Lee. By early March 2019, Fiona Shaw, Gemma Jones and James McArdle rounded out the cast. At the same time, principal photography commenced and took place in Lyme Regis, Dorset, England, , where Anning actually worked and collected fossils in the early 1800s. The film shot chronologically in order to deepen the immersion in the characters' psychological trajectory. David Tucker, director of the Lyme Regis Museum, consulted on the film's scientific accuracy. Winslet meticulously transformed herself to portray Mary, especially altering her manner of walking, that when she arrived on set out of character, Lee failed to recognise her. Lizzie Wiscombe, a volunteer at the Lyme Regis Museum, was asked to record her voice for Winslet to base her Dorset dialect on. Winslet listened to the recording for three weeks, including when taking her children to school. When Winslet read out a scene to her, Wiscombe was in tears.

The film stars Winslet, Ronan, Shaw, Jones and McArdle. Lee shapes the story so tenderly and poetically, but it is Winslet and Ronan generate huge pathos with two exceptionally well-judged performances.

Lee creates a more credible rural milieu, anchored in the grubby details of raising livestock and the furious emotional repression of his female characters. The film is a one where every frame is full of light and texture specifically designed to convey the subtle nuances of this relationship, and to give it a specificity anchored in this place and time. This is a love story, a truly great one, showing the transformative and healing powers of loving and being loved. It's moving, beautiful and will be one of the best films of 2020. Lee has made an astonishing sophomore effort. It is a love story of rare power and depth, whose effects are felt not through words the characters say but through the words they don't. It is a film that exceeds the expectations of just a lesbian romance in a windswept, ruggedly romantic location, by offering fine performances and a touching tale of self-discovery.

Simon says Ammonite receives:



Also, see my review for God's Own Country.

Series Review: "Amend: The Fight for America" (2021).


"All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." This is Amend: The Fight for America. This documentary series created by Robe Imbriano and Tom Yellin. Will Smith hosts this look at the evolving, often lethal, fight for equal rights in America through the lens of the US Constitution's 14th Amendment.

On July 9 1868, The Fourteenth Amendment (Amendment XIV) to the U.S. Constitution was adopted as one of the Reconstruction Amendments. Often considered one of the most consequential amendments, it addresses citizenship rights and equal protection under the law and was proposed in response to issues related to former slaves following the American Civil War. The amendment was bitterly contested, particularly by the states of the defeated Confederacy, which were forced to ratify it in order to regain representation in Congress. Its first section, is one of the most litigated parts of the Constitution, forming the basis for landmark Supreme Court decisions regarding racial segregation, abortion, the 2000 presidential election, and same-sex marriage. The amendment limits the actions of all state and local officials, as well as those acting on behalf of such officials. The first section includes several clauses: the Citizenship Clause, Privileges or Immunities Clause, Due Process Clause, and Equal Protection Clause. The Citizenship Clause nullified the Supreme Court's decision, which held that Americans descended from African slaves could not be citizens. The Due Process Clause prohibits state and local governments from depriving persons of life, liberty, or property without a fair procedure. The Equal Protection Clause requires each state to provide equal protection under the law to all people, including all non-citizens, within its jurisdiction. This clause has been the basis for many decisions rejecting irrational or unnecessary discrimination against people belonging to various groups. The second, third, and fourth sections of the amendment are seldom litigated. However, the second section's reference to "rebellion, or other crime" has been invoked as a constitutional ground for felony disenfranchisement. The fourth section was held to prohibit a current Congress from abrogating a contract of debt incurred by a prior Congress. The fifth section gives Congress the power to enforce the amendment's provisions by "appropriate legislation"; however, this power may not be used to contradict a Supreme Court decision interpreting the amendment.

This documentary series about the importance of the neglected 14th Amendment, and other little known facts of the U.S. Constitution, are given new reasons to exist, now more than ever, thanks to a charismatic Will Smith and co. throughout the uplifting six episodes. It's an unforgettable reminder that securing the protections granted by the 14th Amendment -- like America itself -- remains very much a work in progress.

Simon says Amend: The Fight for America receives:



Also, see my review for American Son.

Film Review: "A Palace for Putin. The Story of the Biggest Bribe" ("Дворец для Путина. История самой большой взятки") (2021).


"This film was recorded by Navalny before his return to Russia, but it was decided to publish it afterward: Alexei didn’t want the main character of this investigation — Vladimir Putin — to think that they are afraid of him and that they can uncover his biggest secret only while being abroad. Today you will see, what is believed to be impossible to see. We will visit places, that are forbidden for everyone. We will be Putin’s guests. We will see with our own eyes that this man in his craving for luxury and for wealth, became completely mad. We will uncover who and how financed this luxurious property. And we’ll witness, how the largest bribe in history is being given over the past fifteen years, as well as how the most luxurious palace is being built. Alexei was detained immediately upon his arrival after his five-month treatment in Germany. He ended up there in a German hospital after Putin’s attempt to murder him. Alexei has always fought for our rights. Now it’s our turn to fight for his. Putin has to be accounted for his crimes." This is A Palace for Putin. The Story of the Biggest Bribe (Дворец для Путина. История самой большой взятки). This Russian documentary film written and directed by Alexei Navalny and produced by the Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK).

The film investigates on the Residence at Cape Idokopas, the residence commonly known as "Putin's Palace", a dacha located near the town of Gelendzhik in Krasnodar Krai, which Navalny calls "the largest private house in Russia". Navalny claims it was constructed for Putin and details a corruption scheme allegedly headed by Putin involving the construction of the palace. The film estimates that the residence cost over ₽100 billion (approximately $1.35 billion) with what it says was "the largest bribe in history". According to The Straits Times, documents about the residence included itemised lists of purchased furniture and samples of the building's floor patterns, which were handed over to the Anti-Corruption Foundation by a subcontractor involved with its construction. Besides the complex itself, the restricted area also includes an underground ice palace and two helipads, an arboretum and greenhouse measuring twenty-five-hundred square metres, a church, an amphitheatre, a teahouse and an eighty-metre bridge leading to the compound, which crosses a ravine. Due to its location on a steep bank, a special tunnel was dug to provide access to the nearby beach, which contains a tasting room overlooking the Black Sea. The area of the palace complex is sixty-eight hectares, with seven-thousand hectares of land surrounding the palace being designated as a closed territory under the jurisdiction of the Federal Security Service. According to the film, all fishing activities within a radius of two kilometres from the Residence is banned and the airspace over the palace complex is closed to all aircraft. The film goes on to focus on the businesses located within the complex, a luxury winery, vineyards and an oyster farm, showing inconsistencies between their estimated values and reported productions and revenues. It establishes how the (changing) ownerships conceal an interconnected network of managers as well as "donors" that supply money. The network includes former associates such as Vladimir Kolbin, son of a childhood friend of Putin, and relatives of Putin such as Mikhail Shelomov of JSC Accept, but also state-owned companies such as Transneft through shady "leasing" services. Huge sums are funneled into the compound and Putin's "slush fund". Putin has denied that he or his family ever owned the palace and dismissed the investigation. The oligarch Arkady Rotenberg, who has close links to Putin, claimed ownership of the palace.

Since 2012, Russian politician and former intelligence officer, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, has been serving as the current president. After graduating in Law from Leningrad State University in 1975, Putin worked as a KGB Foreign Intelligence Officer for sixteen years, rising to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, before resigning in 1991 to begin a political career in his hometown of Saint Petersburg. After moving to Moscow, he briefly served as Director of the Federal Security Service (FSB) and Secretary of the Security Council, before being appointed as Prime Minister in August 1999. After the resignation of Boris Yeltsin, Putin became acting President, and less than four months later was elected outright to his first term as President and was reelected in 2004. As he was then constitutionally limited to two consecutive terms as President, Putin chose to become the Prime Minister again from 2008 to 2012, and was reelected as President in 2012, and again in 2018. Under Putin's leadership, Russia has experienced severe democratic backsliding and societal decay. Major political and social figures such as Masha Gessen, Julia Ioffe, Vladimir Kara-Murza and Luke Harding, consider Russia to be an autocratic/mafia state, due to the frequent jailing of political opponents, curtailed press freedom and the lack of free and fair elections. Moreover, Russia has scored poorly on Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index, the Economist Intelligence Unit's Democracy Index and Freedom House's Freedom in the World index. Human Rights organizations and activists accuse Putin of persecuting political critics and activists as well as ordering them to be tortured or assassinated. Examples of the latter include the revered journalist Anna Politkovskaya and former Deputy Prime Minister of Russia Boris Nemtsov, who were assassinated under mysterious circumstances. Politkovskaya was assassinated in the elevator of her apartment building on Putin's birthday in 2006 and Nemtsov was gunned down on a bridge near the Kremlin in 2015 before he could put out a press release of the Russian Military intervention in the Donbass, East Ukraine. In 2019, Zona Prava NGO released a report highlighting the disproportionately large number of acquittals and dropped cases against law enforcement officers when compared to overall rate of acquittals. The latter is 0.43%, whereas the Police and Military have an acquittal rate of 4% with disproportionately lenient convictions - almost half of them were suspended sentences or fines.

Despite constant moments of information overload throughout, the film is an absorbing lesson with a universal message for all countries. It's an indictment on political mendacity but also a testament to the life-saving value of investigative journalism.

Simon says A Palace for Putin. The Story of the Biggest Bribe (Дворец для Путина. История самой большой взятки) receives:



Also, you can see the full film here.

Friday, 19 February 2021

Film Review: "The Little Things" (2020).


"Some things never let us go" in The Little Things. This neo-noir crime film written and directed by John Lee Hancock. Kern County Deputy Sheriff Joe "Deke" Deacon is sent to Los Angeles for what should have been a quick evidence-gathering assignment. Instead, he becomes embroiled in the search for a killer who is terrorizing the city. Leading the hunt, L.A. Sheriff Department Sergeant Jim Baxter, impressed with Deke’s cop instincts, unofficially engages his help. But as they track the killer, Baxter is unaware that the investigation is dredging up echoes of Deke’s past, uncovering disturbing secrets that could threaten more than his case.

In 1993, Hancock penned the script for Steven Spielberg to direct, but Spielberg passed because he felt the story was too dark. Clint Eastwood, Warren Beatty, and Danny DeVito were all separately attached to direct before Hancock finally to helm the film himself. In March 2019, Denzel Washington was cast. In May, Rami Malek was cast. In August, Jared Leto was cast. By early September, Chris Bauer, Michael Hyatt, Natalie Morales, Glenn Morshower, Sofia Vassilieva, Jason James Richter and Maya Kazan rounded out the cast. At the same time, principal photography commenced and wrapped in December. Filming took place Lancaster, Los Angeles, Palmdale, Santa Clarita and Ventura, California.

The film stars Washington, Malek, Leto, Bauer, Hyatt, Morales, Morshower, Vassilieva, Richter and Kazan. The two actors misfire here: Washington is so low-key he's almost drowsy, and Malek jumps around like a chihuahua to no effect.

The seriousness is dull, the comic relief non-existent, and the tension low, aided poorly by Thomas Newman's non-stimulating score and a cliched opening title sequence.  Hancock's filmmaking downplayed each scene in such a way that the movie felt exploitative especially when it came to the, supposedly, horrific plotlines. Unfortunately, most of the scenes in the film are unlikely, which means that by the end of the film the duo is battling not just an insane killer but an off-the-wall writer/director. There's none of the humor that takes the sting out of slasher movies, and certainly none of the psychology and depth that made The Silence of the Lambs (1991) and Seven (1995) such intellectual thrillers. Were it not for the gravity and thoughtfulness of Washington's performance as a veteran policeman, and the third-act appearance of its bizarre villain, the film would be unendurable. Unfortunately, the movie's clammy design, glum cinematography, and lugubrious pace try to persuade us that what we're watching isn't an ingenious, silly piece of pulp but a serious meditation on the nature of evil. It is very tiresome peering through the gloom trying to catch a glimpse of something interesting, then having to avert one's eyes when it turns out to be just another brutally tormented body. Unfortunately, writer/director Hancock's finale, in addition to its grossness, feels like an act of treachery against the viewer. The trouble with the film is that while the premise is intriguing, the movie is gluey, bumbling and singularly un-thrilling.

Simon says The Little Things receives:



Also, see my review for The Highwaymen.

Monday, 15 February 2021

Film Review: "Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar" (2021).


"The Friendship We All Want. The Vacation We All Need." This is Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar. This comedy film directed by Josh Greenbaum, and written by Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo. Lifelong friends Barb and Star embark on the adventure of a lifetime when they decide to leave their small Midwestern town for the first time…ever. Romance, friendship and a villain’s evil plot.

In April 2019, after having been in development hell for a number of years, the film was officially announced with Wiig and Mumolo penning the script, as well as to star in the title roles, and Greenbaum hired to direct. By July, Jamie Dornan, Damon Wayans Jr., Wendi McLendon-Covey, Vanessa Bayer, Fortune Feimster, Rose Abdoo, Phyllis Smith, Tom Lenk, Andy García and Reba McEntire rounded out the film's cast. At the same time, principal photography commenced and wrapped in September. Filming took place in Cancun, Mexico; Puerto Vallarta, Mexico; and Albuquerque, New Mexico. The film was originally supposed to be shot in Atlanta, Georgia. The film was originally scheduled for a July 31, 2020 release date. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the film was pushed back to July 16, 2021. In early January 2021, Lionsgate announced that it was cancelling the film's theatrical release, and instead debut the film via premium VOD on February 12, 2021.

The film stars Wiig, Mumolo, Dornan, Wayans Jr., McLendon-Covey, Bayer, Feimster, Abdoo, Smith, Lenk, García and McEntire. Wiig and Mumolo's work as the neurotic but mostly well meaning characters are a breakthrough, proving that being funny and having feelings are not mutually exclusive. They have written lead roles for themselves with some great awkward moments usually regulated for fools of the male variety. It's nice to see women can be just as boneheaded when the situation calls for it.

A tale of female anxiety deliriously and freakishly off the leash, it's as close to a perfect multiplex comedy as they come. The director is documentary vet Greenbaum but the auteur are stars and co-writers Wiig and Mumolo, who take center stage after displaying flashes of fuzzy brilliance. Women are complex creatures, and the film presents the reality of female friendship with a level of seriousness and due care that is all the more affecting for being so rare. However, once the dilemmas hit and the lead characters begin their crazy adventure, the joke-a-minute pacing from the introduction is lost. The film is probably about twenty minutes too long and not every gag plays as well as it should have. Still, I found myself laughing a lot during the film. I'm going to finish with a time saver, with a two-word litmus test of whether or not the film is for you. If you giggle, go see this. If you make a face like you smell something rancid, sit this one out. And these two words are... sink diarrhea. Through a combination of smart performances and scurrilous gags Bridesmaids yanks the buddy comedy from the hands of its traditional owners.

Simon says Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar receives: