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Not quite serious
My favourite mafia drama of recent years was the Italian series 'Gomorrah', which, channelling 'The Wire', wonderfully showed how organised crime was integrated into the everyday lives of a community. With its setting in the complicated society of Corsica, 'Mafiosa' potentially has a rich tale of its own to tell. But with a sexy lawyer who just happens to be head of the syndicate as its leading character, and side-plots involving deep agents and cocky policemen, there's a fundamental silliness here, and the connection to the themes of Corsican nationality and identity feels more bolted on than integral. The female characters of 'Gomorrah' were among that programme's strengths; Sandra Paoli just doesn't have the same depth.
A struggle in microcosm
The metaphorical march to justice is a slow one; but a significant step was taken on an actual march, from Selma to Montgomery in Alabama in 1965, when a public protest triggered action that finally allowed black Americans to vote, after many years in which they had been prevented from doing so. You could hardly go wrong in telling this story, a microcosm of the broader civil rights campaign: in this drama, you have many of the major figures in the wider battle: George Wallace, Malcolm X, Lyndon B. Johnson, and of course, the charismatic Martin Luther King, who naturally takes centre stage in this movie. He's quite well brought to life by David Olelowo, who certainly looks the part and acts it convincingly (though the film mostly elides his private life). Tom Wilkinson is slightly less successful as Johnson, a more generic politician than the larger-than-life figure who emerges from Robert Caro's biography. Even though the narrative is straightforward: a fierce and violent struggle, then the good guys win, there's still something very moving when the story reaches its conclusion. But in the age of 'Black Lives Matter' and the presidency of Donald Trump, maybe also shocking at how much still needs to be done.
Boyz n the Hood (1991)
Growing up with guns
John Singleton's 'Boyz n the Hood' tells a story of growing up young and black in America. It's less intense (and more mannered) than say, a Spike Lee film, and indeed, the world it shows us is in many respects a middle-class one. But drugs, and most fatally, guns, are pervasive in a way they might not be in a more privileged white community; and where guns are involved, things never turn out well. What the film lacks is a clear political stance: it doesn't show us why things are this way, and the most egregious display of racism comes from a black police officer. Still, it's an interesting look at a "hood" that is not a slum, but nonetheless has deep problems; and of how those problems make a good life a hard thing to live. Almost thirty years later, those same problems appear not to have been solved.
The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)
Absence of substance
I have to admit I don't understand the appeal of Wes Anderson's films. It's not just that I don't like them very much - I'm not a great fan of superhero movies either, but I can comprehend the sensibility that they appeal to. But Anderson's movies, so widely feted, leave be not only cold, but mystified. 'The Grand Budapest Hotel', for example, conjures up beautifully a comically rendered vision of Mitteleuropean splendour fading into Nazism and communism in a way that should appeal to me. But in that world, Anderson tells a one-note story devoid of any human depth. To contrast, consider a movie like 'Delicatessan', for example, which is also set in a tragi-comic alternative world; but which tells a story full of very real emotion. To me, the richness of that movie's reality is light years away from the complete shallowness of Anderson's work. As I said, it's as if there's something that's sailing completely over my head; either that, or there's an audience completely unconcerned by the absence of substance. But I'm not part of it.
Life of Pi (2012)
Cinema and metaphor
'Life of Pi' tells an amazing story of a boy who survives a shipwreck after being marooned on a raft with a tiger for company. With what is either remarkable computer graphics or a remarkable feat of animal training, the film version of Yann Martel's novel is certainly an entertaining watch, even if the tale seems unbelievable. The conclusion invites us to conceive of the story not as literal truth, but as metaphor, for events perhaps too bleak to remember without disguise. Although I haven't read the book, my guess is that the reader's shifting understanding of the narrative is crucial: the film struggles a bit, if only because film always struggles with imaginative metaphor, rendering everything with concrete reality. Film has the power to show us impossible things as fact; it's thus a tricky medium when the point of the story is, in part, that impossible things are indeed impossible. So I enjoyed the movie; but I wonder if the book might not have better handled the uncertain nature of its truth.
Ballad of a Vain Man
The ability of whistle-blowers to leak sensitive, and even secret, information is an essential check on the potential abuse of power by government. But Julain Assange, founder of Wikileaks, a website established to assist such whistle-blowers, is a deeply problematic figure: an egoist who falls out with his own collaborators with amazing frequency; a man who seemed hardly to take accusations of rape seriously; an instinctive anarchist who sometimes seems to be fighting not government tyranny everywhere, but exclusively in America. This documentary was conceived as a friendly venture (in fact, the film-maker quietly reveals she is not exactly a neutral party in the story), but the essential vanity of Assange is clearly on display. Ultimately, it's hard to avoid concluding that whatever good Wikileaks might have done has been fatally compromised by the man at its core.
The Homesman (2014)
Less to see than is promised
'The Homesman' is a Western that depart from standard plotting; indeed, its title at first appears strange, as the eponymous "homesman" appears to be only a secondary character. While I generally like films that move in unexpected directions, however, it's hard to sympathise with the homesman as a central character. One must also wonder if Hilary Swank, a perfectly attractive woman by any normal standards, gets tired of playing "irredemably unfeminine" in Hollywood, while Meryl Streep has a strange cameo in a role so uninteresting it seems wholly bizarre she was cast in it. The film certainly doesn't romanticise life on the range; the contrast between wild Nebraska and civilised Iowa may, however, be overdone, and its presentation of mental illness is really rather primitive. Ultimately, Swank's character is the only one with depth, and the movie loses its focus once it turns away from her.
Out of Thin Air (2017)
Murder and torture
Iceland is a small, mostly peaceable country. But in 1970s, the country was rocked by a horrific pair of murders. A youthful gang of petty criminals was implicated and convicted. Only after they got out of goal were questions raised as to the accuracy of the convictions, with allegations made that their confessions were, in effect, tortured out of them. Many find the gang's protestations convincing, and the bodies of the victims have never been found. But the main individual held responsible died, an alcoholic, without getting his case reheard. Documentary film 'Out of Thin Air' revisits the case. As a pure story, it's limited by the absence of resolution: we still don't know what happened, nor have the accusations of a fit-up been ratified by the courts. But it's still a striking and depressing story, one that muddies Iceland's image as a supremely civilised country.
Far from the Madding Crowd (2015)
Far from interesting
Thomas Vintenburg is known for his harrowing dramas; and Thomas Hardy was known for his harrowing novels. It might not seem so surprising therefore that the Swedish director should direct a film of a Hardy novel; except that 'Far From the Madding Crowd' is more like a rom-com than a typical Hardy book, inviting us to sympathise with a feisty heiress surrounded by good-looking suitors. Like any conventional rom-com, the ending is known from the start, and the only real question is how we are going to get there. It's true, Hardy uses a rather sui generis mechanism to get rid of two of his three rival lovers; but nonetheless, the story is somewhat familiar overall and I found it rather dull.
Great atmospherics, but no poetry!
When staging Shakespeare for the cinema, directors have two obvious choices: one, to go with a straightforward theatrical production, and the other, to use the play as the starting material for a screenplay conceived for the purpose. In this version of 'Macbeth', Justin Kurzel clearly takes the second approach. He certainly gets the atmospherics right, and Michael Fassbinder is exactly the sort of actor you would think would be able to make the title role his own. What is lost, however, is the poetry, speeches are mumbled rather than disclaimed, and you might hardly recognise that this was a play written in verse. To me, the result is simply rather dull, and quite possible, hard to follow if you didn't already know the story (though for some reason, the minor detail relating to the prophesy about Macbeth's killer - that he would not be of "woman born" - seems to be repeated dozens of times). It's true, writing plays in verse is an outdated convention - but the reason we still watch Shakespeare is because he was so damn good at it, and what's left once that is abandoned is not nearly as interesting. I'd recommend the version with Patrick Stewart from a few years back, no less intense, but much more Shakespearian.