A Sequel Triple Bill

Off boozing this weekend, so patching together a hasty entry here, with scant regard for quality or high standards. Have the makers of the following done the same?

John Wick 2 (Chad Stahelski, 2017) is pretty much the same as the first John Wick, with a little more kung-fu thrown in. Essentially, it's a violent video game which someone will adapt into a film one day. Here John Wick fails again to retire peacefully and instead spends his time killing the hell out of various assassins and henchmen. Whenever Neo....*consults notes*...sorry.....John Wick is dispatching said rivals in slickly choreographed but rather soulless action sequences, it is mildly entertaining. But it is hopelessly stupid stuff, even dumber than a bag of Johnny Utahs. That's pretty dumb, people, best make sure you're hopelessly drunk before you watch it.

The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part (Michael Mitchell, 2019) makes a valiant attempt to rebuild a creation with the same charm and anarchic humour of The Lego Movie. Here, our Lego heroes Emmet, Lucy, Batman and friends face an impending Lego Apocalypse, which we now know is related to events occurring in the real world. It moves between both worlds as things progress, but although the central themes here are good, it's less funny, more muddled and simply not as well put together as the first one, Sadly, everything is not as awesome as before.

Split (M. Night Shymalan, 2016) isn't really a sequel until a surprise end scene reveals that actually it sort of is. James McAvoy has a lot of fun here playing various versions of Kevin Wendell Crumb, a kidnapper with a multiple personality disorder who is keeping three comely girls captive in his lair. Indeed I hoped it wouldn't set the long-dormant voices in my own head off.....
This was fantastic!
No it wasn't, it was shite!
Shut up, you two or I'll tell on you. It was somewhere in between ; silly but fun.
I liked the bits with the girls in their underwear.
Oh for God's sake, stop drooling on us, and put that thing away! You know I don't like seeing it.
Oh yeah? Well it's my body too! You don't even wash it properly!
Did you know this is a sequel?
Really? To what?
Er.....Herbie Goes Bananas, I think.
Enough chit-chat, our host is regaining awareness let's take an average score.
You're not the boss of us! No wait, you are. 

What? Where? Sorry, folks, must have dozed off there for a bit. Strange. Anyway that was all a bit silly and all over the place, with poor use of language and stumbling badly towards the end. A bit like me this weekend! WAHEYYY!

Avengers: Endgame (Anthony & Joe Russo, 2019)

What's it about? After the events of Avengers: Infinity War (*lawyers in attendance begin shuffling nervously*), the Avengers (many people in Hollywood) and friends (everyone else in Hollywood) set about dealing with, (*lawyers frantically making cutthroat motions*), undoing, (*lawyers signal for hired goons to move in*) and somewhat undermining the impact of things that went down in that film (*humble reviewer beaten mercilessly for spoiling film*).

Is it any good? In my reviews of previous Avengers films, I likened them to Band Aid and Live Aid. Well, I thought it was funny at the time. And I am nothing if not consistent, so to labour that musical analogy, I suppose this is a bit like Glastonbury festival. It's big, there's something to please everyone, anyone who is anyone is involved, and there are some good highlights. But it also goes on a bit too long, has a few dull supporting acts and some people really do take the whole thing a bit too seriously. (*pauses to nail some more boards across the doors and check the tripwires around the house*)

There is no doubt this is blockbusting film-making on an epic scale. The Russo brothers have the onerous task of not just tying up the story begun in Infinity War, but also completing several character arcs which have been developed over the past decade or so as Phase 3 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) moves to a conclusion. And they manage to pull it off for the most part, affording each of the vast array of characters a turn in the limelight, with moments of drama, humour, action and pathos patched together in crowd-pleasing fashion. The loyal, starry-eyed acolytes in the MCU temple will find much here to reward their faith. However, if one were inclined to risk heresy in the temple, one might point out that the behemoth they worship is not all that solid and is certainly less interesting now that focus has shifted away from the villainous Thanos to the somewhat boring heroes. The second act here is particularly wobbly, leaning to a large degree on previous constructions to keep things from collapsing. Indeed, for a movie that dares to disparage Back to the Future, there's a distinct whiff of BTTF2 in the plot mechanics of this section, which plays out in rather rushed and unsatisfying fashion. It does stabilise itself to some degree in the final act as the plot is largely forgotten in favour of CG action and emotional fallout, the impact of which will depend on your personal investment in these characters and stories (best brush up on those if you want maximum effect). Elsewhere, there's a few other memorable bits, including a good Fortnite gag and a bad Girl Power scene. Overall, it assembles the Avengers and friends to entertaining effect, but I'm not sure I would camp out in a field with no toilets to see it.

I don't trust you. What do others think? It is both amusing and a little frightening to see the vicious bile that get sprayed across the internet as people argue about the relative merits of the film. Look folks, if Iron Guy and Captain USA can learn to get along, why can't you? (*pauses while hard-drive explodes from volume of apoplectic emails*). Nevertheless, the hype is real, with fans stumbling bleary- and teary-eyed from cinema complexes, variously declaring themselves as 'shook', 'cried out', 'nostalgic' and 'emotionally wasted', while others have taken to the internet to decree that the film marks the greatest cultural high-point in human history. Replies suggesting such people 'read a book or something' have of course brought social media a step closer to DEFCON 1. Meanwhile, up in their ivory MCU Towers, the studio bosses gleefully watch the box-office numbers whizz around on their monitors as the film breaks all records by powering past $1billion in the opening weekend alone, as it makes a valiant attempt to knock Avatar off its perch at the top of the box-office tree. For them, that is the real endgame.

What does the Fonz think? I'm afraid to say anything. Blame the guy above who made me give it...

A 2018 Triple Bill

Three 2018 films that got a lorra lorra love from most critics. But I am not most critics....

Crazy Rich Asians (Jon Chu, 2018) was widely lauded for demonstrating that massive box-office hits didn't have to rely upon Caucasian actors in the lead roles. Instead, the story of Rachel (Constance Wu), an economics professor in New York, who discovers her boyfriend Nick (Henry Golding) is actually from a family of (you guessed it) crazy rich Asians, won audiences over on the basis of its predominantly Asian cast playing out a sweet romantic comedy, against a background of glamour, wealth and faaaahbulous style, darling. It's pretty undemanding fare which plays out in crowd-pleasing fashion, with Michelle Yeoh on board to give reliable gravitas as the family matriarch. But while it may be worth celebrating as a racial triumph of sorts, it really isn't very memorable and didn't Eddie Murphy do this thing much better with Coming to America back in the 80s? Falling somewhere in the middle on a scale of Sex in the City 2 to 10, Crazy Rich Asians is a sensible, reasonably well-off rom-com.

Widows (Steve McQueen, 2018) was widely lauded for demonstrating that McQueen was just as comfortable directing action thrillers as serious drama, but I personally found it much weaker than his previous output. Based on the 80s TV mini-series of the same name, it is the story of 4 women (Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, Cynthia Erivo) who club together to pull off a heist when their respective husbands/partners get killed pulling a similar job. There's also a supporting narrative about political machinations between feuding father-and-son (Robert Duvall and Colin Farrell) and crime lords, the Mannings (Brian Tyree Henry and Daniel Kaluuya) which dovetails in satisfying fashion with the central drama. But I found the whole thing to be competently rather than grippingly assembled, with a central twist that was easily guessed. That said, Viola Davis is great, stealing the money and the whole show.

If Beale Street Could Talk (Barry Jenkins, 2018) was widely lauded for demonstrating that Jenkins' Moonlight was no one-off surprise. And indeed it is the best of the three films featured here, even if I don't think it's as superlative as some have declared. Based on the novel by James Baldwin, it is about how the lives of young lovers Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) are affected when Fonny is accused of a terrible crime, while their respective families and friends lend support (or not) round them. It's a simple tale, but Jenkins edits together some beautifully photographed shots and scenes in non-linear fashion to lend real depth and significance to the drama It is a proudly black film, both in the depiction of its characters and locations, as well as its themes, which will of course have resonance for many watching in today's climate. But for all that, I thought it could have had more impact if it had pushed a more angry political agenda. But perhaps that's a little unfair; this was primarily intended to be a tender love story and in its celebration of human decency it succeeds admirably.

A Hungarian Double Bill

So it turns out other countries make films too. I was hungry to find out more, so I looked toward the cinema of, er, Hungary.

Son of Saul (László Nemes, 2015) is set in Auschwitz, so it need hardly be said that it makes for sobering viewing. Saul (Géza Röhrig) is a member of the death-camp Sonderkommando, inmates who were forced to help facilitate the mass murder of fellow prisoners in the gas chambers and dispose of the bodies afterwards. When he spots one victim who he believes to be his son, he determines to give the boy a proper burial without being noticed by the guards. It's a grim set-up and Nemes' camera is right there in the middle of it, spending the majority of the film in the personal space of Saul, peering over his shoulder or up in his face, as he witnesses the horrors around him. For us as viewers, those horrors are only briefly glimpsed in the background, out-of-focus or quickly out-of-frame, but no less distressing for not being dwelt upon or clearly visualised. Technically, then, it makes for a impressive directorial debut, with the geography and choreography of the long takes immaculately achieved. But it is unrelentingly grim viewing, which begs the question 'why watch it?' There is a case to be made for a film that simply depicts the everyday experience of a Sonderkommando - people need to know this happened. And I certainly don't expect it to be artificially melodramatic just to make it a better 'story'. But I did not really find it a celebration of the human spirit as some others have done, so not sure I could honestly recommend it. Still, it won a slew of awards, including Best Foreign Language Film at the 2016 Oscars, so what do I know?

White God (Kornél Mundruczó, 2015) takes place in Budapest, following the adventures of a beloved family dog Hagen after he is separated from his young owner and taken into a dog pound. But beware (of the dog); Lassie Come Home this ain't. It's not long before Hagen is being trained for illegal dogfights and the ensuing scenes of doggy violence are likely to leave any dog-lovers angry and/or deeply upset. Indeed, the film-makers manage to make these scenes disturbingly real, especially since the entire production was under great pains to ensure no animals were harmed; some smart editing and animal handling is used to great effect. Moreover, the dogs here actually appear to act - one scene as a forlorn Hagen stands over a vanquished foe is really astonishing. Although not as astonishing as the subsequent plot developments which sees Hagen inspire the dog population of the city to rise up against the bastard humans who have mistreated them. It's like an extreme art-house dog version of Spartacus; Spartacur, anyone? Of course, if you don't want to make jokes about it, it's actually allegorical satire. Mundruczó was inspired by author JM Coetzee's writings about South Africa, which struck a chord with his own experiences of life in Eastern Europe. Thus, it works as a parable about class divisions in society and politics, all wrapped up in a shaggy-dog package. Odd, but also oddly compelling.

A Thought-Provoking Double Bill

A couple of films where the execution doesn't quite match up to the ideas contained within them. But those ideas are likely to rattle around in your brain for a little while.....

Sorry to Bother You (Boots Riley, 2018) is a darkly funny satire with some sharp concepts running throughout, even if it gets a little too surreal for its own good towards the end. Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield) is a young black man who takes a job as a telemarketer with corporate behemoth Regalview. He discovers that using his 'white voice' makes him more successful (this dialogue amusingly dubbed by David Cross), but soon finds out that there is more to Regalview and its clients than first meets the eye. There's a lot of fun stuff going on here, with thought-provoking ideas jostling for position as Riley takes aim at race, class, capitalism and institutional power structures. That aim is a bit scattershot, so the targets are merely wounded rather than exterminated, but that doesn't mean they shouldn't get shot at in the first place. It's original and creative and, despite the surreal plot turns, only a slightly exaggerated version of our corporate world today. If you've been convinced by this sales pitch, why not give it a go.

High Flying Bird (Steven Soderbergh, 2019) is a similarly provocative affair set in the world of basketball, with some compelling ideas propping up a plot that could have been tighter with a little extra polish. Shot entirely on iPhone 8, it follows a professional sports agent Ray (André Holland) as he challenges the traditional hierarchy of the sport during a period of power games between players and overseers, an event loosely based on the real-life NBA lockout in 2011. Primarily, the film uses the fictional drama to make real-life points about the commodification of players by sporting organizations, not least by pointing out how white team owners and lawyers have so much control over black basketball players’ careers and image rights. Thus, it's a lot more thought-provoking than most sports dramas, even if the drama itself plays second fiddle to the actual ideas being thrown around. In the end, though, as accomplished and entertaining as it is, it is still hard to shake the feeling that Soderbergh is content to take an relatively straightforward 2 points, when a more ambitious 3-pointer would have been possible with a little extra effort. Available on Netflix, by the way.