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.

Captain Marvel (Boden & Fleck, 2019)

What's it about? On the planet of Hala, the amnesiac Vers (Brie Larson) is learning to control her mysterious powers as she fights for the Kree in the war against the Skrulls. But a series of events means she ends up on Earth in the mid-1990s where she encounters a SHIELD agent by the name of Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and starts to uncovers her past.

Is it any good? A perfectly serviceable superhero origin story which is entertaining enough without ever being exceptional. It works best when it's playing out like a 90s buddy action movie, similar to those films Jackson himself starred in back in the day; Brie Hard with a Vengeance anyone? No? How about The Long Krees Goodnight? Fine, let's move on. In support of this, Larson and Jackson (the latter impressively de-aged by CG) strike up an agreeable chemistry, with a few good gags and a bit of retro 90s stuff to enjoy along the way. Meanwhile, Ben Mendelsohn (as alien Talos) and a cat called Goose compete to steal the film, which is fun. Where it is less successful is in making Captain Marvel that interesting a character. Sure, she seems nice, and brave, and funny, but her backstory is superficially sketched out and the journey to find out Who She Is? is rather formulaic. Neither is there a sense of any real jeopardy or high stakes here as we move to the climactic smackdown, which is CGI-heavy but emotion-lite. In the end it conforms too closely to the standard hero-origin plot, without exhibiting enough individuality to stand out. A pity, since Larson does eventually get to stand up and deliver a rousing feminist put-down towards the end, which would have been much more empowering if the film had ever threatened to challenge the big boys in the MCU league. As it is, it settles in around the middle of the table standings.

Anything else I should know? Remember when Wonder Woman came out, we had an army of keyboard warriors rear their oh-so-masculine heads in indignation that a woman should take centre-stage in a comic-book film? With tedious inevitably, the same angry mob have taken to their parent's basements, wielding pitchforks and flaming acne, to again complain and mansplain about how Captain Marvel sucks and why Brie Larson is not fit to be in their MCU. Luckily the same meme from my Wonder Woman review can be re-utilised now, which saves me some time.

Anyone rankled by that is referred to this blogs byline above. Don't @ me. Elsewhere there's a couple of contrasting takes on whether it is successfully feminist or not here and here.

What does the Fonz think? My lawyers are checking my image rights....

Documentary Triple Bill

Truth can not only be stranger, but also more exciting, disturbing and affecting than fiction. As these three recent documentaries demonstrate....

Winner of the Best Documentary Feature at the 2019 Oscars, Free Solo (Vasarhelyi & Chin, 2018) is about professional rock climber Alex Honnold and his attempt to become the first person to climb the 3000ft high El Capitan rock face in Yosemite National Park, WITHOUT ROPES!! As you can imagine, those with a fear of heights might do well to avoid this as the documentary team, themselves hanging precariously on the rock face, capture some stunning, vertigo-inducing footage of Honnold clinging on with his fingertips to the mountainside. There is no doubting the extraordinary nature of his achievement(s), but beyond the actual athletic feat the examination of Honnold's motivations is rather superficial, while the effect on his girlfriend, friends and family is also explored in conventional, but rather unsatisfying fashion. Compared to something like Man on Wire, a much superior account of a similarly amazing feat, this felt like a film that was content to stay safely tethered to an easy narrative, rather than reach for something more challenging. Personally, I was initially scared he might fall and die, but one look at his black, soulless eyes and I knew he was dead already.

Less easy to dismiss flippantly is Leaving Neverland (Dan Reed, 2019), an account of Michael Jackson's alleged sexual abuse of two boys, Wade Robson and James Safechuck, at the height of his fame in the 80s and 90s. I say 'alleged', but this is pretty damning stuff, as over the course of 4 hours, both men give profoundly disturbing testimony about how Jackson groomed and abused them as kids, leaving them deeply affected and emotionally scarred as adults. There's also an exploration of how their parents, in particular their mothers, who also feature here, could let their sons go off to sleep in this man's bedroom and not suspect anything sinister was going on. It isn't a balanced documentary in that Jackson's side of things is not really presented, but then again we've heard his 'defence' many times and it is something people believe or not. What we haven't heard until recently is the version put forward by these two men and it would be a cynical or deeply deluded soul indeed who claims they are lying just for the money. It's not easy to watch or hear the graphic details, but it is important that this gets seen to ensure Jackson is not just remembered for being an eccentric musical genius. Instead, this is more proof, if anyone really needed it, that the king of pop was in all probability a very calculating smooth criminal and an utterly despicable human being. Let's hope someone buys Neverland and razes it to the ground.

Three Identical Strangers (Tim Wardle, 2018) is an astonishing, couldn't-make-it-up tale about identical triplets separated at birth who are reunited as 19-year-olds following a quirk of fate. However, the real trick here is that after sucking you in with its incredible feel-good story, the film smartly moves into more tragic and disturbing territory, as we gradually discover why they were separated the way they were.  It makes for gripping viewing, mixing archived footage with engaging talking head interviews as the story twists and turns are revealed. The only pity is that some parts of the story remain tantalisingly out of reach, through no real fault of the film-makers, which leads to a slightly anti-climactic resolution. Of course, this is real-life, not a three-act script, so perhaps expecting a neat conclusion is unfair, but it is still a great watch, especially for anyone interested in the nature-versus-nurture debate about what makes us the people we are.