One Night in Miami(1/15/2021)

There’s this Key and Peele sketch from the second episode of that show which always stood out in my memory: in it we peak in on this community theater caliber two man show called “Lunch With Greatness” being performed in what looks like a church basement.  This play appeared to dramatize a meeting between Martin Luther King and Malcolm X in some sort of hotel room.  The play does not look like the deepest of works; it appears to have both figures speaking to one another face to face using rhetoric they would be likely to say to large crowds and has some corny exposition like “it’s a beautiful morning here in Montgomery Alabama.”  As it goes on the two performers realize that every time their characters say something righteous the audience nods and goes “mmm hmmm,” and when the guy playing Malcom X realizes that the guy playing Martin Luther King is getting more of this applause he starts going off book in order to get more approval than his co-star.  As the sketch goes on the two start ignoring the script entirely to see which performer can out-pander the other, culminating in Malcolm X calling for the re-election of Obama and King randomly giving a shout out to the “strong, beautiful, black women” of the world.  The sketch is ultimately more about the egos of these fictional actors than anything, but you do get the sense that a lot of this was born out of a certain frustration and boredom with the tired unchallenging way a lot of black history is dramatized and how so much of it has long been centered on these two figures and their debates with one another.  And I must say, the fictional play in that sketch was the first thing that came to mind when I heard about the new movie (itself based on a play) called One Night in Miami, which also looks at a hotel meeting between a quartet of black leaders from the 60s.

One Night in Miami looks at a meeting that took place on Febuary 25th 1964 in a hotel in Miami.  Muhammad Ali (Eli Goree), who at the time was still going by Cassius Clay, had just knocked out Sonny Liston for the first time becoming the heavyweight champion of the world.  Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), and Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) all attended that fight in different capacities and the four met up afterwards to celebrate.  This much is recorded fact but no one really knows the specifics of what they discussed (to the best of my knowledge the one surviving member of the quartet, Jim Brown, hasn’t discussed it) so from here the film enters into a sort of speculation about what the four men might have discussed.  All four were sort of at turning points in their lives: Ali was about to formally join the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X was feuding with the Nation of Islam’s leadership and was on the verge of leaving, Jim Brown had just started his acting career which would eventually lead to his retirement from football, and Sam Cooke had just written his signature song “A Change is Gonna Come” and was about to become more overtly political in his music.

Much of the film’s conflict is between Cooke and Malcom X, who believed the singer had not done enough for the cause of black liberation, which Cooke believed was unfair given the work he’d done as an entrepreneur and the inroads he was making in the music industry.  So, liberation through attacking the system vs. liberation from accomplishments within the system.  This conflict takes up much of the film’s first half, to the point where you almost feel like Muhammad Ali and especially Jim Brown are almost being short changed, though he does serve something of the role of being a bit of a straight-man and audience surrogate given that he’s not a Muslim and isn’t on the defensive in the movie like Cooke is.  This historical accuracy of some of this is a touch dubious; Cooke had actually already released “A Change is Gonna Come” shortly before this meeting, so the timing of that has been fudged a bit for dramatic effect and I must say I have my doubts that Malcom X would actually admit to his own schism with the Nation of Islam to Muhammad Ali before his public conversion, but these seem like reasonable enough liberties to take to fit a narrative like this.

The film rather notably has opted not to fill its cast with major stars and I doubt that’s for lack of interest from various actors who would almost certainly want to portray icons like this.  The biggest star here is probably Leslie Odom Jr, a stage actor who rose to a certain prominence playing Aaron Burr in “Hamilton.”  That the film’s biggest star was cast as Cooke is probably a function of the fact that he is probably the one of these figures modern audiences will have the least familiarity with and also because they probably wanted someone who could sing.  The rest of the cast is filled out with people I frankly hadn’t heard of and they had some pretty big shoes to fill.  Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali had both been played by major movie stars in high profile biopics before and people in 2020 know an older Jim Brown pretty well from his various television appearances both as an activist and former football player.  Ultimately though this proves to be less of an issue because the version of these men seen here are a bit distinct from what we see of them elsewhere, particularly in the case of Malcolm X, who is in something of a vulnerable moment of his life here.  We did see some shades of what we see here in Denzel Washington’s famous portrayal, but only in certain parts of that famously lengthy movie and here we focus in on his more human side which admits a bit more self doubt that what we see in Spike Lee’s version of the character.

Having said all that, the film has limitations.  It’s bookended by prologs and epilogues for all four men which are good but perhaps a bit straightforward and I may have liked there to be more screen time for the main “four icons talking to each other” section, which maybe could have used one extra conflict or beat.  Beyond that, well, the movie is certainly better than the play from that Key and Peele sketch I was talking about earlier but there are some slightly cringey bits here that still sort of reminded me of that.  There’s some questionable exposition here and there and the film likes to pull out these sort of “Mad Men” like moments where characters will say things that the audience will respond to using their knowledge of history to know it has greater significance like when Malcolm X asks Muhammad Ali to remind him what “that British band” he was hanging out with were called (The Beatles) and one of the other characters calls them a fad.  Some of these moments land a bit better than that but there are a few clunkers here and there.  Beyond that the film never quite makes an argument for this meeting being anything more than a historical curiosity, but it was a curiosity that was worth taking a peak at and audiences that are interested in the history behind these four men will want to give this a look.

***1/2 out of Five

Home Video Round-Up 12/31/2020: Amazon Prime Edition

Borat Subsequent Moviefilm (12/20/2020)

The idea of Sacha Baron Cohen making a sequel to his 2006 Borat film seemed unfeasible for several reasons.  On a practical level, after the success of that movie it was basically impossible for Cohen to use the character in his usual candid camera way without his subjects recognizing him.  On top of that, people kind of got sick of the Borat character’s comic ticks and catch phrases, and then there’s the fact that the whole point of Borat was to talk to people in a way that exposes their bigotry… and in 2020 bigotry doesn’t really need that much exposing, it’s all around us.  So when I heard about Borat Subsequent Moviefilm I was a little skeptical and I couldn’t really bring myself to watch it, firstly because I didn’t have Amazon Prime at the time, but secondly because I really didn’t need this kind of satire in the middle of a rather stressful election season.  The reviews for the movie were surprisingly good though, so I was ready to give it a shot now that things have cooled down a little politically and I must say I wasn’t terribly impressed.

Now, I was and am a pretty big fan of the first Borat movie, but it has its limitations.  The film doesn’t have much of a story, it’s essentially a series of comedy sketches strung together with a loose narrative and these sketches are rooted in the inherent danger of Cohen interacting with real people and letting them make fools of themselves with how they react to him.  So, when much of the population already knows who Borat is, that’s a problem.  Cohen does have a couple of tricks up his sleeve to deal with this for his new movie; he does a couple of his stunts in other disguises and he introduces an actress named Maria Bakalova to pose as Borat’s daughter in various interviews (including a much discussed interaction with Rudy Giuliani), but there are a lot of interactions here using original recipe Borat and I must say I have my doubts about their authenticity; either he’s dunking on people who have been living under a rock since 2006 (which is lame) or these “interviews” are just straight up staged.  This is a pretty big problem because without these real world interactions the film needs to lean more on a rather dodgy central narrative and Borat’s comic mannerisms which feel exceedingly cartoonish this time around.  You can tell that Cohen never really intended to extend the world building of this joke version of Kazakhstan he’s envisioned and a lot about it just feels ridiculous and kind of dated in 2020 and the stunts he engages in this time around feel less smart and more like crude shock comedy.

There are a couple of bits here that do land better than others and I do think there’s something clever about a sequence where Borat interacts with some Qanon lunatics and they have trouble believing some of Borat’s wackier descriptions of Kazakhstan but do believe their own equally nutty conspiracy theories.  But again, that seems like a particularly staged sequence given how much those characters how up later in the film.  And then there’s a scene where Borat (in disguise) sings a deranged country song at a MAGA-type rally, which is well staged and funny, but it also feels like an echo of a similar scene from his old HBO show (the “throw the Jew down the well” sequence).  When that aired in 2004 it was shocking and seemed to expose something dark in the country… but this sequence, in which MAGA people gleefully sing along to the idea of “chopping up journalists like the Saudis do” isn’t remotely surprising and while I feel like I should find it funny I really just find it incredibly depressing.  And that’s kind of my problem with the whole movie.  I’m not going to say that Cohen’s entire comedic approach is invalid in the era of Trump, he did do some good stuff with that “Who is America?” show not that long ago, but this movie didn’t really work for me much at all.

** out of Five

All In: The Fight for Democracy (12/22/2020)

With Stacey Abrams emerging as something of a hero of the 2020 election after her organizing helped flip Georgia for Biden it seemed prudent to watch this documentary she produced earlier in the year.  I had kind of thought it would be about the specifics of what she was doing as part of her fight to fight for democracy but the film actually turned out to be something more of a primer in the basic subject of voter suppression, which is something that is perhaps a bit less valuable to me.  The first half of the movie is something of a history lesson about the fight for voter rights going back to Jim Crow up through Selma and Voting Rights Act of 1965, which is certainly important stuff, but also won’t be terribly surprising to anyone with a basic understanding of U.S. History.  It then starts going into more recent developments like the rise of voter ID laws, attempts to take names off of voter rolls, and manufactured long lines at the polls.  Again, all important stuff, but if you’ve watched the news lately you will likely have heard all of that as well.  In the last twenty minutes or so it does finally get into Abrams’ own ill-fated gubernatorial run and how all this voter suppression played into that, but even there we only really get a surface-level exploration.  In short, this documentary wasn’t made for me; it was made as a flashy overview for relatively uninformed audiences and I’m sure that it will do some good when presented to audiences who don’t understand the stakes in recent elections, but I can’t exactly say I “liked” a documentary that did nothing but tell me things I already know.

**1/2 out of Five

Sound of Metal (12/24/2020)

Riz Ahmed is an actor who’s been slowly climbing the ranks of esteem but he’s never quite had the optimal feature film starring vehicle to show off his talents and that made his latest film Sound of Metal rather exciting.  Directed by Darius Marder, who co-wrote The Place Beyond the Pines with Derek Cianfrance and another collaborator, the film looks at a man who played the drums in a heavy metal band fronted by his girlfriend who suddenly finds himself losing his hearing and by extension his livelihood as a musician and possibly his relationship to his girlfriend who he can no longer communicate with.  Eventually he goes to a community for the deaf to learn some skills to cope with his situation, which is where the bulk of the film is set.  Ahmed’s character was plainly a flawed person long before he started to lose his hearing; he’s a heavily tattooed and seemingly rather wild person as well as a recovering addict and some of the rigors needed for life in this deafness boot camp are rather difficult for him.  Marder shot the film on 35mm and give it a certain gritty down to earthiness and employs some pretty effective sound design to convey the nature of his partial hearing loss and its peak into the deaf community certainly looks authentic.  Ahmed and his co-star Paul Raci are not actually deaf but most of the rest of the deaf characters in the film are and there are also some solid turns by Olivia Cooke and Mathieu Amalric in hearing roles.  I’m not sure how well the film will do with award bodies, it lacks a certain kind of polish that tends to be a requirement in that world, but as a character study and as a meditation on disability it accomplishes quite a bit.

**** out of Five

Time (12/27/2020)

Time is a documentary chronicling the life of Sibil Fox Richardson, a woman who was involved in a bank robbery when she was young.  In her role as the getaway driver she was given a three and a half year prison sentence but her husband ended up getting sixty years in prison for his role in the armed robbery.  The film picks up twenty years later as she does activism work while attempting to find legal means to get her husband’s sentence reduced and we also see a great deal of home video footage she shot in that intervening 20 years.  Because a lot of that home video footage was shot on a not so great consumer-grade digital camera, director Garrett Bradley has opted to grade the entire film in black and white, thus making that footage look kind of timeless rather than low quality, which was probably a smart move.  The film is perhaps notable for taking more of a personal rather than journalistic approach, which can be both interesting and frustrating in equal measures.  The film gives us very few details about the crime that sparked this whole situation, which to me seems like a bit of a problem given that the film is sort of predicated on the audience believing this guy’s sentence does not fit the crime in question but they don’t really give you enough information to make that judgment.  Armed robbery is hardly a minor or victimless crime and the film doesn’t dispute the husband’s guilt, and while sixty years seems a bit excessive, I can’t help but feel like the film is being evasive.  The film also basically ignores whatever legal happenings led to that sentence and while the film ostensibly shows the wife “fighting” for her husband the film frequently isn’t very clear as to what it is she’s actually doing and why.  The people themselves are fairly interesting so there is some value here, but this is plainly a movie that wants to be a piece of advocacy and as an argument I find it lacking and frankly kind of dishonest in its evasiveness.  It seems to only be interested in being a plea to emotions, and pleas to emotions are some of the least persuasive arguments you can make and will often lead people down some pretty dark paths.

**1/2 out of Five

Sylvie’s Love (12/31/2020)

Sylvie’s Love is a movie that sort of snuck up on me having shown up on Amazon Prime without a ton of fanfare or buzz in the lead up but having received solid reviews and a pretty classy looking poster.  The film is set in 1950s Harlem and looks at a difficult romance between a woman who begins the film working in a record store and a jazz saxophonist.  It’s shot using the style of the Technicolor melodramas of the era, particularly the work of Douglas Sirk.  In a way it’s kind of trying to give audiences the classic Hollywood movie about middle class African Americans that Hollywood itself denied them during that actual time.  This is not exactly the first movie to draw inspiration from those movies, Todd Hayne’s Far From Heaven comes to mind as another film that tried to replicate Sirk’s films while more explicitly addressing the social issues he could only hint at and even before that movie there was also Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, but those movies were closer to being near remakes of All That Heaven Allows while this uses Sirk’s work more as a stylistic touchstone.  The actual story more closely resembles the recent films Cold War and Chico and Rita, both movies involving bittersweet romances with musicians set over the course of several years in which circumstance keeps splitting lovers up and bringing them back together again.  In a lot of ways it’s a movie I liked the idea of more than the actual movie.  I’m generally a sucker for recreations of classic cinema but I must say that Sirk’s work has never been my favorite, or at least I’m not as crazy about it as the many filmmakers who he seems to have strongly inspired and this one never quite manages to find new and interesting ways to use that style and the story itself is interesting but not exactly revelatory or as deep as its presentation seems to suggest.  It was an interesting enough movie to be worth a look if this all sounds appealing, but when you try to seem like a new classic come to life you sometimes set yourself too high of a standard.

*** out of Five

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom(1/1/2021)

On August 29th 2020 the world received the sad news that the actor Chadwick Boseman had died after a secret fight with colon cancer, probably the most shocking Hollywood death since the announcement that Heath Ledger had been killed by an accidental overdose before the release of The Dark Knight, which would have changed his career.  Almost as shocking as the death was the fact that the actor had apparently been working pretty consistently with the shadow of death hanging over his head.  He was diagnosed with cancer in 2016, meaning that he played Black Panther in four different movies, played Thurgood Marshall, made that 21 Bridges movie, and also made his contribution to Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods all while fighting for his life without anyone knowing it at the time.  Now it’s likely that he didn’t know that whole time that his condition was terminal, but still, this clearly says something about his passion for performing and how important he viewed his work.  If you look at the movies he chose to make during that stretch that 21 Bridges movie is the only one that stands out as being something of a frivolous paycheck depending on how much you value an MCU film like Black Panther.  There was, however, one final screen performance he gave before his passing and it looked like quite the acting showcase in general: a new adaptation of the August Wilson play “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.”

The film is set in 1927 in a Chicago recording studio.  A session has been set up for the blues singer Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) to record some singles.  The record label owner Mel Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne) and Ma’s manager Irvin (Jeremy Shamos) have arranged to bring in a band of studio musicians to back her.  This band is led by a trombone player who’s worked with Rainey before named Cutler (Colman Domingo), an older piano player named Toledo (Glynn Turman), a relaxed bass player who goes by Slow Drag (Michael Potts), and finally a young upstart trumpet player named Levee Green (Chadwick Boseman).  Green has come up with a new arrangement for one of Rainey’s signature tunes “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and Irvin has brought him in with the intention of recording that version, which hues closer to Louis Armstrong style improvisational jazz than traditional blues, but Cutler isn’t interested in recording that version and is fairly certain that Rainey won’t either when she arrives.  This sparks a series of conflicts that escalate over the course of the afternoon.

Ma Rainey’s Black Body can in some ways be viewed as a follow-up to the 2016 film Fences as both are based on plays from August Wilson’s Century Cycle and like that film it’s produced (though not directed by or starring) Denzel Washington and features Viola Davis in a major role, but this time Broadway veteran George C. Wolfe is in the director’s chair.  The Century Cycle is set up in such a way that there’s a different play for every decade with Fences being the play about the 50s and this being the play about the 20s, and that place in history is pretty important here both in how it’s looking at a particular moment in the great migration north and unlike all the other plays in the cycle this is set in Chicago rather than Pittsburgh in part because the differences between that city and the south is particularly emblematic of changes in the music industry that are key to the story.  The play and film are about a number of key themes beyond the great migration, it’s also about black music and its commodification by a white record industry, about what African Americans need to do to get respect in white institutions, and also about the stresses that African Americans needed to live under and how that plays into black on black crime… it’s heavy stuff, but it doesn’t make these points in didactic ways.

Viola Davis plays Ma Rainey, who was an actual historical figure though she has been turned into a fictional character for August Wilson’s purposes.  She doesn’t have quite as much screen time as you might think given that she’s the title character but her time in the film does sort of challenge you to consider what you think of her.  Rainey is what you’d call “hard to work with.”  She shows up late, makes all sorts of diva-ish demands, and is completely closed minded about plans to jazz up her son and you are somewhat tempted to take the side of the white record executive and manager as well as Levee Green in thinking she’s a pain in the ass, but as the film goes on you start to see a lot of this behavior less as a sort of needless stubbornness and more as a sort of fight to stave off exploitation.  Levee Green, who would probably be the most important character if you were to choose a lead out of this ensemble, is similarly fascinating as someone who is just trying to break into music but isn’t quite as savvy and as the film goes on you come to realize that he’s somewhat unstable in part because of some very rough experiences he had early on in life and this makes him rather confrontational when dealing with the rest of the band.  Chadwick Boseman appears in the film rather gaunt and noticeably less muscular than when he was playing Black Panther, which seems like something of a sad reminder that he was fighting terminal cancer when he filmed this, but ignoring that it fits the character as this is supposed to be a rather younger man than the 43 year old Boseman.  Boseman takes on a bit of a southern dialect here and manages to really nail some key speeches and does a great job of conveying some key changes in mood at certain points.

If there’s anything that holds back Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom it’s that at its core it still very much feels like what it is: a stage play adapted to film.  Major character swings seem to happen over the course of an afternoon, it’s largely told through dialogue and there’s even a key moment when someone essentially soliloquizes to the camera, which are all moments that scream “stage play” and while much of it retains its power and is done well, there is always going to be something of feeling that a square peg is being inserted into a circular hole.  I don’t want to make this into a bigger problem than it is, frankly as someone who doesn’t get out to much live theater it’s nice to have adaptations like this, but with rare exceptions their basic nature make them kind of hard to view as ten out of ten type things even when they’re as well made as this, you just kind of feel like giving more of the credit to the original playwright than you do to the filmmaking, at least when they don’t bring any particularly new twists to the table.  Still, when the underlying play is this good, the actors assembled are this good, and the direction works out this well, it’s hard to complain too much.

**** out of Five

Home Video Round-Up 12/19/2020

Wolfwalkers (12/13/2020)

Earlier this year I did a watch through of the arty animated films that Gkids have distributed in recent years and films from that marathon that jumped out at me the most were almost certainly the ones from the Irish studio Cartoon Saloon: The Secret of Kells, Song of the Sea, and The Breadwinner.  The first two of those films were made by the production company’s founder Tomm Moore, who clearly has a deep interest in Irish mythology and has seemingly set out to be a sort of Celtic Miyazaki.  His latest film is being distributed on Apple+ and feels like a bit of a return to the style of The Secret of Kells given that both are set hundreds of years ago in Ireland and have visual styles that sort of look like old storybooks come to life.  This one is set in the 17th century and focuses on a girl archer who comes into contact with a pack of mostly friendly “wolfwalkers” (a sort of Celtic group werewolf where the wolves mostly transform into humans rather than the reverse) and ends up in the middle of a war of sorts between her town and these creatures.  From a narrative perspective this is perhaps a bit less adventurous than Moore’s two previous films as this follows a couple of more conventional story beats that I might expect from an above average Disney movie but it’s hard to get too picky about that given how beautiful this studio’s animation can be when they go deep into their historical art style.  The novelty of this style has perhaps worn a bit since 2009 and I’d say that The Secret of Kells remains the studio’s best movie, but this is another strong entry into their catalog and is well worth a look if you have that streaming service.

***1/2 out of Five

The Painter and the Thief (12/15/2020)

The Painter and the Thief is an intimate little documentary about a Czech artist named Barbora Kysilkova living in Norway who became something of a figure of local fame when two of her paintings were stolen from a gallery by a pair of local hoodlums one of whom was caught rather quickly.  The guy was not a sophisticated cat burglar; he was a drug addict who claims to not even remember the night of the “heist.”  Rather than seeking some sort of revenge Kysilkova decides to reach out to this guy and figure out how he ticks and an odd sort of friendship forms between them and she even uses him as a subject in her paintings.  This is a fairly personal doc, personal to the point where it kind of feels odd that there were cameras in these rooms when these people were interacting.  It has a slightly confusing chronology and perhaps feels a touch padded for time.  You get the feeling that you’ve gotten the message about forgiveness here pretty early on and while there are some interesting developments as the narrative goes you feel like it might have worked a bit better as a short subject of about thirty minutes than as a feature but it is an interesting story nonetheless and a documentary worth a look if the subject matter sounds interesting.

*** out of Five

Unhinged (12/17/2020)

Unhinged will probably be forever remembered as being more or less the first movie to play theaters during the late summer re-opening as it started showing in the weeks before even Tenet had opened.  In some ways this gave it more of a spotlight than it otherwise might have had; I certainly hadn’t heard of it until it turned into the only movie left on the release schedule and it’s the kind of low to mid budget semi-high concept thrillers do not generally hold an overly visible place in film culture these days.  While I’m going to have rather mixed feelings about any movie barreling forward with a theatrical release during a pandemic I would say that if any movie was going to do that this was probably the right one to do it as it’s a functional if rather disposable movie about a woman who finds her life being turned upside down when she flips off a guy in traffic who turns out to be a psychotic killer Russell Crowe who decides to make it his mission to stalk her and make her life hell the rest of the day. From there the film is an enjoyable B-movie but not a particularly memorable one.  I think Crowe is king of the problem here; this is a part that basically exists to accommodate scenery chewing and chew scenery he does, but I’m not sure that either he or the character are quite interesting enough to carry the whole movie through over the top villainy.  It’s not a bad movie at all, if you want something decent to watch on a lazy Saturday it will do, but it probably could have been more with a little more care and inspiration.

*** out of Five

I Am Greta (12/18/2020)

The rise of the Swedish teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg was not really something I paid a lot of attention to as it was happening over the last couple of years.  Over the years I’ve seen trends in climate activism come and go and this one just didn’t seem that much more noteworthy to me and I’ve kind of been surprised by her continued prominence.  A climate activist getting a movement going is certainly not a bad thing, but why her?  The positions she takes are not particularly novel, she doesn’t strike me as being uniquely articulate and well spoken, she’s far from the first young person to wade into politics and activism, and she mostly seems to preach to the converted.  I think I watched this documentary hoping it would give me some insight into why she’s become such a popular figure but I must say in some ways I’m even more confused than I was before.  I think this was made less to be a primer and more to give those who already love and respect Thunberg a peak behind the curtain to see how “down to earth” she really is.  Honestly it almost felt like one of those rushed out and largely hagiographic documentaries they make about pop stars like Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift in order to cash in on their followings.  The film also clearly didn’t really start filming until Thunberg was already getting pretty prominent so we are mostly blind as to how this phenomenon really started.  We see massive crowds show up to her rallies but don’t really get a lot of insight as to why or how she managed to succeed at this kind of organizing where others have failed.  As a film about climate change this isn’t terribly informative and as a character study its missing chunks and doesn’t seem terribly thoughtful.  Good luck to Thunberg, but this movie isn’t the definitive profile she needs.

** out of Five

Happiest Season(12/19/2020)

Happiest Season was meant to in some ways be the first real LGBT romantic comedy from a major studio, but Sony Pictures ended up having to sell it to Hulu because of the pandemic, in part because its holiday setting meant that delaying it would effectively force it to sit on the shelf an entire year.  The film follows a lesbian couple played by Kristen Stewart and Mackenzie Davis who are planning a trip to the Mackenzie Davis character’s parents’ house for the holidays but as they’re driving there she reveals to her girlfriend that she isn’t actually out of the closet to her family and that she intends to claim that they’re just platonic roommates when they get there.  Hijinks ensue.  There is a lot to like about Happiest Season; it’s got a solid cast and Stewart in particular proves to be a strong lead, it’s pretty well written in terms of dialogue and jokes, and the base story would seem to have potential.  Unfortunately there’s a bit of a rot at the center of it all in that this is all leading up to (spoilers, I guess) a profoundly unearned happy ending.

There’s a bit of a rote trope in traditional romantic comedies where, leading into the third act, the couple at the center splits apart over some nonsensical misunderstanding only to then be brought together by a grand gesture at the end.  It’s easy to scoff at this cliché, but you start to see why writers use silly misunderstandings to make this happen when you see a movie like this were a comparable split happens at the two thirds point less out of a dumb mistake and more because of an entrenched flaw in the relationship that really should break people up and not bring them together again just because they make a heartfelt speech afterwards.  That’s what happens here; the fact that the Davis character springs this situation on the Stewart character is borderline deranged and she spends 80% of the movie treating her terribly and basically proving to the audience that she’s kind of undeserving of Stewart (or anyone else) until she rids herself of her obvious self-loathing.  To the movie’s credit, it’s not unaware of a lot of this and does express how bad this character is behaving in various ways, but it ultimately wants to have it both ways despite this and the ending feels false and contrived because of this.

There could have been ways to make this work at least a little better.  Had they made the characters a bit younger and less mature that might have made some of the Davis characters’ mistakes a bit more understandable and forgivable.  The film also might have made a bit more sense if it had been set in an earlier time period where this degree of pressure to stay in the closet was more palpable.  Alternatively the film also might have at least put you in the characters’ headspace a bit more if it had actually depicted her parents as being the kind of overt homophobes for whom this kind of charade might have actually felt necessary in order to please but it instead rather timidly tries to sell them less as fanatical religious bigots and more as simply being control freaks who go to extreme lengths to make their family seem “perfect” to the outside world.  I can kind of see why they tried to avoid that route as they likely calculated that depicting these parents as monsters who are not worthy of impressing would also throw the movie off, but they were kind of in a catch-22 because making them ultimately reasonable people for who none of this was actually all that necessary doesn’t work either.  Anyway, if you can look past all that you’ll probably like this movie, it’s well made otherwise but to me that central flaw kind of sinks it.

**1/2 out of Five

Crash Course: Small Axe

Is “Small Axe” a series of movies or an Anthology TV show?  This is the question that has been tearing apart the critical community and as I write this intro, having not yet watched most of them, I’m not yet sure.  “Small Axe” is a series of five films (episodes?) made by the acclaimed British director Steve McQueen (of 12 Years a Slave fame) each about the common theme of the black British experience during the 20th century.  Some, but not all, of the installments played at film festivals and they were financed by and debuted on the BBC in the UK and premiered on Amazon Prime stateside and I don’t know that they ever would have played in theaters even without the pandemic.  In the past that TV premieres likely would have been the end of the discussion for me.  I tend to be pretty strict about this sort of thing and when I deem something to be TV I generally don’t write about it on the blog or deem it eligible for things like my year-end top ten lists or The Golden Stakes.  I don’t have a lot of patience for wishy-washy “don’t put things in boxes” protestations, boxes create order dammit!  I also bristle at the rather snobby undercurrent that often pervades these discussions implying that as soon as something is good it needs to be “saved” from the TV label and join all the real movies at the grown-ups table.

On the other hand… it has become rather difficult to make these judgments in a year where I’m not really watching much of anything in theaters and there have been plenty of movies that went straight to some sort of streaming service or HBO like they’re “real” movies as it seems inane to insist on theater screenings in a year where those basically don’t exist.  So that would point to them being treated as real movies right?  They are by and large self-contained movies of a feature-length coming from an established film auteur.  On the other other hand… the fact that they’re a “series” complicates things.  I certainly don’t consider individual episodes of “Black Mirror” to be movies even if those are self-contained stories, some of which are long enough to be features.  I also consider the project this is most commonly compared to, Krzysztof Kieślowski’s “The Decalogue,” to be a TV show even though it often gets roped into movie canons despite having premiered on Polish television and having hour-long episodes.  Amazon, for their part, put the series in their TV section and their interface describes it as “season one” of a “series” with “episodes,” but then again maybe I’m letting the framing dictate this a bit too much.  McQueen could have easily “fooled” us by putting each “episode” out into theaters and we might have never known they were conceived as an anthology series.

So in case you couldn’t tell, I’m a bit torn.  But maybe I just need to watch them before I can come to a final judgment and even if I do end up deciding this is a TV show for the purpose of year-end honors I think there will still be value in writing about the latest Steve McQueen project for the site as I come to my judgment.

Mangrove (12/25/2020)

The first installment of “Small Axe” is easily the longest of the five episodes and the one that can most easily be considered a stand-alone feature.  It tells the real-life story of the “Mangrove 9,” a group of people arrested at a protest that occurred outside the Mangrove restaurant, which had been a central meeting place for the West Indian community in London and had frequently been the target of harassment by the police.  So in terms of subject matter it’s not too hard to view this as something of a smaller scale British version of another of this year’s bigger movies, Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7.  Unsurprisingly Steve McQueen’s approaches his film differently from Sorkin, who has a bit more of a maximalist inspirational approach.  This isn’t to say that McQueen’s film would be called “minimalist,” in fact it’s probably his most accessible film with the possible exception of Widows, but I’m not sure McQeen finds anything “inspirational” about this story even if it [spoilers] ostensibly has a happier ending.  The racial discrimination that by the police that sparks the initial protest in the film is almost comically overt and terrible, the kind of behavior that you’re almost shocked they thought they could get away with (though the victims are rather pointedly not shocked).  When it transitions to the courtroom the film doesn’t wildly diverge from the usual tropes of the legal drama but it does effectively show what these people were up against and give a good idea of how clear the injustice of them even being on trial in the first place.

Lovers Rock (12/26/2020)

“Mangrove” is a full two-hour movie and the third movie “Red, White, and Blue” is about 80 minutes, but three of the other five “Small Axe” movies only run between 60 and 70 minutes.  That would have been considered a semi-routine feature length in the 30s or 40s and does count as feature-length by The Academy (who consider 40 minutes the cutoff), but it’s also shorter than several premium TV episodes and is also short enough that it would make theatrical exhibition impractical without some sort of added content.  “Lovers Rock” is the first of the “short” episodes and is also noteworthy for being the only of the five films to not deal with any real historical figures or events.  Instead this focuses on a common house party in West London attended by various young West Indians.  So, you could kind of view it as a less comedic black British version of something like Dazed and Confused where you’re sort of dramatizing one memorable coming of age night for some young people.  The film is named after a subgenre of reggae music and this party is being DJed by someone who clearly knows their Caribbean music because the film has quite a bit of music playing in the background and some of the highlights are moments on the dance floor when people start to really get into the music.  Were this not part of a five-part collective this likely would have felt a bit like it was missing something and could have used some expanding, but within the context of “Small Axe” its purpose is very clear: it’s trying to show positive side of West Indian British life apart while putting the struggle and strife we see in the other films more into the background.

Red, White, and Blue (12/27/2020)

So, this actually isn’t my first time watching the third Small Axe movie Red, White, and Blue.  I’m on a mailing list where Amazon occasionally has me take part in online focus groups and a couple months ago they had me watch this one film out of the context of the larger Small Axe packaging.  I had heard about Small Axe beforehand so it wasn’t like I was out of the loop at the time but I did feel it fair to watch it again within that context given that that first one was technically a work in progress version (though I didn’t notice any changes in the final cut).  When I watched it the first time I liked it, but it kind of felt like it was missing, that it felt somewhat incomplete compared to Steve McQueen’s other films.  I still basically feel that way now but viewing it as an installment of an anthology makes that incompleteness feel a bit more “right.”  The film goes back to the topic of police violence previously examined in “Mangrove” but this one dramatizes the life of Leroy Logan, who was one of the first black men to join the London Metropolitan Police over the protests of his father, who had been a victim of police brutality.  From there it becomes a sort of black Serpico with him needing to deal with being something of an outsider and pariah within the department despite trying to be a good cop.  But unlike Serpico this doesn’t necessarily end with him taking down the “bad apples” and instead ends somewhat abruptly with the audience kind of led to believe that changing institutions from the inside is perhaps not so possible.  There probably were ways to end this more hopefully, I looked up the real Logan and it does appear that over the course of several decades he did make some incremental changes to London policing, and I feel like there could have been room to tell some of that were this a full film rather than an 80 minute entrant in an anthology.

Alex Wheatle (12/28/2020)

In the lead up to my watching Small Axe the consensus I’d gleamed was that the fourth film “Alex Wheatle” was the weakest of the five, and in essence I agree with that.  The titular Alex was a young man who was imprisoned for a role he played in the 1981 Brixton Riots who would later go on to be a novelist who wrote about his old neighborhood some twenty years later.  This installment is specifically about his youth in Brixton and unlike many of the other Small Axe episodes this isn’t really about any one aspect of society failing black people so much as it’s more of a sweep of what life was like in this place and time.  I think more than any of the other episodes here this doesn’t really feel like it was ever going to be able to stand alone as a feature film even in an expanded form, or at least it doesn’t feel like it would have been a particularly notable one.  It does however make sense as kind of filler episode in an anthology series, the equivalent of something like that episode of Black Mirror about the soldiers in the VR simulation: not something you’d be crazy for on its own but worth watching as part of an overall package.  But maybe that’s selling this thing short.  Wheatle does prove to be a pretty intriguing protagonist early on and the film’s dramatization of the time leading up to the Brixton Riot itself is quite good, in fact I think McQueen gravitated to this story because he wanted to address that riot without just making Mangrove all over again but it’s not quite sure what it wants to do with this story after that point and seems to run out of material despite the rather short running time.

Education (12/31/2020)

The title of the last Small Axe film gives a pretty clear indication of what the theme is, it’s the failures of the British education system when it comes to black children.  Specifically it’s about a particular scandal in which it was discovered in the early 70s that many black children were being systematically placed into “special” schools where they receive sub-optimal education.  In the film this is represented by the experience of a kid named Kingsley who is sort of a fictional composite of many kids in a similar situation at the time.  He appears to be dyslexic and does struggle with reading as a result, but rather than put in the extra effort to educate him they put him in a remedial school which is plainly a joke where the teachers actively don’t bother to educate anyone.  I think this was selected as the final entry in the series in part because it ends on a slightly more hopeful note than some of the other films.  Much of McQueen’s goal in making “Small Axe” was to provide black Brits with the same kind of canon of civil rights stories that American children get, but given that Steve McQueen generally isn’t the rosiest person these movies don’t have a lot of “we shall overcome” to them.  But “Education” is something of an exception as it ends not with the kind of quiet resignation the other films end with but instead with an example of the community coming together to provide something of a half-solution to the issue at hand.

In Conclusion:

You know, I was kind of hoping that over the course of watching the Small Axe series my position that they were TV rather than film would have weakened over time, but I must say having seen all of them together I’m more confident than ever that this is an anthology TV series rather than a true set of five movies.  And there’s nothing wrong with that, TV can be great!  Things don’t just become “movies” because they’re well made, movie people don’t need to butt in and announce “we’ll take it from here” the second a TV series like this comes along and frankly I worry I’ve already waded a bit too much into those waters by covering it on this movie blog at all.  Having said all that, this is certainly a really worthwhile piece of work regardless of what you label it.  These are important stories worth telling and, when collected together, the five films make a pretty powerful statement about what British history in the 20th Century has looked like.

Home Video Round-Up 12/12/2020

Bill and Ted Face the Music (12/7/2020)

Making a third Bill and Ted movie nearly thirty years after the first one certainly seemed like a dumb idea on paper, so color me surprised that the film actually came out pretty good.  The film finds the duo in their fifties and now married to the princesses and each have a daughter, but they have not written the music they were supposed to have written that would unite the world; in fact their music career seems to have largely flamed out. Then the universe starts to collapse in on itself in some vaguely defined rupture in the space-time continuum and Bill and Ted need to finally make the song they were destined to make in order to save the world.  From there the movie ends up using elements of both the time travel from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure and Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey and they end up being surprisingly reverent to the timeline and universe rules established in those two silly little movies from the late 80s/early 90s.  From there it just becomes a pleasant jaunt through some time travel shenanigans with some funny cameos and clever little twists that come together better than you expect them to and the film manages to modernize the franchises conventions pretty efficiently.  If there’s anything about the film that doesn’t quite work it might be Bill and Ted themselves.  These were of course always extremely broad characters but I feel like their mannerisms in the old movies were at least on some level supposed to be explained by the fact that they were dumb kids and having them behave exactly the same way as dudes in their 50s makes them look particularly strange, but the movie is at least aware of this and Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter do a lot to sell them through sheer enthusiasm.  On some level I do think this might have made a little more sense if it had been made ten or fifteen years after the old movies instead of thirty years, but the movie does ultimately come together at the end to be a pretty damn likable final product so I can’t complain too much, and with the degree of difficulty that it took to make this thing come off as well as it did I must say I’m impressed.

***1/2 out of Five

Kingdom of Silence (12/8/2020)

Though I’ve been trying to keep up with documentaries this year I have tended to mostly avoid the most political of docs about the Trump administration’s various failings because I get enough of that on Twitter and can only handle so much outrage in my life.  I did make an exception for this documentary about the Jamal Khashoggi assassination and the administration’s absolute failure to respond to it.  The film isn’t just about Khashoggi so much as the general state of affairs in Saudi Arabia and Kashoggi’s rather complicated life proves to be a pretty good window into that world.  Following news reports at the time I had gotten the impression that Khashoggi was something of a dissident outsider within Saudi society, which he eventually was, but early in his career he was actually something of a patriot and an influential voice within the establishment of that country and the movie follows how he came to be on the outs with Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) and what eventually led to his murder.  The details of how Trump was suckered into playing into Salman’s power play is as infuriating as expected and the film leaves the distinct impression that the Kingdom is only going to grow more destructive in the years to come.

***1/2 out of Five

Hillbilly Elegy (12/10/2020)

Hillbilly Elegy is the big budget prestige adaptation of a book of the same title that has a very strange and rather loaded place in modern American culture.  The book, a memoir about the Ohio/Kentucky upbringing of a dude who ended up going to Yale Law School and more or less “escaped” the environment he grew up in.  That book became a bestseller right after the election of Donald Trump, largely because the literary class was freaked out about that and were looking for books that would offer some sort of explanation for what would dive a certain class of people to vote that way.  In the ensuing four years there’s been something of a backlash to the book and to the instinct that made it popular (people got real sick of seeing articles obsessively interviewing people in red state diners) and this makes the release of the book’s film adaptation on November 11th 2020 rather awkward given that people are more ready than ever to see the media trends of the Trump era drown in a toilet.  And even without all that baggage, the idea of Ron Howard dressing up Amy Adams and Glen Close as hicks in order to use studio filmmaking to figure out what makes the rednecks tick raises all sorts of red flags of good taste.  The reviews for this thing have been acidic in their disdain and I must say that I started the movie anticipating a hatewatching experience but the movie I got was less aggressively terrible than it was just complete exercise in pointlessness.

My understanding is that, for better or worse, the book using the author’s Appalachian experiences to make various points about welfare and resentment.  Those were probably points worth arguing about but they were at least points being made.  In the movie those points are not really made either explicitly or implicitly and you’re basically left with a series of stories about a rather unremarkable dude being raised by an abusive drug addict.  It kind of reminded me of the movie 8 Mile in terms of depicting a similarly impoverished and difficult upbringing but the subtext of that movie is that what we’re watching are the formative experiences that made led to the development of a generation defining rapper.  Here we’re just seeing the upbringing of J. D. Vance, and J.D. Vance is not Eminem, he’s an anonymous lawyer who worked for a venture capital firm but the movie treats this like it’s the origin story for some kind of amazing celebrity.  What’s more Ron Howard seems uniquely unsuited to this material.  It’s certainly not impossible to make this kind of anthropological look at poverty work, Sean Baker and Chloé Zhao are both doing excellent work in that regard, but Howard is a guy who’s been rich and famous since a very young age and certainly doesn’t have the time to embed himself in this world like those two do.  The resulting movie just feels exceedingly phony and slick.  The whole project just reeks of being a project that Hollywood snatched up the rights to because it was on the best seller list despite not actually having any particular idea what they were going to do with it and then rushing a rather uninspired adaptation into production while it still had some relevance and even there they seem to have failed.

*1/2 out of Five

American Murder: The Family Next Door (12/11/2020)

Historically I’ve been a lot more lenient with documentaries than with scripted features about what I consider to be “real” movies to review versus TV movies, but going in I wasn’t really sure whether I was going to count American Murder: The Family Next Door as one or the other.  Much of Netflix’s handling of the film (especially its title, which almost sounds like a parody of a bad title for a schlocky True Crime project) kind of pointed to something lowbrow and un-cinematic but the format here is actually kind of daring.  The film documents the 2018 Watts family murders, which I vaguely remember hearing news reports about but wasn’t overly familiar with and didn’t even realize that was the story this was about until about midway through the movie.  The film actually omits any form of narration and doesn’t include any talking heads filmed for the movie.  Instead the film entirely consists of home videos, social media posts, police footage, and media clips from when this case was in the headlines.  I’m not sure I love the approach on an aesthetic level, reading text messages on the screen for minutes on end is not necessarily something I find thrilling, but it does help keep the film from feeling too much like it’s just a Dateline/20/20 type thing and when the approach does work it works quite well, particularly once it becomes fully clear who was to blame for this case and seeing the raw footage of them does have a certain power to it.

*** out of Five

Relic(12/12/2020)

During the height of the pandemic, when conventional theaters were closed pretty much everywhere, IFC put out two low budget horror movies for drive through theaters which gained publicity from being some of the only “new movies” that were out.  The other film, The Wretched, seemed like the bigger deal at the time since it made more money but the critics seem to be remembering Relic better given that it’s shown up on some top ten lists and was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award.  Honestly I’m not sure either movie really deserved much more than a VOD release in the first place.  This one in particular kind of just feels like a lesser version of a previous movie.  I hope I’m not making more of the connections just because both movies are Australian horror movies directed by women but… this is really obviously a ripoff of The Babadook, is it not?  Both are ostensible horror movies where a woman’s conflicted feelings about someone they’re caring for manifest as monsters.  In The Babadook it was about the guilt the protagonist had for kind of hating having to deal with her autistic kid and in this it’s about a protagonist who is depressed that her mother with dementia has become something unrecognizable.  I suppose there should be room for multiple movies like this much as there is room for multiple movies where masked men with knives chase teenagers around, but this one just feels decidedly lesser than its predecessor, and that’s mainly because the overt horror elements are decidedly weaker.  There’s nothing here as creative as a haunted pop-up book or a silent movie coming alive, in fact there really isn’t a lot of actual horror in the first two thirds.  It’s certainly lit and scored like a horror movie, but that’s mostly just being applied to fairly routine elder care.  Things do finally start trying to get properly supernatural (in a metaphoric way) towards the end, but the movie had largely lost me by that point.  I suppose that a second-rate The Babadook is still going to seem more valuable and creative than another second-rate Friday the 13th or The Conjuring and I do appreciate that this is at least trying to exist in a world of metaphor but at the end of the day when you feel this much like a lesser derivative of another movie you’re only ever going to impress so much.

** out of Five