A Little Bit of Politics
You know, at certain times of year, one can really struggle to find interesting new movies to see on a weekly basis: particularly in the summer, when enormous studio tentpole releases just take up residence in multiple screens apiece and refuse to go away, really limiting the opportunities of new and more interesting films to make their mark.
Then again, you sometimes get weeks like this one, where it seems like everyone who wants their film to be in with an awards shout releases it at the same time. All I can say is, sometimes a period of underemployment intersects well with having a pre-paid free ticket card for a major cinema chain. Given we are mostly talking about prestige releases, it's fair to say that this kind of film usually falls into one of a relatively limited number of categories: the Serious Contemporary Issue Drama, the Historical Epic, the Prestigious Adaptation, and so on. Most of these were represented to some extent on the week's schedule.
The ball got rolling on Monday with Bombshell, a true-story drama concerning a well-publicised case of sexual harassment committed by Roger Ailes (John Lithgow), founder and boss of Fox News. After being sacked from the network, broadcaster Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) sues him, but the issue is whether anyone will imperil their career by coming forward about similar experiences to hers.
After a sparky start, this turns into a fairly routine Serious Drama, which would be understandable if the film wasn't being promoted as a follow-up to The Big Short quite so much. Still, a solid movie, although it does commit the sin (in my book) of mixing real people with fictional composites, something which never fails to muddy the waters. Good performances, and I suppose the prosthetic make-up is fun, even if most of the 'real people' characters are unknown outside of the States. Watchable stuff, once you get past the cognitive dissonance of this being a serious film about sexual harassment directed by Jay Roach, the man who made Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me.
Tuesday's film was kind of another contemporary issue drama, although the makers have played it safe by going for source material set a quarter of a century ago. Destin Daniel Cretton's Just Mercy concerns a racist miscarriage of justice in Alabama, with an innocent man (Jamie Foxx) sent to Death Row despite the evidence against him being very dubious. Idealistic young lawyer Bryan Stevenson (Michael B Jordan) resolves to fight his corner.
I was all set to dismiss this as another rather glib and earnest liberal box-ticker, but then I made the mistake (or not) of actually going to see it. There's an element of that to it, but the film-makers focus on the story itself and the people involved rather than indulging in too much speechifyin' and preachifyin', and the result is an involving and powerful drama, anchored by a very impressive performance from Jordan. Very much in the tradition of To Kill a Mockingbird and In the Heat of the Night, but there's no shame there. Prestige studio film-making at its most palatable.
Of course, all these films coming out in the same week made for a squeeze at the cinema, and unpromising scheduling in a few cases: which was why the sole daily showing of Terrence Malick's A Hidden Life started before noon. This one is from the Historical Epic category, sort of, and concerns a family running a farm up a mountain in Austria in the 1930s and 1940s. The husband and father (August Diehl) decides he cannot in good conscience wear the oath of loyalty to Hitler required of all men serving in the army at the time. Needless to say, this brings grave consequences for him and his family.
A Terrence Malick movie, so of course it is breathtakingly gorgeous to look at: the depiction of the simple pleasures of the rustic idyll is as seductive as ever. On the other hand, no-one ever comes out of a Malick movie saying 'That was okay, but I wish it had been longer and slower': this is knocking on the door of three hours in length, and I'm not sure the story justifies it. Some big and hefty moral ideas are discussed, but at the same time it's not as if a great deal happens. A classy movie, but also a bit of an endurance test: if the hills are alive, it may be with the sound of yawning. My advice: take sandwiches.
After A Hidden Life wrapped up I had just enough time to grab a snack and be back in time for Trey Edward Shults' Waves, which (just for a change) is not actually based on true events. The movie takes the kind of ugly news headline you hear once and try to forget about, and turns it into a heart-breaking human tragedy. An affluent African-American family in Miami is torn apart when the eldest child goes off the rails. Pushed too hard by a demanding father, he develops a drug habit and overreacts disastrously to the news that his girlfriend is pregnant.
The first two acts of the movie are basically like watching a slow-motion car-crash: horrible to watch, but utterly compelling – you can't look away. The remainder of the film is less demanding, but also less focused even as it manages to find reasons for hope. Terrific script and performances, and directed with real bravura energy and creativity. This one has kind of snuck under the radar and hasn't received anything like the acclaim I think it deserves. It's undeniably a tough watch much of the time, but also a tremendously vibrant and engaging piece of serious film-making.
Given all the serious films around this week, an unashamedly commercial piece of fluff like Bad Boys for Life practically qualifies as counter-programming, although watching it half an hour after Waves it seemed more like a piece of particularly inane and violent children's entertainment. This movie is basically Will Smith and Martin Lawrence attempting to revive their careers by returning to a franchise which was moderately popular about twenty years ago. Any film about 'bad boys' which opens with one of them rushing to the birth of their grandchild clearly has serious self-awareness issues.
It creaks along from comedy bit to action sequence to queasy bromance scene, with various young hot actors also included to compensate for the fact the star duo have a combined age of 105. Laboured, mechanical stuff for the most part, although they manage one genuinely surprising plot development and some of the jokes are mildly amusing. Crass and predictable nonsense for most part, though.
In the week which saw the passing of Terry Jones (a very capable film director in addition to his other talents), there was something appropriately Pythonesque about Mirrah Foulkes' Judy & Punch (sorry about the ampersand, Dim), which is just coming to the end of a much-too-limited UK release, and which I finally caught up with on Thursday. This is a comedy-drama-horror-fantasy set in Ye Olde England, concerning sausage-loving alcoholic puppeteer Punch (Damon Herriman) and his long-suffering wife Judy (Mia Wasikowska). What follows is basically a fable about misogynistic violence, with the traditional Punch and Judy story made shockingly real (though they struggle to work in the crocodile).
Not many films manage a moment which leaves me open-mouthed in shock, unable to decide whether to laugh helplessly or moan in horror, but there's one like that here. Almost impossible to easily categorise, but a stylish and intelligent film nevertheless. In the end its message is hardly subtle and it becomes rather uneven towards the end, but the performances, direction, and soundtrack are all good, and the film has a grotesque wit that makes it very memorable. An oddity, but a very welcome one.
Finally, an entry in the Prestigious Adaptation category, in the form of Armando Ianucci's The Personal History of David Copperfield a rather inventive new version of Charles Dickens' semi-autobiographical novel. David Copperfield (Dev Patel) is born, goes through various ups and downs, encountering a wide variety of outlandish characters along the way. This leaves a wide-open goal for some fine actors to give big comedy performances, and performers like Peter Capaldi, Hugh Laurie and Ben Whishaw duly arrive - though the film carefully handles some serious themes about loneliness, compassion, and poverty as well.
The film is rather distinctive in its willingness to be openly non-naturalistic, by which I mean it doesn't even pretend to be a realistic depiction of Victorian England, or even the world as we know it (this obviously extends to some of the casting choices). Given the nature of Dickens' writing, it works rather well. In the end this is a very funny and enjoyable film, filled with warmth and sincerity. Not at all the kind of film you would expect from Ianucci, but perhaps that's the point.
So, to conclude: Best Value of the Week goes to A Hidden Life, Best Drama of the Week goes to Waves (though Just Mercy gets an honourable mention), and the Don't Go Near It award never had a name on it other than Bad Boys for Life. I thank you.