The Hate U Give (2018)

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George Tillman Jr. directs Amandla Stenberg, Russell Hornsby and Regina Hall in this YA drama about a conscientious black girl who gets embroiled with police violence and gang violence after her childhood friend is shot by a nervous cop.

The trailer missold this as a preachy, one note ode to wokeness. One that presents and exploits a lot of racially charged situations for scenes of “poor me” handwrininging and triumphant sermonising. The film itself is still very Hollywood in its production but more complex in its exploration and conclusions. The drama is given time and patience to percolate and articulate itself, the characters are sophisticated and fallible. It is a film with equal amounts of disdain towards black on black violence and hashtag activism as it has for police brutality. If the imagery can often be a little syrupy, the acting is anything but. Stenberg charms in the scenes where she just gets to be a kid and is comfortable in navigating the starker moments. Hornsby, as her a former dealer of a father, makes for a fine patriarch. He brings a frustration and a sensitivity to a part that might fall apart in a lesser actor’s hands. He reminded me of Laurence Fishburne’s iconic turn in Boyz N the Hood. Maverick Carter is a better father than Furious Styles. Here’s hoping this persuasive support turn is remembered come Oscar nominations time.

7

 

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eXistenZ (1999)

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David Cronenberg directs Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jude Law and Willem Dafoe in this paranoid sci-fi thriller where the star programmer of new immersive game goes on the run from terrorist’s wanting to maintain reality.

To my mind the last true Cronenbergian David Cronenberg film. While his later, more prestigious, satires and dramas still explored sex and violence, this is the last of his oeuvre to gifts you that mindfuck imagery you associate with his brand. The last of his output (so far) that still feels comfortable in the sticky corner of a VHS rental place or the midnight movie at an unclean cinema. We get guns made out of rotting animal matter that fire teeth. We get self inflicted holes in spines for umbilical cord like cables to jack directly into your nervous system. We get a heroine who likes to lick and finger these wounds, risking infection but not emotional connection. We get layers of reality and people losing their souls as they go further down the rabbit hole. We get a literal and metaphorical shaggy dog wandering around an aimless tale. In all honesty eXistenZ is too cold and distant a film to truly enjoy. It shifts abruptly about its episodic plot with no great narrative surprises. There are twists and moments of unsettling uncertainty but these feel rote given the nature of the world we are exploring. Cronenberg perfectly nails the exposition cut scene, the idling AI of a character we have to communicate with to further our mission and the unnatural pull of having to perform a task as our game avatar with no real correlation as to how we would execute the same interaction in real life. Intellectually that’s great but it makes for a dead fish of an adventure. Luckily a sexy and forthright turn from Jennifer Jason Leigh keeps you glued to the screen. Her superstar designer on the run hooks us in and runs her tongue into places most movie stars wouldn’t dare. When it feels like Cronenberg doesn’t care about us the mere mortals having to watch his essay, his lead continually seduces us to keep at it.

7

Kagemusha (1980)

 

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Akira Kurosawa directs Tatsuya Nakadai, Tsutomu Yamazaki and Ken’ichi Hagiwara in this medieval Japanese film where a warlord replaces himself with a lookalike thief to keep his clan united and at peace after his death. 

All the formal brilliance of a Kurosawa movie but with the bold and unrestrained use of colour. Dreams are like wet paint, sunlight is marched through, battles are like domino rallies. Tatsuya Nakadai is brilliant as the petty thief trying to fill the void of a great man without losing his own sense of self. The only drawback is as spectacular as the final battle is, Tatsuya Nakadai is sidelined from it. Meaning for all its hour long scale and magnificence, it has no protagonist.

7

The Last Metro (1980)

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Francois Truffaut directs Catherine Deneuve, Gérard Depardieu and Heinz Bennent in this drama that explores the WWII life of a Parisian theatre during the occupation. 

The Jewish owner hides in the basement living off a massive ham, unbeknownst to everyone but his lead actress wife. The new male cast member has his own secret life. The support will take and sleep with any opportunity she gets. The director by proxy is following the notes of a man living under his feet. The theatre critic is an anti-semite. The Nazis get twenty seats reserved of every performance. There’s a lot of red on set. A subtle burgeoning romance backstage. A playfully post-modern epilogue. The show must go on.

8

Melvin and Howard (1980)

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Jonathan Demme directs Paul Le Mat, Jason Robards and Mary Steenburgen in this true tale of a milkman who picked up billionaire Howard Hughes on the side of the highway one night and a decade later was seemingly awarded millions in the dead mogul’s will. 

The hook is fascinating whether you believe Melvin Dummar’s contested story or not. Yet that’s not the meat of this. Demme is more interested in the low rent misfortunes, romances and graft of Dummar’s life in the intervening decade. The shabby hopeful existence of a beautiful dreamer with no common sense. The car ride with a dishevelled historical figure (Robards – who in a few scenes steals the film) and the circus around the will’s discovery are mere bookends that hold up a biography of a life of little note but plenty of magic.

8

Hell’s Angels (1930)

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Howard Hughes directs James Hall, Ben Lyon and Jean Harlow in this WWI pilot actioner famous for its realistic aviation stunt work.

Two brothers, a sap and a coward, get led along by the same good time girl but put aside their differences to fight the Hun in the clouds. Famous for being a silent film converted to sound when technology overtook the production, its dogfight sequences which Hughes put a lot of budget and lives into, and gifting the world with blonde bombshell Jean Harlow. She is gorgeous and full of life in this, the action is thrilling and immersive. The framing story is mouldy pap though.

6

The Fugitive (1993)

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Andrew Davis directs Harrison Ford, Tommy Lee Jones and Joe Pantoliano in this remake of the classic TV series where a doctor (innocent of his wife’s murder but convicted) goes on the run from a determined US marshal, trying to find the one armed man really guilty of the crime.

Cinematic perfection. Two gold standard leads give iconic performances. The action is tip-top, amazing stunts sell impossible situations. An opening hour of spectacle and desperation gives way to a second half of smart mystery solving. Ford must find his wife’s killer with minimal help and limited freedom, while Jones tracks his needle in a haystack with a crack team and relentless bravado. The dual detective thrillers competing against each other are told with logical assurance, unfussy Hollywood craftsmanship is showcased immaculately here. And the gorgeous wintery cinematography by DoP Michael Chapman and James Newton Howard’s badgering yet manipulative score package the whole classy thrill ride tightly with a bow. A fantastic blockbuster for adults that holds up impressively 25 years later. There are 130 minutes of dense storytelling here, not one of them is wasted, nor unnecessary.

10

Black ‘47 (2018)

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Lance Daly directs Hugo Weaving, James Frecheville and Stephen Rea in this period revenge actioner where a disgraced cop and an imperialist officer hunt down a deserter who is bringing bloody justice to those profiteering during the Irish Famine.  

A cracking little movie that leans into its period backdrop with purpose. Both a whistle stop tour of the horrors and politics of the famine, a beautiful if dour recreation of an apocalyptic Ireland (some frames are self consciously painterly, beautiful for it) and a satisfying dispossessed Western. A muscular Frecheville impresses with a Bourne-like lead role; a begrudging angel of vengeance, on the run from his pursuers and past, breaking down a conspiracy, breaking out of tight spots with convincing violence and inspired skill. Yet it is Weaving’s movie. His world weary, disgraced cop is a dangerous enigma. Disgusted by his work and having to drag along an authorative youth as his ranking superior. There’s lots of good acting here (Daly has assembled a perfect cast) but Freddie Fox holds his own as that kid in a redcoat utterly convinced of his manifest destiny over the natives struggling to survive. The musket shootouts are intense, the grim imagery well played and the lessons learnt by the end may be simple but bear repeating. Well worth a watch.

7

 

Shocker (1989)

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Wes Craven directs Peter Berg, Cami Cooper and Mitch Pileggi in this fantasy horror where a serial killer uses demonic TV electricity to soul swap with bodies.

Perhaps one of the most unfocused films I’ve ever seen. There’s a lot going on here, little of it good. Soapy drama, action and sets are whined about in for overlong scenes. There’s two chases around a drab park and an oversized bungalow. Mitch Pileggi is cast here as a Freddy Krueger hopeful. Craven gets to credit sequence intro him right but after that seems embarrassed by the antagonist. His screentime seems sparse and truncated, the cathode diffused effect to show him body swapping appears too expensive to leave him out in the open for too long. All this was done better in Fallen, the romp through the telly channels finale was more fun in Stay Tuned.

2

Movie of the Week: Moneyball (2011)

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Bennett Miller directs Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill and Philip Seymour Hoffman in this true story about baseball management where a former player and an economics graduate try to craft a series winning team using player statistics rather than million dollar paychecks.

Anyone who has talked to me about movies of the last decade will at some point heard me say “I watched Moneyball again last night… It is really good.” I watch it. A lot. And I’m now comfortable saying, right here, right now, in this moment it is probably my favourite film. Of all time. The greatest. Ever. Not yours. Mine. Bobby Carroll 2018. It is the combined work of a lot of talented people gelling together to make a perfect product. Brad Pitt, the movie star, finally finding a lead role in his comfort zone. Billy Beane gives his finest qualities a home where his swagger and his goofyness and his cockiness and his looks fit snugly. Watching him calmly bluff his way through negotiations, bite his tongue, circle around a question, speak his mind bluntly… it suits him, tailor made, incorporating his cool. Jonah Hill, Chris Pratt and Philip Seymour Hoffman all have fine moments. Bennett Miller even gets strong acting from baseball stars like Stephen Bishop (when it was Stephen Soderbergh project he wanted nothing but baseball players in key roles). They are given a script by two of Hollywood’s premium wordsmiths; Sorkin and Zallian. It is an erudite, elegant piece of work… statistical theory is guided at us within an unfolding character study. Billy Beane’s game changing attitude and frustrations are unboxed in shimmering flashbacks and boardroom conflicts. His fall from top draft pick to back room has-been speaks to me… the issues of confidence, anger and over expectation resulting in acceptance and knowledge and pragmatic disillusionment match what I went through in my decade in comedy. Talked about open spot who moved swiftly onto paid work only not to have the sea legs or material to work that early in the pro circuit… give me a baseball bat during those first three years of regular death and closed doors and I would smash it against the dug out cages too. Personal aside, Moneyball looks gorgeous too. A love letter to corporate Americana. When people want to know what our era really looked like it will be DoPs Wally Pfister’s concrete parking structures, mahogany waiting areas and PVC banners falling to the floor. It will be the pixels of an Excel sheet being stared into too deeply. Moneyball isn’t really about baseball. We only glimpse gameplay… like Reservoir Dogs we see very little of the heist. Leather meets maplewood only a few fleeting times. We see the planning, the fallout. This is a film about redemption. About finding your niche and your strength and not accepting the status quo. About giving the little guy and yourself a second chance. It is Capra with less cheesy schmaltz, Spielberg without the otherworldly fantasy.  The use of This Will Destroy You’s rousing instrumental track as a cue to echo the nostalgia, hope and doubt our Billy Beane goes through as he reinvents baseball will strum even the hardest hearts. Moneyball is an unspectacular piece of film making really, but that doesn’t stop it from being a harmonious, inspiring and comforting one. The lack of edge or joins or snags is what make it my greatest film. I’ve just never seen something so flawlessly captivating. Keep watching it, learn its lessons. “It’s a process, it’s a process.” Eventually I’ll exhaust its magic. Maybe I’ll go back to Miller’s Crossing or Don’t Look Now or The Good, The Bad and The Ugly or True Romance. Maybe by then there’ll be something new.

10