Thursday, 22 March 2018

Love, Simon



Greg Berlanti’s Love, Simon has one major flaw and a number of minor ones, but it’s a coming-of-age film that transcends its flaws and is more than worth watching (high praise from me, considering my general disinterest in high school rom-coms). 

Simon Spier (Nick Robinson) is an ordinary seventeen-year-old high school student in suburban Atlanta. He lives in a large house with a seemingly ideal family: his parents, Emily and Jack (Jennifer Garner and Josh Duhamel) and sister, Nora (Talitha Bateman), and he has three close friends: his lifelong best friend, Leah (Katherine Langford), Nick (Jorge Lendeborg, Jr.) and Abby (Alexandra Shipp). It looks like the perfect life for a teenager, except for one thing: Simon is gay and he hasn’t told anyone.

When Leah tells Simon about an anonymous online confession from a gay fellow student (calling himself “Blue”), Simon’s world is turned suddenly upside down. Using an alias of his own (“Jacques”), Simon begins an email conversation with Blue that becomes a powerful way for him to talk about what he’s going through. Blue has no interested in identifying himself but Simon can’t help but wonder which of his fellow students Blue might be (there seem to be a number of good candidates). 

Unfortunately, another student (Martin, played by Logan Miller) discovers Simon’s email conversation with Blue and blackmails Simon, demanding his help in getting closer to Simon’s friend, Abby. What is Simon to do? Will he risk his friendships (and the relationships among his friends) to retain his secret? The answer to that question is Love, Simon’s big flaw. I did not find it credible. Given the central role of that answer in the overall plot, this was a huge problem for me.

I also wasn’t a big fan of the general laid-back tone of the film, helped by a score that didn’t do anything for me, or of the general teen-age rom-com antics. Love, Simon has been compared to John Hughes’s films, but that is not, for me, a positive thing. And some of the characters and acting left a little to be desired, especially in the case of Simon’s parents. The film desperately needed some of the raw quirkiness of a film like Lady Bird. I have also heard that the film is nowhere near as good as the novel upon which it is based (Simon vs. the Home Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli), but I haven’t read it, so can’t comment.

Nevertheless, despite these varied flaws, I found myself totally engaged in Simon’s plight and in the relationships between him and his friends. The acting of the teenagers was generally very strong (especially Robinson, Langford and Shipp) and the characters were relatively well-developed. And while the tone was a problem for me, the sweetness of the film was not (I have no problem with ‘sweet’ films). I found the overall story heartfelt, humanizing and life-affirming. The theme of a high-school student struggling with his sexual identity, treated in such a matter-of-fact and positive way, is long overdue. As a family-friendly film about the experience of a gay teenager, Love, Simon can hardly be praised highly enough. 

So Love, Simon gets a solid ***+. My mug is up. 

Friday, 9 March 2018

Game Night



While Game Night has not been receiving four-star reviews, critics have generally appreciated it, at least enough for me, with an interest in games and a love of the film The Game, to take a chance and watch it. That was a mistake.

There are some similarities, but Game Night is nothing at all like The Game. The similarities involve a premise in which someone has orchestrated a ‘game’ with players caught up in criminal events that seem all to real. The action revolves around Max and Annie (Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams), a game-loving couple who host a weekly game night. Before his divorce, the game night included their neighbour, Gary (Jesse Plemons), but now they intentionally keep him out. Game night regulars include Kevin and Michelle (Lamorne Morris and Kylie Bunbury) and Ryan (Billy Magnussen), who brings a different woman along each week. This week it’s a British colleague named Sarah (Sharon Horgan), and this week there’s twist. Max’s brother, Brooks (Kyle Chandler), the successful one in the family (though Max and Annie hardly seem to be suffering), is not a game night regular, but he’s hosting this game night in his rented mansion. He’s the one who has orchestrated this thriller game, so no one is concerned when he gets kidnapped right in front of them, even when a considerable amount of violence is involved. It’s just part of the game, they think.

At this point, I was still having fun. The acting was good (especially Bateman, McAdams and Plemons), the dialogue was often sharp, and the jokes were somewhat funny. But when Max and Annie follow the kidnappers and try to free Brooks, he tells them that this is not part of the game. The next thing you know, Annie drops a loaded gun and Max is shot in the arm. Every single scene involving that wound (and there are far too many) is ludicrous in the extreme and from that point on Game Night is just stupid instead of funny and entertaining, with twists along the way that were neither surprising nor credible.

Directed by John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, Game Night gets **+. My mug is down for this disappointing comedy thriller.

Sunday, 4 March 2018

Black Panther



What to do about a mega-blockbuster film that is beloved by critics and viewers alike but also represents Hollywood, Disney and Marvel in far too obvious ways? I could, like my favourite critics, just assume that superhero films will be full of pointless violent action and just get off my moral high horse, ignoring that ‘given’ and focusing on all the things Black Panther does right.

And Black Panther does do a lot of things right. Among those things:
  1. Black Panther is full of black actors, with just two white actors thrown in (Martin Freeman as a CIA agent and Andy Serkis as a villain). It’s great to see so many black actors get a chance to show what they can do (the acting is excellent) in a setting where they represent the most advanced and powerful country in the world (in the heart of Africa!). 
  2. Related to the above, Black Panther satirizes a world in which so many people in so many countries are poor and oppressed while the rich and powerful countries, instead of trying to help, hide behind walls to protect their wealth and privilege from those who might in some way endanger their comfortable way of life. Great stuff!
  3. Related to number 2, the idea of using your country’s wealth and technology to violently impose your will on others is also satirized.
  4. Also great are the references to slavery and colonialism, especially as it relates to Africa.
  5. Character development is not a strength of superhero films, but Black Panther does a first-rate job.  
  6. The primary villain (also black) is treated with an unusual amount of respect, with a well-developed back-story and a resolution that is, at the least, not typical of Marvel or superhero films.
  7. Women who are not themselves superheroes play an important role in the film, in various ways showing themselves to be the equal of, or even superior to, the men around them.
  8. The cinematography is amazing, even though the film is made for 3D (I watched the 2D version).
Before I list what Black Panther failed to get right, let’s quickly review the plot: There’s a small country in the middle of Africa called Wakanda. Thanks to a meteorite made of vibranium that crashed into the country centuries before, Wakanda has become the most technologically-advanced country in the world. But in order to keep their country safe from those who would destroy or exploit it, Wakanda is hidden from the world. 

T’Challa (Black Panther, played by Chadwick Boseman) has recently returned to Wakanda to take the throne. But he has no chance to relax before it’s discovered that vibranium has made its way into the hands of a white criminal arms dealer named Klaue (Serkis). Klaue’s plans for world domination are cut short by one of his own men, called Killmonger (seriously?), played by Michael B. Jordan, who is actually a Wakandan by the name of N’Jadaka who takes this opportunity to challenge T’Challa for the crown of Wakanda. Can T’Challa stop his relative from taking over and declaring war on the rest of the world? With the help of the women in his life, including his former lover, Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) and his sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright), T’Challa may have a chance, but W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya), his best friend and advisor, wonders whether N’Jadaka may be right about a war. 

As superhero film plots go, Black Panther’s is relatively imaginative. Indeed, I would argue that Black Panther isn’t a superhero film at all, but rather an adventure film about the hidden country of Wakanda. That is by no means a criticism - I’ve had my fill of superhero films. But here are the things Black Panther failed to do:
  1. By far my biggest complaint is the endless and pointless violent action sequences in a film aimed at young people. With all of the imagination on display, the utterly pointless action scenes seem only to be filling some kind of requirement to please the action-loving masses who can make Black Panther into the mega-blockbuster it is. As I said above, most viewers (and critics) would be advising me to accept this fact, get off my high horse and appreciate Black Panther for what it does right rather than blasting it for doing what almost all superhero films have been doing since day one. Unfortunately, when I live in a world where school children are getting shot because guns and violence are so much a part of our culture and history, I constantly need to ask whether the world needs more violent action films aimed at the young, most especially if those films are otherwise trying to be progressive and say some very important things. 
  2. Speaking of those important things, much of the dialogue involving the social justice issues of our time is, while spot-on and very welcome, relatively superficial. The opportunity to make nuanced developed arguments about how our world fails the poor and oppressed, in so many ways, is largely wasted (but this is probably way too much to expect).
  3. This applies also to the often-positive way the villain is handled. With this start at an imaginative take on the villain, why sacrifice that imagination to make so much of his character, and the violent scenes he is involved in, so typical of all the other Marvel films? There was an opportunity here for really intelligent dialogue between the villain and his enemies, dialogue that could easily have led to some form of reconciliation instead of violence. That opportunity too was wasted.
  4. Why does a country as advanced as Wakanda still allow its choice of leader to be challenged through mortal combat? Given that fact, and the ever-present weapons, how can N’Jadaka claim that Wakanda has lost its warrior status and its will to fight and how can the film, with all its unnecessary violence, be somehow championing nonviolence?
I’m not saying that Black Panther is a bad film. On the contrary, I think Ryan Coogler has made an amazing superhero film, one of the best ever, and I hope it’s a sign of more good things to come. What I’m saying, though, is that, given its premise and its obvious attempts to say something constructive and life-affirming to the world, Black Panther could have been so much better, even going so far as to challenge/satirize the very way superheroes fight their enemies instead of relying on the pointless required violent action. ***+ My mug is up, but I’m not as unequivocal about the brew inside as many are. 

Friday, 2 March 2018

Annihilation



Wow!

For me, there are few pleasures greater than going to the cinema to see a sci-fi flick I know nothing about and being transported so completely to a different world that it takes me hours to find my way back to earth. In the case of Annihilation, the different world is our own, but the atmosphere of the film, hugely aided by the luscious cinematography and the necessarily overwhelming, mind-blowing score, made it feel like I was visiting another planet. 

I wasn’t entirely surprised by how much I loved this film. After all, I had had similar feelings about Alex Garland’s previous film, Ex Machina. But I had watched enough of the trailer to make me think Annihilation was not going to be my kind of sci-fi film. Vicious mutated animals? Really? Doesn’t sound original or exciting. And, indeed, that gory aspect of the film did not appeal to me at all. But fortunately that was only a tiny piece of the story, a tease to get the violent-action-loving masses to come out and watch. The ‘fun’ is solving the mystery of why the animals are mutated, a mystery that could have come out of a Star Trek episode if Star Trek had allowed itself to get really serious (made-for-HBO kind of serious).

The tension and fear are almost worthy of Alien, and the intelligence, pacing and atmosphere are comparable to Tarkovsky (Solaris and Stalker), as is the story, which requires a lengthy discussion afterwards of the “what really happened here” variety. Annihilation also reminded me of recent favourites like Arrival and Midnight Special

I just read that there were actually fewer films with female protagonists in 2017 than in some previous years. That wasn’t my experience, and certainly Annihilation is starting things off well in 2018. Almost all of the characters in the film are women. The one exception (Kane, played by Oscar Isaac) is mostly seen in flashbacks. Natalie Portman stars as Lena, a biology professor whose husband (Kane) went missing in action and is presumed dead. Until a year later, when he suddenly walks into Lena’s house. But something is wrong with him, and soon they are rushing to the hospital, only to be intercepted by people in mysterious vehicles who kidnap both Kane and Lena. 

When Lena wakes up, she is greeted by Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who will introduce Lena to the mystery I spoke about, a mystery I will not describe here, other than to say that, with the exception of Kane, no one who had ever tried to solve that mystery was ever seen again. But they were all men. What might happen if you send five women instead, scientists like Lena, Ventress, Gina (Anya Thorensen), Cass (Tuva Novotny) and Josie (Tessa Thompson)?

Brilliantly structured, well-acted, intelligently written and endlessly thought-provoking, this haunting, intense and scary work of pure science fiction is my idea of fun. Annihilation gets ****. My mug is up for this guaranteed entry into my top-fifteen films of 2018.