2018 must feel like a century ago to most of you. Imagine how it feels to me. Me, who at his normal pace is always a year behind and has fallen back even farther then ever before, and am basically in permanent catch-up mode, and since time seems slower then ever, I can't even really remember what 2018 was even like anymore. What was the number song that year?
"God's Plan"? Has anybody heard that song in the last six months? Eh, maybe, six months might as well be two years ago.
Alright, I'm talking about movies anyway. Let's reflect back everyone, to a time that still sucked, but we could go outside and to a movie theater or anywhere for that matter and not feel like we may die from it. When a time that when someone entered a convention store wearing a mask meant that he was probably trying to rob the place. Was this a good year for films? Eh... Kinda. I mean I guess every year at the top is pretty good, but eh..., let's just say that this is a year that I'm looking much more forward to posting my Worst List then I am my best. But, I'll get to that another day. Let's start off well while we can, and quickly so that I don't end up putting off 2019 any longer then say, next June.
One more time, as always, I get the last word. Let's go.
THE TOP TEN FILMS OF 2018!
Looking back, to me this was a breakthrough year for African-American cinema finally breaking into the populace. Not just films about African-Americans but by African-Americans. There had been others in recent year, "Get Out", "Moonlight", socially-conscious and aware films that critics probably enjoyed more then the public, but this felt different. This felt like the first time I could've easily filled up the Best Director Oscar nominees with all African-American filmmakers and nobody would bat an eye at how strange. Obviously the Oscars, didn't do that, in fact spoilers, unlike the last two years where my number one film happened to coincide with the Best Picture winner, um, "Green Book" is not gonna show up here. (Sidenote: Overall, this was a lousy Oscars year.)
Anyway, there were great movies in nearly every genre from some of the biggest, newest and most important voices in America this year, and they came from all over the world, and this list is gonna have a lot of them, but the biggest and probably most statements were made by the African-American filmmakers. With Hollywood embracing a post-BLM world before the rest of the country, caught up, I suspect that some of these films are only now starting to reach the audiences they most need to reach.
One of the biggest audiences they need to reach, is the YA market.
10. The Hate U Give
Based on the popular YA novel, and as much as I hate that term, this movie and story represents all the great qualities of what that genre should be. Complex stories about troubling young people as they struggle through growing up. Starr (Amandla Stenberg) lives in two different worlds, her home an African-American neighborhood called Garden Heights, but she attends a private middle class school across town with a majority white population. She even has an on-again/off-again white boyfriend, Chris (K.J. Apa) who she doesn't let enter her family world, although she doesn't let anybody from one world enter the other if possible, including all her close friends, including her friends on the basketball team Hailey (Sabrina Carpenter) and Maya (Megan Lawless). I always think about Dave Chappelle's routine about how all Black people are bilingual, in that there's a person they present to the white world and another language they speak amongst themselves, as a white male, even though I make attempts to keep attempts to make sure my home and worklife are separate, I'm not gonna pretend that I understand the need and fear involved in having separate ways of speaking and relating to people based on where one's at, or that one has to wear/hide different clothes or like and appreciate different things in order to fit into their surroundings.
At home, she's a middle child of Maverick (Russell Hornsby), two of three sibling, her two brothers being the older Seven (Lamar Johnson). Maverick's a former drug dealer who worked for the Kinglords, the local gang headed by King (Anthony Mackie) who basically runs the neighborhood and keeps them in fear. He's been out since, and him and his wife Lisa (Regina Hall) have managed to keep their head above water and Maverick now runs a little corner store that the neighborhood goes to. Then, she attends a party in the neighborhood where she runs into an old childhood friend Khalil (Algee Smith), who is driving her back home after the party gets out of hand. Then, he's pulled over by the police and is killed by the policeman. She's now a witness to a cop killing in the age of Black Lives Matter and she's getting pulled in every direction.
Her Uncle Carlos (Common) is a cop who tries to protect her at times, and tries to help her come forward. However, Khalil was dealing and now the Kinglords are threatening her and her family in order to make sure she doesn't testify. Ironically, she doesn't want to implicate them, and frankly she shouldn't have to. Khalil wasn't exactly behaving with the recommended proper behavior that Maverick explained to his kids on what to do when being pulled over. That scene opens the movie, and is powerful, foreboding and framed in such a way through Starr's narration that it's understood that this conversation takes place in every African-American home.
She's also pressured to make her story as high-profile as possible, this is represented by activist/media strategist April Ofrah (Issa Rae) who desperately tries to get her to come forward, 'cause of how-, well, basically everything is slanted to prevent the cop from being convicted. "Why are they even having a grand jury?" she exclains at one point; "I saw him! He killed Khalil!" I didn't think about it at the time, but yeah, why the hell is there a grand jury come to think of it? Anyway, she's talked into a television interview with her image darkened off, but that only intensifies the threats from the Kinglords, who actually, would probably do better off if they just stayed out of everything, and let her testify in peace. I mean, if knew how little she knew and she only wanted to make sure the cop was in in jail,... at least, logically that's what I would suspect.
At school, things start to go downhill as well as both Starr's lives start bleeding together and the news reports begin to reveal things about her classmates and friends that she probably suspected but tried to ignore and not confront until now.
I mentioned my disdain for the term, YA Novels in the past, mostly 'cause it's a really grotesque promotional catch-all for...-, well normally the way I describe it is that, the second you're old enough for young adult, is the same second you've outgrown it and should be moving on less childish things. Basically, I just think the term is backhandedly derorgatory, saying that a particular piece of literature is only for certain people because it's supposedly good enough for others, as though it's okay to promote the crap to kids...- Anyway, "The Hate U Give" if the novel is half as good as the film, and I can't imagine a scenario where it isn't, then this a must-read for everybody, not just the demographic that it's promoted to. It's probably a must-watch film as well. It's not perfect, it's got a bunch of climaxes that end up colliding and crashing into each other. Some of them are more obviously symbolic than others, some of it just seems overly coincidental and climatic, but I don't care; it's too good. It does what this genre should do at it's best, get us to explore the pains of growing up, feel like what it is to be a kid in this case, under difficult and trying modern circumstances. I'm not even talking about being a witness to a murder, about being Black, about being a girl, about being a black girl in a white world, and in a Black one, and struggling to survive surroundings that aren't above losing close dear friends suddenly, about just trying to figure out who to trust and what to do in this world when you have to decide whether or not to step up and make your voice heard, and whether that has any real effect on anybody, and if not, what does?
Under the radar, there's been a great run lately of movies about teenagers in the last few years, Hollywood movies too, probably the best run of them since the height of John Hughes in the eighties. "The Hate U Give" is easily up there among them. Director George Tillman, Jr. has been making good movies since the '90s, most memorably for me, the Biggy Smalls biopic "Notorious", but I think he's finally found a critical niche here. This along with his overlooked "The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete" tell me that he might be better than most at giving us these wonderful personal stories of African-American youth as they seek out ways to survive and grow up in this world. I hope he keeps seeking these kinds of stories out in the future. It might be hard for him to find another as "The Hate U Give", but I hope he tries either way.
We're starting off with the most cinematic of the biodoc, "McQueen" a documentary about the late fashion designer legend Alexander McQueen.
Alexander McQueen came from an abusive poor home on the rougher sides of England. If you didn’t know that his passion was designing clothes and ran into him, you’d think he was the kind of gangster bloke that you’d find in some Guy Ritchie film. Instead, he got some tailor apprenticeship, first locally, and then all throughout Europe before he started scraping together enough of a ragtag crew to put together some shows of his own. And I mean mean-rag, and I mean artistic and daring shows for the fashion industry. Another good comparison to him might be Andy Warhol, at least based on the way he practiced, but his inspirations came from dark places. It wasn’t until he took a job at Givanchy that he started to slowly slip out from the utmost avant-garde areas and begin to produce clothes that were, for lack of a better word, wearable. That’s not an insult or even a criticism; they were among other things, not clothes that were capable of being mass produced; he was putting on a shows, shows that challenge our preconceptions of fashion and art. Sometimes there were barely fabric used in many of the outfits; sometimes there were barely clothes or even covering at all. Sometimes there were robots.
All of his work is just some of the most expressive displays of emotion I’ve ever seen in art, much less fashion. The movie cuts between these striking scenes and images of his fashion shows as well as with interviews and footage of McQueen and several of his friends and closest family, the movie continues to return to this startling image of a-, I’m not even sure how to describe it, it’s like a golden skull that’s periodically filled with flowers or eagles or other birds or spilled with blood or designed with incredibly detail all over…- it was a go-to motif and image of his and by the end of the movie, it’s just an empty skull that ridden himself out, like his mind has given everything it could’ve possibly done to the world of fashion. I don’t know why this is so powerful, but it makes sense, all his images are powerful. He designed clothes like a director somebody said, and yeah, he did, but I think it’s even more powerful than that even. Like the idea of pigeon-hole him into a medium is simply not enough.
The key to these artist biodocs to me is to not simply show the greatness of the art and dive into the artist but to give the audience a powerful appreciation of them, how they worked, how they thought, what their lives were like, etc. etc., basically the ability to sink the power of the artist into our skulls so vividly that they’re simply not capable of being forgotten, to not just document but to imprint on our mind and boy do I appreciate Alexander McQueen right now, in that way; it’s been a long while since I’ve seen a documentary do that. Credit to Director Ian Bonhote and Co-Director and Co-Writer of the film Peter Ettedgui, I don’t know if people are gonna fully comprehend or understand just how amazing this film is at this; you may have to, like me have seen several similar docs on other artists, in fashion and outside of them outside of the medium to really understand how good this film is. Almost anybody can make a good movie about a great artist like this, especially if the artist’s material is worth documenting, that alone, I usually give most of these sorts of films a pass, but this is a special one. Maybe it helps that my knowledge of “McQueen” was limited going in, but this movie made damn sure I wouldn’t forget him. This is a really special documentary. It combines the care and passion for the subject, with the craft to be able to tell his story this well.
Yeah, there's a bunch of documentaries and regular films for that matter, about artists and they're mostly all trying to examine the artistic mind and they're not easy to do, and I was surprised how well it was done here, and deservedly so, because- look, I've noted that I've been a huge "Project Runway" for years, several times on this blog, but just because I love the show doesn't mean I love fashion or the art of fashion design; honestly it's not my thing personally. But, even if it's not my thing, you can appreciate great art and what the artists ideas and intentions were. "McQueen" finds an artistic and interesting way of doing that, with a documentary no less, and it manages to frame this in a way that, I think anybody could come in blind to this movie and all of Alexander McQueen's accomplishments and just be awed at his work and what it took for him to create it and why he created it the way he did.
8. Won't You Be My Neighbor?
(Hands imitate mind being blown)
I guess I shouldn't be totally surprised, although I doubt Fred thought for a second that such a simple idea would remotely be relevant fifty years later, and to his credit, it shouldn't be, but those were the kinds of stories and ideas that he would teach kids in very simple but direct terms. Mostly, I remember just loving how Mr. McFeely would always bring his tapes about how things were made, Speedy Delivery, and we'd watch on picture-picture. I could just keep going through writing about my memories of Mr. Rogers, if I don't stop myself. The most amazing things about him, especially these days when everybody wants to find out everybody else's dirtiest darkest secret is that Mr. Rogers, was really genuine. It seems people have to make up bad things about him, and that's touched upon slightly in the documentary. How he supposedly was a WWII sniper or whatever the chic internet rumors are now.
So who was Fred Rogers? The story goes that he was an ordained Presbyterian minister who had gotten his degree in music composition when he decided to get into television, almost on a whim. He saw somebody get hit with a pie on a TV show and thought there had to be a better way to entertained or talk to kids. You can say that he used techniques that were common with some of the major childhood developing experts on the time; hell, Mr. Rogers was actually one of these experts; he was a student of Margaret McFarland at one point too, but generally I think the key to his greatest is that no matter what he was talking about, he was just talking to us. My mother, one of the few people I know who doesn't like Mister Rogers, always says that he was talking down to kids, but I don't know what she's talking about. He talked to us, like adults should talk to kids. Being honest, but thoughtful, and about being good and about understanding your emotions. Although, that was often just him. There's a wonderful interview segment with Yo-Yo Ma talking about how terrified he was of him when he would come talk to a young man at first, seeing somebody just come right up to your face and say hello.
The movie does sorta explain that, while "Mister Rogers Neighborhood", was never an outwardly religious show, that he focused on shaping the emotional growth of children. He, also just, talked to them, more than anything else. Mister Rogers definitely stayed true to the intent of the teachings he had learned in the church. He was a registered Republican, although I doubt he'd be today, but he never approach anything through a political lens as far as I can tell, which is probably why the infamous Senate deposition he gave that led Senator Pastore to concede givin $20million to keep PBS going is so amazing today. I remember seeing it, long before it was a viral video on Facebook, and was amazed even then, but now the incident seems almost mythical.
Looking closer, the connections between Mr. Rogers youth and his show and life become more clear. Like how all his puppet characters are people from his life and often represented certain emotional feelings I found it interesting to learn that when Mr. Rogers was at home and wanted to say something coarse or off-color that he would do it in Lady Elaine's voice. I think I'm gonna start doing something like that.... Interestingly, Mister Rogers also learned to talk emotionally like that, originally through music as a kid before he did it with his words.He was a sickly child who also suffered a weight problem in his early youth, something that made him the subject of bullying and being made fun of. He wrote all those wonderful songs that he sung on the show, many of which often still permeate my mind periodically on those times I may have such a good feeling, to know I'm alive. It's amazing how strongly those feelings and emotions stuck with him though over all the years. That's the great key to Mr. Rogers and just how great and powerful his show was for so many.
The movie doesn't reveal Mister Rogers to be absolutely perfect. He knew Francois Clemmons was gay before he was out, and pressed for him to keep that a secret, even after Mr. Rogers had to have it grow on him, and the way Francois describes it, he still considers him a father figure, as many others that worked for him. They also discuss the curious "Old Friends..., New Friends" interview series he did after taking a prolonged break from making new "Mister Rogers Neighborhood''s that was a strange Primetime series of special attempt of his to capture an adult audience. I've seen some of those, they're interesting in their own right, but yeah, that's kind of a weird choice in hindsight. Also, one person conspicuous by her absense is Betty Aberlin, one of the few regulars there wasn't an interview of in the film. Reportedly director Morgan Neville said she was a bit shy to be interviewed, something that she hadn't done in years, which is a little bit curious since she's kept up acting since the series ended, most notably appearing in several Kevin Smith movies, (Yes, that Kevin Smith) and she seems quite active on Twitter... That said, there's enough footage of her through some of the archive scenes, partiucularly some powerful ones she has with Mister Rogers's favorite and oldest puppet creation, Daniel Striped Tiger, who lives in the clock with no hands on it. There's some wonderful scenes too where we see Rogers talking with kids through his Daniel puppet, especially when some of those kids have some difficult things to discuss. He even came back from retirement briefly for some PSAs after 9/11 that helped heal the country, something he did quite a few times over the years with his show and other major national tragedies that captured the media attention in the news, that helped to reassure the kids, who are so young and new to the world that everything is ultimately okay and that there are indeed good people, special people around.
I once talked to a FB friend of mine from Australia about him. It was a discussion about his influence over America's children television. I was mentioning how important "Sesame Street" was and still is here, but I think overseas, as much as "Sesame Street" has crossed over and there are now several versions of that show all over the world, I think foreigners therefore, have a greater fascination with Mister Rogers, and usually presume he's the big number one here. When I pondered about why they might've thought that, his answer surprised me, and yet made absolutely perfect sense. He said to the effect of, "Well, we'd see his show and how he taught kids by just to them rather politely and nicely, and we've never had anyone over here like that."
I guess I never thought of that, but yeah, there really isn't another Mr. Rogers is there. I sure hope parents show their kids "Mister Rogers Neighborhood" whenever they can, if the kids don't seek him out and find him themselves.
Morgan Neville's made some amazing documentaries over the years; I don't really know how to rank them, and it does seem a little trivial, why make a documentary about this kids show host, but I gotta admit, the more you dive into Fred Rogers, he is an amazingly fascinating person, and a beloved person, for so many people. And say what you want, on either side of the political climate, his brand of radical niceness, is something that's badly needed and necessary in today's world more so then I think we realize. And even in this film, that does show some of the his questionable choices and mistakes, you only find yourself seeing him as more human afterwards.
It wasn't just the African-American films and filmmakers that left a lasting impression this year. America is a melting pot after all, and I give extra points when it's done incredibly well, with a rom-com.
7. Crazy Rich Asians
My pick for the most fun movie of the year is "Crazy Rich Asians", a delightful and delectable culture clash romantic-comedy that gives us like half-a-dozen soap operas worth of narratives and characters, all introduced to us through a young American-born Chinese professor, finding out that her boyfriend's family, is eccentrically rich.
It’s not a new narrative or anything, but it’s a fun one. It’s basically, My Big Fat Crazy Rich Asian Boyfriend's Family,- well, actually that’s not fair, this a far better movie that’ll hold up better than that one has. We meet Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) an NYU Economics Professor who’s specialty is Game Theory and teaches her kids skills of playing an opponent, by using,- um, 5 card draw, poker? (Huh. I mean, I guess that works, although I would’ve thought Texas Hold’em, or maybe 5 Card Stud, would be better games for that…-, but alright….) She’s currently dating Nick Young (Henry Golding) a young good-looking Chinese-via-Singapore guy,- (So, I guess, Singaporean? Or is he Chinese-Singaporean? I don’t know, Singapore is a weird mix of everything around Asia,- sorry, ignore me, my geography fascination’s getting ahold of me; I’ll stop.) who’s intentionally vague about certain details of his family, as he prepares to bring Rachel to Singapore to meet them, for his best friend Colin’s (Chris Pang) wedding.to Araminta (Soyona Mizuno). Unbeknownst to Rachel, this wedding in Singapore is the equivalent to what would happen if a Windsor married somebody with a last name of Vanderbilt-Rockefeller-Kennedy-Sultan of Brunei.
It quickly becomes apparent though when she meets the majority of Nick’s family at their Tan Hua Blooming party, (It’s a flower that apparently only blooms for like a few minutes a year, they throw a party for it. They’re-, well, look at the title!) starting of course with his mother Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh), a take-no-bullshit matriarch who we first meet getting rejected for a room because she’s Asian at a London Hotel, and in response calls the owner and buys the hotel. Of course, she is not impressed with Rachel for her Nick, although his Grandmother Ah Ma (Lisa Lu) is slightly more endearing towards him. There’s several other characters in this ensemble and I’m not going to be able to go through them all, but regarding Nick’s family, along with all the wedding subplots including bachelor and bachelorette parties that are as excessive and insane as you’d expect, there’s one subplot that feels awkward involving Nick’s closest sibling Astrid (Gemma Chan) who’s the only member of the family that Rachel once previously met, and is the most empathetic and nurturing of the bunch, despite having just as excessive a shopping habit as nearly everybody else in this family and their n'er-do-wells does. (As one character observed, nobody likes getting free stuff more than the rich.) She’s married to a workaholic husband, Michael (Pierre Png) who she finds out is having an affair. This is an awkward subplot to be honest, not because it’s bad, but it just doesn’t fit in much with the main narrative, and it’s also, pretty much the only secondary plot that’s given a lot of time; it essentially has it’s own beginning, middle and end. I suspect, but don’t know for certain that, there’s probably more elaborate explanations, stories and subplots to all these characters in the novel that the movie’s based on, as oppose to just focusing on the main plot, although Kevin Kwan the author of the novel, while not listed as a screenwriter, is listed as a producer, so I suspect he had some imput.
I will say this, the movie’s entertaining and interesting enough that I’m definitely going to be seeking out the novel to find out in the future, but I do suspect that, this movie might’ve benefitted from going on another hour or so. I know, that’s a weird think to say for an episodic rom-com, but this movie presents us such a rich world and tapestry that even if poor Rachel is just going to get the cold shoulder from her boyfriend’s mother and a dead fish from the catty jealous single rich bitches who didn’t get Nick, I’d still like to see more of her matriculating through it. Plus, there’s a lot of good characters here that could easily be the main in their own movies. And Awkwafina playing Peik Lin, the eccentric new money best friend of Rachel’s from college, her one sole friend in this area of the world, and she is awesome! You always need a great best friend character in these kind of movies, and she’s easily one of my favorites.
I’ve leaving out a lot of other good performances too; there’s some strong work here from Ken Jeong, Jing Lusi, Fiona Xie has a really fun role. There’s some other narratives and subtexts in the movie, especially with Rachel being American and not from wealth casting her as an outsider, obviously the dichotomy of the lives between the middle-to-lower class, and the crazy rich, and also some subtle angular details eyeing the differences between the rich and the crazy rich, in particular old money, which the Chus are, and the new money that’s come about in recent decades in Singapore and several other parts of the Far East that’s exploded into wealth in recent years; those are curiously interesting details as well. The movie was directed by Jon M. Chu, a go-to Hollywood director who's mostly known as a director for a lot of-, teenage pop material. He's directed a couple Justin Bieber documentaries as well as some "Step Up" sequels and the much-maligned adaptation of "Jem and the Holograms". He's been kicking out of it lately with some bigger action franchise sequels to"G.I. Joe" and "Now You See Me" but this is really the first time I've seen him and I suspect the first time he's really dealt with something that's personal to him and his culture, and he does a really good job here.
I want to especially note the costume design and in particular, the production design. Those are two areas where movies that take place in modern time, people often seem to want to overlook, but this movie just doesn’t work without them. And it’s also just funny and smart as a romantic-comedy, any time that genre’s done well these days, it’s gotta receive bonus points ‘cause it’s apparently hardly anybody can figure out how to do one properly anymore, and some people just do not get how much harder this kind of movie is to do well, then these like, powerful, emotional dramas or action movies or-, or nearly anything else. This story, could’ve been a straight drama, at one point, Rachel even says that, she came over here to meet your family and now she feels like a villain in a soap opera, and she’s not wrong, this could’ve been a melodramatic soap opera of a movie, and it could’ve been done well if they did that it, but telling a nice rom-com, is way more interesting, fun, and much more difficult to pull off well. I can’t wait to see more good rom-coms and I can’t wait to see more movies with predominantly Asian and Asian-American casts being made by Hollywood, and I hope those two things aren’t just connected for this single film too.
Also, I want more dumplings. Dumplings and noodles and those spicy crab things. Hmmm...
You know, I actually did read the book shortly after I watched the movie. It was the audiobook admittedly, but I preferred the movie, because it is more interesting visually to see all the excess and the Singapore Hawker Market,...- it's also described eloquently, but this is a story made for the screen, and yeah, it might seem a little out-of-time to be watching a movie something that's essentially just "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous", Asia style, but you still need to see that extravagance to be so overwhelmed by all of it. And there's so much else here too. It's great world-building, it's great casting, it's great acting; there's not a bad performance in this film. It's so nice to see every aspect of filmmaking go into a classic Hollywood production like this, and to tell the classic story this well.
And, it's a beautiful, funny, romantic-comedy. There's such a huge stigma, this century about rom-coms, and yes, when they're bad, they can be awful, but my god, when they're good, you get some of the best, and most emotionally powerful films out of them. It's a genre that still should be this good, way more often then they have been, and all it really takes, it a good story and good storytelling. Put in the effort, and we can make great rom-coms. And "Crazy Rich Asians" is proof of that.
You probably noticed sporadically if you read enough of my reviews, or even talk to me for awhile, that I was a geography kid growing up. It's always been my favorite subject in school, I love studying maps and learning about the world. It's not something that I keep up with as much as I used to, but it's still occupies a fairly large knowledge base in my mind. That said, as much as I love geography, I wish I had the same mind and passion for, other subjects that perhaps would be useful to me. Despite the cultural expansion aspects of the subject, It really isn't that useful as you'd think it'd be to know all the world capitals off the top of your head.
Science on the other hand, was never really my subject. Biology in particular I hated, but boy, I wish my mind had more of a scientific bent to it. Man, I hated "Science Fair" projects as a kid, you have no idea has surreal it is for me to name this as the best documentary of the year. If I could've done what these kids do though....
Actually, somebody did do that. One of the first people we meet in "Science Fair" is Jack Andraka, a then-15-year-old who invented a device that makes it easier to help detect certain cancers, including pancreatic and ovarian. He's just old enough to drink now-, well, he's from Maryland, so old enough to drink anywhere in the country now, but yeah, that's intimidating. In fact, a lot of these kids are intimidating, they are smarter than me and most of us, and more importantly from my perspective, they're smarter than me in a way that I know I'm inherently not smart in. So, yeah, while I was basically just figuring out why it's important to study the mass of the objects I was testing, or which dish detergent was better at taking out stains, these kids had way better and way more advanced ideas than me.
Also in most cases, the resources to be able to actually pull off some of these ideas and experiments. And I do say, "Most cases". The movie profiles participants from several parts of the country and the world in fact as they work and prepare to go to ISEF, the International Science and Engineering Fair, this year being held in Hollywood. There's one girl who's working on ways to help attack the Zika Virus which has ravaged her part of Brazil. There's a guy who's not a great student, but loves building and reconstructing computers and calculators, he's a fun guy. There's one school that has nine different participants/teams in ISEF this year 'cause of one science professor's motivation and work. One Muslim girl from Brookside,South Dakota who constantly wins for her study of brain condition to continuous negative stimuli however, is so overlooked that her school and schoolmate seem, at best unaware of her accomplishments and they certainly don't promote or advertise them when she wins. They are instead, infatuated with their football team, which is a losing football team I might add, but the team's coach is also her adult overseer for her participation because none of the science teachers in the school were interested in helping her out.s coach is also her adult overseer for her participation because none of the science teachers in the school were interested in helping her out.s coach is also her adult overseer for her participation because none of the science teachers in the school were interested in helping her out.
We get all sorts of characters and backgrounds and divides in this movie, and after they're introduced, they all arrive for the competition where they begin the strenuous and tense week with a dance/mixer for everyone. And it is,-, um...-, um...- (Sigh) Okay, I know the Press, especially the DC Press likes to tongue-in-cheekly call the annual White House Correspondents' Dinner, the "Nerd Prom", and I'm not big on using that term either, but, yeah, they really should stop using that phrase, this is the Nerd Prom.
Anyway, the movie as a documentary is familiar. Basically, it's trying to be Jeffrey Blitz's "Spellbound" the Oscar-nominated documentary that basically did the same thing with competitors in the Scipps National Spelling Bee. Now that's a great movie in of itself, but the structure of that film has been copied ever since for several different movies, most notably, movies like "Wordplay" about the championships at crossword puzzles. That said, this might be the best and most interesting of the bunch,- at least the best one since "Spellbound". Mainly because of the subjects; all this talk about millennials and how they're "lazy" or except thing to be given to them, or whatever stupid cliche that's not remotely true people want to shove onto them, is basically shredded in this movie.That's not to say that there aren't people in this world who fit the stereotype, but I mean, if even I knew and believed I could do some of the stuff these kids are putting out into the world, I'm not sure at their age I would even attempt them. I honestly don't know how much success in the science fair world lead's to success in real life, although I bet it's much more than success at a spelling bee. (I mean, honestly, that's not as important and vital as skill as it seems; trust me, I'm a pretty good speller and I'm telling you, it's not that important.) but yeah, I'm vastly more impressed by the student who figures how to a make a plane be more aerodynamic and mobile while using less fuel.if even I knew and believed I could do some of the stuff these kids are putting out into the world, I'm not sure at their age I would even attempt them. I honestly don't know how much success in the science fair world lead's to success in real life, although I bet it's much more than success at a spelling bee. (I mean, honestly, that's not as important and vital as skill as it seems; trust me, I'm a pretty good speller and I'm telling you, it's not that important.) but yeah, I'm vastly more impressed by the student who figures how to a make a plane be more aerodynamic and mobile while using less fuel.if even I knew and believed I could do some of the stuff these kids are putting out into the world, I'm not sure at their age I would even attempt them. I honestly don't know how much success in the science fair world lead's to success in real life, although I bet it's much more than success at a spelling bee. (I mean, honestly, that's not as important and vital as skill as it seems; trust me, I'm a pretty good speller and I'm telling you, it's not that important.) but yeah, I'm vastly more impressed by the student who figures how to a make a plane be more aerodynamic and mobile while using less fuel.s to success in real life, although I bet it's much more than success at a spelling bee. (I mean, honestly, that's not as important and vital as skill as it seems; trust me, I'm a pretty good speller and I'm telling you, it's not that important.) but yeah, I'm vastly more impressed by the student who figures how to a make a plane be more aerodynamic and mobile while using less fuel.s to success in real life, although I bet it's much more than success at a spelling bee. (I mean, honestly, that's not as important and vital as skill as it seems; trust me, I'm a pretty good speller and I'm telling you, it's not that important.) but yeah, I'm vastly more impressed by the student who figures how to a make a plane be more aerodynamic and mobile while using less fuel.
It's a bit odd for me to think that this is the first time the surrealistic Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos finally made a movie that broke my Top Ten List; the guy's made some amazing memorable films over the years but there's something about the natural absurdism in the eccentricities of royalty that actually accentuates this film.
Yorgos Lanthimos has made a striking career really quickly making movies about characters who are trapped or stuck in their own worlds, cursed and damned by the societal pressures and norms that are thrusted upon them. I'm not sure why it never dawned on me that he's perfect to do a story about royalty until now, but naturally even his films about the royal family are different, stranger, and more surreal than most.
"The Favourite" is a battle of lyrical wits and physical embarassments between Lady Sarah (Oscar-nominee Rachel Weisz) the Duchess of Marlborough and a new, young servant, Abigail Hill, both of whom are looking to become the Keeper of the Privy for Queen Anne (Oscar-nominee Olivia Colman). If you're obscure royal history is failing you at this moment, don't worry, you don't need to catch up. The only thing you really need to know is that, Weisz is Bette Davis, Stone is "All About Eve" and Colman's gout-infested feet is the Broadway stage, and they all want to be the one who gets to massage them eight times a week. Okay, I'm being simplistic, and this is royalty. Royalty in all it's acerbic wit and raunchiness. Oh, there's also a war with France going on and a long discussion of landowner taxes,but that could literally be anything in this film. I know, it's actually based on real events, but this movie exists in the Lanthimos world. One where the surreal is expected, the abnormal is a minor inconvenience, and everything and everyone's main objective is sex. In fact, it seems to be a downfall for those who may want something else like war or taxes or tax relief.
He does remember to keep some truly biting wit. And yet, "The Favourite" is a strangely human story of absurdism. Sex that occasionally bumps into companionship, if for no other reason than because companionship is occasionally just as primal and necessary as sex is. Both Lady Sarah and Abigail fulfill both Queen Anne's personal needs and her-um, personal needs, and yet, that's the ultimate problem with royalty. Trying to determine genuine emotion and companionship is basically impossible, something that all three characters inherently know, but they must still strive to seek out something real in a world that's nothing but artifice.
"The Favourite" is probably the first time I fully realize Lanthimos's ideal vision. I've enjoyed most of his previous films; I even enjoyed "Alps", one of his films that could almost seem plausible in our modern world. Watching "The Favourite" is a delight and joy, the same way I enjoyed watching Tim Burton's "Sweeney Todd...", knowing that this was the perfect combination of filmmaker and material that I could ever ask for. It's raunchy, it's kinky, it's weird, it's disturbing, it's got a bunch of rabbits, it's the kind of story that's so ridiculous you could only believe it if it take place in the world of the British monarchy, and it's pure Lanthimos.
And what does it even mean to be good at it? I mean, there's all kinds of scuzzy salespeople in film and television, but I can't imagine being a good telemarketer; the levels of double talk and mind somersaults that must take to convince yourself to be genuinely good at ripping people rip, selling them stuff by cold-calling houses when everybody's having dinner or sex or watching over their kids or just wanting to be alone with their grief.... And that's before you even get into having to talk in a White Person's voice. Yeah, I know it's an old Dave Chappelle joke that I'm sure dates back even earlier, but in this case, the African-American telemarketers working at this firm, all have an white person's voice, when they make their calls. In Cash's case, his white voice is David Cross. Other characters have Patton Oswalt's white voice, Lily James's white voice, and-eh...- well, I swore Danny Glover's character's white voice was Steve Buscemi's, so-eh, I'm just gonna believe that Danny Glover can do an unbelievable Steve Buscemi on a moment's notice.
To get back to telemarketing though, I'm gonna quote Melanie McFarland's review on Salon.com, where she notes that the film's director, Boots Riley calls this film, "an absurdist dark comedy with magical realism and science fiction, inspired by the world of telemarketing.” She also notes that "Even the simplest description... doesn't adequatley sum up it's themes, and that's fine. The less virgin viewers know about the film, the better."
Both of those are true statements. It also makes this makes surprisingly difficult to write a review on. Oh, I have thoughts, many thoughts on the film, but how much do I reveal about this film? How much can I reveal? Do I even, as a white guy with a-eh, (Long pause) well, according to the film's definition I'm not sure I have a quote-unquote, "white voice", but I definitely come at differing angles to this material then others I know. In fact, I wonder what somebody like Steven Lift (Armie Hammer) would think of this film? Would they see it's distressing observant and thoughtful anti-capitalist parable as a representative of the times, or would they see this as just one of those fucked up movies they play in the background of their cocaine-fueled orgies?
Lift is the head of a popular-, oh what's the coy word we can use here? Well, he's a "Job Creator", let's say. He's quite popular too; he's figured out a way to give his employees with many of their own expenses that they'd normally pay out-of-pockets, including giving them all a place to live and food to eat, while still being able to provide them with a regular salary..., sort of. His company, WorryFree, which provides these workers to other companies, uses the telemarketing company that Cash soon becomes a "Power Caller" at, and begins to quickly climb up the ranks of success. This is much to the chagrin of his performance artist girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) who is apart of a militant anti-capitalist movement called the Left-Eye Collective. She also a sign-spinner between graffiting the WorryFree signs and holding some pretty avant-garde expositions that, god bless Tessa Thompson, she's quickly becoming one of the best and most interesting young actresses around.
There's actually a lot going on here that I'm skimming over, a co-worker played by Omari Hardwick that's not given a proper name who's mastered climbing the telemarketing ladder, there's a hilarious scene in the beginning where it's slowly revealed that Cash rents out a garage from his Uncle Sergio (Terry Crews), there's a Union organizer co-worker named Squeeze (Steven Yeun) who starts heading up a protest; there's also a huge running narrative on the television, which is a criticism of our modern media on several levels. I should mention that this movie is both horrifying and hilarious. For instance, there's a weird red herring character that's kind of an absurd caricature of the token girl motivational speaker for a company, played by Kate Berlant whose character's name is Diana DeBauchery, which-, I can't phonetically spell how she pronounces it, but it's a brilliant little sidejoke where a character is clearly pronouncing her name in a way in order to hide how it sounds; it's like a modern R-rated "Bouquet Residence" joke for those who've seen "Keeping Up Appearances" enough times will catch.
Really though, to really dissect the movie, you gotta look into it's creator. Now, I'm gonna confess, other then seeing his name brought up with regards to this film, I never heard of Boots Riley until now. Of course, I immediately did research after seeing this, because, well, I had to figure what the hell insane mind came up with this, and he is one of the most fascinating artists and activists. His father was an attorney, the son of a Jewish mother who escaped Nazi Germany, his mother an African-American social justice organizer who was already a progressive Party radical by the time he was a teenager. I also find it interesting that he named an artistic character Detroit, and decided to have the film take place in Oakland, 'cause he's from Detroit originally and his family moved to Oakland when he was a teenager. Basically you could consider him the Ralph Nader of rap music. When he's not fronting his own legendary groups, he often tours with members of Rage Against the Machine, along with some other major names in the protest rock scene like Billy Bragg, Steve Earle and Jill Sobule among others.
I'm a little surprised I didn't know about his work as a musician, that's probably my fault though since I am probably still the holdout that thinks this rap music trend is just a fad that'll go away soon, but I'm more ashamed I didn't know about his work as an activist. This guy teaches, literally as a high school teacher where he taught something called, Culture and Resistance: Persuavise Lyric Writing, and has been a major voice of the socialist left for decades now.
Now, does that make it this great masterpiece of a film? Umm, well, I don’t really know to be honest. Not yet anyway. To be honest, I feel somewhat torn on this one. The movie is personal for Cuaron, it’s based on memories of his own childhood. The title “Roma”, refers to the area of Mexico City where he grew up and the movie is taking place, although I could see how Fellini might be considered an influence here. The movie, very thoughtfully is not through a children’s perspective though; it’s instead through the eyes of a familial maid. Clio (Oscar-nominee Yalitza Aparicio, in her first role.) is a young, Mixteco Mesoamerican, which is the indigenous peoples of Mexico, in her case her group is from Oaxaca and while she speaks Spanish fluently, she slips into her native Mixtec dialect as well. She watches over a family of three kids, a constantly-shitting dog, and a matriarch, Sofia (Oscar-nominee Marina de Tavira). The film takes place during a tumultuous era in recent Mexican history, the early ‘70s. The movie at various off-kilter times does a good job of showing some of the tumultuousness during that time, most notably the student demonstrations that often became violent. He could’ve made a movie being at the center of the action, but that’s never actually been his modus operandi anyway. His last Spanish-language Mexican film, “Y Tu Mama Tambien” often drifted into side stories and narratives about its characters. He does similar but different things here, where we mostly get this one main story about this family and these characters, but there’s a larger world going on, and the long takes, and often from a master view that often move and drift in and out in away, it helps us to consider the others people in the film, and what possibilities of there lives are. Only one story in “The Naked City” as they used to say.
I don’t think that movie's an influence of “Roma” though, but I can think of some that are. There’s a lot of Terrence Malick’s “Days of Heaven” here, especially how with Sofi’s struggle with her husband Antonio (Fernando Grediaga), who’s absent because of a supposed “business trip” to Quebec. We get pieces and snatches of info from the corner of the screen, through Clio’s fragmented view. While Sofi struggles with trying to keep a family together, Clio ends up pregnant after losing her virginity to Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero) a young angry martial artist who has no interest in her or having a kid. We’re introduced to him swimming around a shower rod like it’s a weapon, naked. She ends up seeing him apart of the Corpus Christi attack on student demonstrators, he’s one of the ones, not just attacking the students, but running after a particular one and chasing him into a building along with other angry young men.
It’s after this incident that the family, including Clio heads off to the Beach for a weekend at Sofi’s insistent and there’s one of Cuaron’s just mind-bogglingly amazing long takes where everything comes crashing onto Clio and the family at once, emotionally and literally. I don’t know how he got this tracking shot but it is amazing that he did. (And I mean him, while Emmanuel Lubezki did prepare some shots, Cuaron served as the film’s cinematographer as well as director in this case, winning Oscars for both, the first to do that for the same movie.) The movie begins with water crashing onto the land, as buckets are poured on the floor that Clio is mopping and he returns to that motif here. Cleansing, rebirth, life. Life being lived on the ground, as well as in the air; airplanes perpetuate the movie as well. There’s a mention at the end of the movie, after it’s finally announced to the family that the father is leaving them for his mistress that they can’t go to Disneyland, but that they might be able to go Clio’s home village for a vacation soon, and I couldn’t help but be reminded of another scene from “Y Tu Mama Tambien” where, on the road trip, they pass a village that one of the characters reflects is where an old beloved nanny of his said she was from. It’s kinda perverse when you think about it however, going to your Maid’s hometown for vacation like it’s just a destination, especially from a more upper class and lighter-skinner, probably European-blooded family, but the planes also could represent them trying to find a way out of their circumstances as well, as better as it may be comparatively. Cuaron is a Mexican man who found his way out to America.
Still though, the movie that I actually was reminded most by with “Roma” was actually Tarkovsky’s “The Mirror”, another autobiographical film about the memory of its director. I’m in the minority on that film, considering it one of Tarkovsky’s weaker films, but my criticism of that movie is that it’s so personal that only Tarkovsky himself, can actually relate to it. I don’t get that sense with “Roma”. It’s definitely personal, but it’s smart that it's not from his point of view. It could’ve been, he wouldn’t have been the first director to tell his story as a young man observing the adult world with confusion and wonder, and Cuaron’s made children’s films before, and good ones at that. Instead, he pays tribute to his beloved maid, one that’s still alive and he considers and is treated as being apart of his family. Perhaps it’s that he’s all-too consciously aware that his background isn’t one of struggle that allows him to empathize, or maybe he just wanted to tell her story. Her story, as it relates to his story, his family’s story, and all of Mexico’s story? Or perhaps just the neighborhood of Mexico City that he grew up in. Cuaron’s very best films always have a strong sense of his characters being small parts of a greater wider world out there. Look at “Children of Men”, a sci-fi film about a dying species struggling to save it’s maybe one last potential shot at survival, or “Gravity”, about an astronaut drifting in Outer Fucking Space, trying to just somehow survive, make it back to her home of Earth.
Or to go to back to “Y Tu Mama Tambien”, those two teenage kids and one older adult, and while we follow their sexual and other escapades in the foreground, the movie sprinkles the images and stories of an everchanging Mexico all around them. This innate ability of Cuaron to paint a larger world, around his smaller detail is what makes him one of the best storytellers in Hollywood right now. In Hollywood, and in Mexico City.
This movie in particular with Cuaron, it's probably not be the most entertaining to the general audience, but the filmmaking is amazing, at every aspect, and the subtlety involved, especially in an autobiographical film, is really hard to pull off. The more you know about how movies are made, the more amazing "Roma" is. Admittedly, it's probably the one great movie of his, that I'd want to revisit the least, but that's only an aesthetic preference.
It's easy to see why Spike is the best and perhaps only director who could've or should've handled the material. The movie tells the true story about Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) who became the first African-American to join the Boulder, Colorado police force. His first rookie assignment is in the Evidence and Reports Room. He then gets an undercover job infiltrating a speaking engagement from Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins) aka Stokely Carmichael. This
The thing that's fascinating about Stallworth, as well as by Washington's performance is how calm and stoic he always seems to be. He can be animated, and when he starts answering a recruitment advertisement in the paper for new Ku Klux Klan members, he starts to seem that way, somewhat, but there is a reserved, stoicism to him, nearly the whole movie. You never quite realize what he's thinking, even when you think you know what he's thinking. This is what makes him perfect enough to be mistaken for white over the phone when talking with members of the local chapter of the Klan, like Walter (Ryan Breachaway) or even the National Director David Duke (Topher Grace) who he forms a bond with over-the-phone as he discusses getting his membership sped up, but that's all good for over-the-phone. In person, he recruits his co-worker Ryan Zimmerman (Oscar-nominee Adam Driver) a Jewish cop who's perfect for going undercover personally into the organization.
At first, the organization, seems rather benign on it's surface, take off the white sheets and it's mostly just a bunch of guys in a living room, hanging out and shooting the shit, although sometimes they head out into the woods and shoot with rifles at some demogatory targets. Of course, it does turn out that they're planning on orchestrating a major terrorist attack, right when David Duke is coming to town, and as Stallworth gets assigned to be his protection detail. All slapstick absurdities aside, in the middle of one of the climaxes, Lee splits between footage of the Klan rally, which, to nobody's surprise if you know Spike Lee, he shows them watching "The Birth of a Nation", when he intercuts with scenes of Harry Belafonte playing, essentially himself, detailing the true story of the lynching of Jesse Washington, a death that's sometimes noted as being an inspiration for Griffith's movie.
"BlackkKlansman" is quite fascinating. The movie on paper plays like a classic absurd screwball comedy. It also plays with several inner conflicts. Stallworth and Zimmerman's friendship is key as both of them have struggles with their own personal identity throughout the assignment, Zimmerman getting the most personal and direct conflicts as being Jewish, he's just as hated to the Klan as African-Americans, but he can slip in and hide that fact, much the same way he can slip in and hide his denomition behind the thin blue line, whether other conflicts and disreputable behavior may in fact lie. Officer Weller may or may not be apart of the Klan, but like being apart of that organization gives those members a feeling of power and invisibility, being a member of the police seems to give him free reign as others are afraid to call him out for fear of being ostracized themselves. This conflict's perpetuated with Stallworth's relationship with Patrice who's vehemently anti-cops and considers them just another gang for white people who live to keep down African-Americans, and feels Stallworth's decision to try to change the system from the inside is foolhardy.
And yet, at the end of the movie, there's a knock on the door. A cop and a revolutionary, two complete opposites, pick up their guns, and together, they drift on down the hallways and towards the front door. On the other side of Lee's signature double-trolley shot, reality and I'm not just talking about the burning crosses. A sober reminder that "BlackkKlansman", this movie should be a comedy, but it isn't. It should be an outdated period piece of another time and another place, of a time and condition that's well passed us by. A reminder that while we may laugh, and we will laugh, that we should be laughing at the ways we were, instead of being reminded that things truly just haven't changed as much as they should've.