Us

Cast: Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Elisabeth Moss, Tim Heidecker

Director: Jordan Peele

Writer: Jordan Peele


Not long after Us was released Jordan Peele premiered his revival of The Twilight Zone. While the reception was somewhat mixed and the show’s quality tended to vary with each episode (which, to be fair, has almost always been the case with anthologies), it left no doubt in my mind that he is the 21st century successor to Rod Serling. First with Get Out and now his sophomore outing as a filmmaker, Peele has displayed a dazzling genius for counterpointing personal drama with surreal concepts, all in service of delivering a larger message about society and morality. While Us is categorically a different kind of film from the dark, racially-focused satire that Get Out was, there are parallels and contrasts that are worth observing. Both are films that delve into the tumultuous state of the American condition, both depict Kafkaesque nightmares that border on the paranormal, and both convey their narratives using the language of horror cinema. Where they differ the most is that Get Out had such an alarming clarity to its vision and themes whereas Us is a messier film that seems concerned with more abstract and intangible ideas than its predecessor, the nature of which are not as immediately apparent (which isn’t necessarily a weakness). Us is also more explicitly a horror than it is a comedy; the film is a frightening home invasion thriller with a sinister Invasion of the Body Snatchers twist in which we are revealed to be our own worst enemies.

Peele wastes no time in getting things started on as ominous a note as he can possibly conjure. The opening statement announces that “there are thousands of miles of tunnels beneath the continental U.S.” and that “many have no known purpose at all”. With that unsettling detail of a lost, mysterious chapter in recent American history, the film moves on to a scene in Santa Cruz in 1986. A little girl (Madison Curry) is on a day out with her family at the funfair, trying to enjoy the games and attractions while her parents bitterly bicker at every opportunity. She eventually wanders off while her Dad is distracted and happens upon an empty hall of mirrors by the stranded beach. The inside is dark and deserted enough that any kid would be creeped out by the warped and twisted reflections within, but the girl ends up seeing something far more disturbing. So disturbing, in fact, that we aren’t allowed a proper glimpse at this point. Peele instead shows us the little girl’s shocked, eye-widening reaction, then immediately cuts to the main titles, where the camera slowly zooms out from the image of a caged rabbit to reveal it as just one among many. What has actually happened and what does the strange text and imagery even mean? You’ll have to watch to find out. And even then you still might not have a clear answer.

The film picks up with a now grown-up Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o) on holiday with her sweet lunk of a husband Gabe (Winston Duke) and their two children, bratty daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and oddball son Jason (Evan Alex). The Wilson family is bound for their lake house in Santa Cruz, where Adelaide had her distressing episode all those years ago, and the traumas of that memory are beginning to resurface. The summer house itself is pleasant enough and the other family members certainly enjoy themselves as they make for the beach with their wealthy and rather one-dimensional (intentionally so) friends Josh (Tim Heidecker) and Kitty Tyler (Elisabeth Moss), but Adelaide is far too apprehensive to relax with them. When Jason wanders off and Adelaide realises that they are within a stone’s throw of that same hall of mirrors, she erupts into a full-blown panic until her ingenuous son reappears, completely unharmed. That night Adelaide’s fears prove not to be unfounded when a family of four, identical to their own in almost every way, appears on their doorstep dressed in uniform red jumpsuits, wielding oversized, golden scissors, and scarcely making a move or even a sound. Who these people are, beyond being uncanny doppelgängers of the Wilsons, and exactly what they want is yet to be revealed, but the harm they intend on Adelaide and her family is immediately clear.

Each actor in this film must perform double duty, playing not only their given characters but also their respective doppelgängers. This point merits emphasis because the performances are so transformative you can scarcely believe that they come from the same individuals. Yet what makes the duality so disturbing is how closely each double reflects their counterpart like those warped funhouse mirrors. It’s Dr. Jekyll’s evil alter ago brought to terrifying life en masse; the ‘Tethered’, as they call themselves, are the living manifestations of our greatest insecurities, anxieties and fears. They are “us”, as Jason so rightly observes and, after living entire lifetimes of neglect and malnourishment, they’ve come to exact a vengeful reckoning. Each actor rises to the task of playing their twisted selves, Duke as a lumbering hulk, Joseph as a gleefully homicidal menace, and Alex as a rabid pyromaniac. Nyong’o meanwhile is performing on a whole other level as Red, the wrathfully calculating mother figure and the only one of the Tethered who can speak. Croaking her words in a deep, suffocated voice, she talks in fables and riddles of the bloody vendetta their people have come to wreak. Her deeply, agonisingly expressive deliveries and perverse body language are so eerie, so full of aching pathos while still remaining so inscrutable and otherworldly, that to call it a great performance seems inadequate. Nyong’o’s acting feat, both physical and emotional, is nothing short of superhuman.

There’s more going on here than psychological horror though. The allusions to all those forgotten tunnels beneath the ground, the recurring motif of the Bible verse Jeremiah 11:11 (a passage that promises divine punishment), and also the references to Hands Across America, a national, Reagan-era charity event where millions of people held hands across the breadth of the country to fight hunger and homelessness; there’s a political statement here that Peele is trying to make. It’s not an accident that the title Us also happens to be the acronym for United States. “We’re Americans”, says Red when asked who they are and it speaks to a larger truth beyond its most simple, literal sense (which is explained at length in the third act). They are an underclass; a marginalised, voiceless, forgotten many living in the shadows and the dark corners of the world. They embody our most violent and hateful impulses and they reflect an unsavoury, repellent side of history, society and culture that the human race has worked hard to bury so that they need never be confronted. They aren’t some foreign, alien threat who have conspired from afar to bring about the country’s doom nor are they mindless monsters moving without method or motive. They are “us”; the incarnation of our most destructive and detestable instincts and the greatest threat we face in the world today.

The idea that humanity is its own worst enemy is apt for a film where sometimes Peele is the victim of his own vision. While his skills as a horror director are as masterful as ever, Us is such a thematically dense film that it can sometimes feel like he’s lost his way as he attempts to tie all things together into a single, coherent whole. As everything between the Wilsons and their Tethered opposites come to a head and it starts to feel like the movie ought to start wrapping things up, the film keeps on going. We’re then treated to some exposition where many of our most pressing questions are given answers but, even then, the film keeps on going until it feels like Peele is trying too hard to make the metaphor work. It’s not that the ending is bad or that the point of it all gets completely lost, it’s more like the overall vision Peele has for this film isn’t as wholly realised and perfectly self-contained as it was in Get Out and it’s all he can do to keep the thematic house of cards he’s built from collapsing under the weight of its own convolutedness or the pressures of scrutiny. Again, this isn’t necessarily a fault with the film. In fact, there’s something about its imperfection that makes this film all the more terrifying; as if the reality of our lesser selves is as inescapable for those who made this film as it is for its characters.

★★★★★

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Captain Marvel

Cast: Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, Ben Mendelsohn, Djimon Hounsou, Lee Pace, Lashana Lynch, Gemma Chan, Annette Bening, Clark Gregg, Jude Law

Directors: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck

Writers: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck, Geneva Robertson-Dworet


While the monumental success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a record feat of production is not to be doubted, the quality of the individual films have tended to vary between pretty great and barely passable. Lately, for give or take a couple of years now, they’ve been on quite a hot streak with the emotional resonance of Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, the visual inventiveness of Thor: Ragnarok, the political boldness of Black Panther and the shattering scale of Avengers: Infinity War. Having maintained such a solid and consistent batting average as they have, something was bound to give sooner or later. Captain Marvel is by no means a terrible movie nor is it the worst in the MCU canon (hello The Incredible Hulk); it did however leave me feeling underwhelmed in a way that the MCU hasn’t really done in a while. More’s the pity since this is the first of their score of films to feature a female protagonist and to be (co)directed by a woman. Its creation is overdue and its ardent celebration of girl power is to be lauded; I just wish it had been in service of a more compelling story with a more well-defined protagonist and told in more engaging way.

To its credit, the film does try to shake things up on the outset by giving us a superhero origin story in reverse. Instead of showing us an ordinary person who later becomes somebody extraordinary, this is instead the story of one who is already extraordinary and later learns that she used to be ordinary. This is Vers (Brie Larson) who, when we first meet her, is completely unaware that she was once Carol Danvers, a hotshot pilot for the U.S. Air Force. By this point Vers is living on the planet Hala, the homeworld of the Kree (whom MCU fans might remember as the baddies in Guardians of the Galaxy). She possesses ambiguous super powers over which she has little control but which nonetheless prove useful in her capacity as a member of an elite squadron called Starforce. They are led by Yonn-Rogg (Jude Law), a great warrior who has taken it upon himself to train Carol and presses on her at every opportunity that her emotions are her greatest weakness. She is haunted by nightmares depicting memories of a past she does not recognise and not even the Supreme Intelligence (Annette Bening), an artificial intelligence whose appearance varies depending on the viewer, is unable to provide the answers she seeks. Vers eventually winds up on Earth and there finds that the answers to her past might have something to do with the Skrulls, the sworn enemies of the Kree.

Her arrival causes quite a stir in 1995 Los Angeles and is investigated by none other than a young SHIELD agent called Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, digitally de-aged to his Die Hard with a Vengeance self). Marvel has used this technology before on the likes of Robert Downey Jr., Michael Douglas and Kurt Russell, but never has it been employed at such length and executed so seamlessly. So much so that when Clark Gregg shows up as an unconvincingly younger Agent Coulson, you’ll think that the film’s entire de-aging budget went to Jackson alone. His first meeting with Vers proves a riotous one as he winds up chasing her across the streets of L.A. while she pursues the Skrulls who followed her to this planet. Realising that their goals may be similar, Vers and Fury partner up and resolve to investigate the mystery of her forgotten past together, enjoying a playful and appealing rapport as Jackson delivers his most committed performance in the ten years he’s been playing this character. He is outmatched only by Ben Mendelsohn, playing a Skrull named Talos who spends half of the film posing as Fury’s boss Keller and the other half in his natural, green form, and Goose, the feline who deserves his very own Marvel franchise.

It’s a good thing the supporting cast is as strong as it is because they have to do a lot of heavy lifting for want of a more compelling main character. None of this is Larson’s fault as an actress though; in fact, when she’s able to get into the action and deliver a few quips, she ticks all the right boxes. She can shoot energy blasts from her hands, meaning that not every action scene amounts to a simple punch-em-up, she is rather reserved in a way that the more loudmouthed Marvel heroes tend not to be, and she has this enchantingly rebellious spark befitting a woman who has zero tolerance of mansplaining and cat-calling. The problem is more with the way the movie handles her story. Since Vers has no memory of who she was before she got her powers, the film gives her little to draw from in terms of personality and motivation. Even when she does finally remember her past, the film has given her so little of substance to attach herself to that it doesn’t feel like she has all that much at stake in this whole affair. She doesn’t have any kind of family or love interest, there isn’t any place that she calls home, and the only real connection she has to her life on Earth is her friendship with fellow pilot Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch). The film was so intent on maintaining the mystery for as long as it possibly could that it only occasionally made the time for Vers’ actual character.

The film was directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, who are much more at home making character-driven indies, and, while it isn’t at all unusual for Marvel to hand some of their biggest titles over to formerly small-time directors such as the Russo Brothers and Taika Waititi, It hasn’t really paid off this time around. While their talents for character interaction do shine in the more down-to-Earth scenes (I mean that in the most literal sense possible), the pair seem much more lost in the spectacle of their cosmic sci-fi adventure. The action scenes are so often shot in dark, murky settings and are strung together so choppily that it’s difficult to so much as keep track of what’s happening on screen. Marvel tends to have a rather bland and generic visual style they like to impose on their films when they’re not entrusted to one of their more visually distinct filmmakers like Gunn, Coogler or Waititi and Captain Marvel is one that suffers from a severe lack of some sort of stylistic personality. The shots are routinely composed, the colour and lighting is pretty much nondescript and the action scenes don’t have any kind of punch or flair to them beyond what an anonymous second-unit team compiling a studio-mandated fight scene for a mid-90s blockbuster could have done.

Still, that this film isn’t one of Marvel’s better offerings doesn’t mean that is has nothing of value to offer. As well as the enjoyable interplay between characters and some pretty good gags, the movie is also determined to make a statement about the world today, especially as it relates to women, and there is satisfaction to be gained if only from the knowledge that a small and loathsome sub-culture on the Internet is fuming because of it. It certainly adds some amount of depth to Vers’ journey for identity and independence as she grows more defiant in her unwillingness to follow the orders given to her by domineering male authority figures that she considers to be morally wrong. There’s also a gratifying moment near the end where Vers puts one of the more obnoxious male characters in his place by refusing to do battle with him on his terms or prove herself according to his regressive standards. The film isn’t as triumphantly defiant as it aspires to be, nor is it a particularly good film in general, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that there some aspects I enjoyed a good deal. Ultimately, however, Captain Marvel is more table setting than it is a cinematic feast. Maybe further along down the road we’ll get a sequel that allows the character to come more into her own, but even that wouldn’t retroactively make her first outing any better.

★★★

Fighting with My Family

Cast: Florence Pugh, Lena Headey, Nick Frost, Jack Lowden, Vince Vaughn, Dwayne Johnson

Director: Stephen Merchant

Writer: Stephen Merchant


Cinema has seen some truly spectacular boxing movies over the years (Rocky, Raging Bull, When We Were Kings, the list goes on), but not so much with pro wrestling (the only notable example that comes to mind for me is Aronofsky’s The Wrestler). I think this is reflective of a certain perception (some might call it snobbery) that views boxing as a more valid and prestigious sport whereas wrestling is dismissed as inauthentic and silly. While the latter certainly has its very passionate fanbase, I do think a lot of people look down on wrestling for what they see as fakery even though, as stressed in this new film, there is a marked difference between a sport being fixed and fake. Fighting with My Family follows GLOW, a criminally underrated Netflix show about female pro wrestling, in the recent tradition of media that have found more to the sport than what people typically dismiss. It tells the story of a young woman whose dream is to become a WWE champion and of the blood, toil, tears and sweat that got her there. It’s a comedy film and it’s really more about family than it is wrestling, but what stood out the most for me was the film’s utterly sincere and wholehearted regard for pro wrestling both in its demanding athleticism and its unabashed theatricality.

Based on a true story that became the basis of a similarly titled documentary in 2012, Fighting with My Family tells the story of Saraya Knight (Florence Pugh), a young girl from a wrestling family in Norwich who would go on to become Paige, a world-famous WWE champion. All her life, having been raised by her wrestling parents Ricky (Nick Frost) and Julia (Lena Headey) and been taught to fight since as soon as she could walk, she and her brother Zak (Jack Lowden) have only ever had one dream, to make it in the big leagues in the USA. Together as a family they run a local wrestling ring where they put on fights and train the local youth (including a blind boy) in the sport they all love so dearly. When the siblings are invited to London to audition for the WWE, it looks like the stars are aligning and the chance has come for them to realise their dreams together. Only that’s not quite how it works out. Hutch (Vince Vaughn), the talent scout and trainer they must impress, picks Paige (the stage name Saraya has picked after her favourite character on Charmed) to advance to the next stage, a wrestling boot camp in Florida, while her brother is sent home. All on her own in a foreign country, her quest for wrestling stardom pushes Paige to the very brink of her physical and emotional limits.

As far as Paige’s story goes, Fighting with My Family is a fairly typical sports film. From day one of her training she is presented to us as an outcast amongst her American peers. As well as being a working-class Brit, Paige favours a Gothic appearance complete with dyed black hair and facial pierces which clashes with the blonde, sun-tanned models and cheerleaders she gets paired with and her anxieties lead her to lash out against them. Not only is she inconsolably lonely, she is also burdened by the guilt she feels for having been chosen for this once in a lifetime opportunity over the brother whom she felt deserved it more as well as a pathological fear of blowing her shot and letting her loved ones down. The pressure she feels couldn’t be more unbearable, except she also has a harsh and unsympathetic trainer pushing her all the harder because he apparently sees something in her that she is unable to see in herself. The film walks a fine line between having Paige as enough of an underdog that we naturally root for her to succeed and having her be flawed enough that she needs to grow up before she can win her climatic triumph. Part of what makes her an outcast, for example, is her derision for her fellow trainees whom she doesn’t see as real wrestlers, a bias that she overcomes by the end of the film when she eventually befriends the women and realises that she has as much to learn from them as they do from her.

The movie isn’t just about Paige overcoming the obstacles and winning, it’s also about her search for identity, which is the part of the story that I found to be the most lacking in development and substance. This is connected to the aspect of wrestling that many often find to be off-putting, the soap-opera-like performance of it all. The idea, as this film puts it, is to create a character with something personal and unique to say and to use the ring as a platform to tell their stories. Paige, for whom wrestling has always been a family affair, has to decide once and for all who she really is beyond that context and what it is she wants to say for herself. Pugh is certainly to be commended for the grit, humour and determinism she brings to the role, but for a film that places so much weight on the need for Paige to build a persona that is hers and hers alone, that aspect of her journey doesn’t get the focus it demands, leading to a payoff that feels more clichéd than earned. It’s my understanding that the real-life Paige was a truly groundbreaking in pro wrestling, a woman who lived and breathed wrestling in a world where female competitors seldom came from a wrestling background. I hoped the film would depict a more personality-driven story that delved more into how Saraya actually became Paige, but the films instead leans more on the physical challenge she faces, just like the countless sports movies that came before.

Still, as I said before, this isn’t really a movie about wrestling, it’s actually about family. The moments when Paige is with her parents and brother are when the film is at its most enjoyable and touching. The film dedicates a surprising amount of time and nuance towards the parallel struggle of Zak, who is made to reckon with the cruel revelation that he is simply not good enough to make his greatest dream a reality. Sports films are often so ready to celebrate the hero’s victories that many of them tend not to dwell too much on their failures and what it really means when you’re not a main character destined for glory. Zak is so crushed by the harshness of his rejection, the loss of his drive and ambition and the sense of unfairness clouding it all that he finds himself spiralling deeper and deeper into a dark pit of resentment and thwarted dreams that threatens to consume him. Offering a lighter touch are Frost and Headey playing as the parents, essentially a pair of overgrown children who love what they do, are always up for a laugh, but who are ready to offer a helping hand and words of profane wisdom when it’s needed. The film also features an extended cameo by Dwayne Johnson, who is always a delight even when his appearance feels inescapably gimmicky. Like its main character, Fighting with My Family is flawed and a little rough around the edges, but it’s also funny, charming, and a pretty good time when all is said and done.

★★★★

The Kid Who Would Be King

Cast: Louis Ashbourne Serkis, Tom Taylor, Denise Gough, Rebecca Ferguson, Patrick Stewart

Director: Joe Cornish

Writer: Joe Cornish


We live in increasingly cynical times and the idea that a noble medieval king like Arthur could possibly solve the innumerable problems facing the UK today in the age of Brexit is quite laughable. Yet that is in a sense what Joe Cornish’s newest film is about and with it he invites the viewer to consider the world as it is not through the wearied, sceptical eyes of an adult but through the innocent, eager eyes of a child. It harkens to a mythical time in Britain’s history when the whole country was united under the benevolent rule of a hero among men. In a short, animated prologue the film details the particulars of Arthur’s rule, taking care to emphasise that it was not his ability to slay monsters that made him a great king. What made Arthur a figure of such reverence was the chivalric code by which he upheld the principles of justice, honesty and honour. This was a king who treated his trusted knights as his equals, who made friends of his enemies and who inspired hope and unity in all who followed him. The legacy of Camelot has long since been lost to the world but will soon be unearthed once again by a pair of unlikely pre-teens living in contemporary London.

The Kid Who Would Be King is set in a world where everything is bad (“WAR! GLOOM! FEAR! CRISIS!” read the headlines on a local newsstand) and everyone has more or less resigned themselves to the prospect of a doomed future. The 12-year-old Alex (Louis Ashbourne Serkis) is all too familiar with the struggles of living in a world where the strong freely prey on the weak as he and his best mate Bedders (Dean Chaumoo) are bullied at school. Living with his exasperated mother Mary (Denise Gough), struggling to make ends meet in the absence of the boy’s father, Alex identifies strongly with the likes of Harry Potter, Frodo Baggins and Luke Skywalker, all of them orphans dreaming of adventure and destined to become great heroes. His favourite book as a young boy, as a matter of fact, was the anthology of Arthurian fables that his father left him before disappearing. On one fateful day as Alex and Bedders are being chased by their local bullies Lance (Tom Taylor) and Kaye (Rhianna Dorris), they stumble into a building site where they find an ancient sword sticking out of a solid concrete block. Alex pulls the sword out of the stone with ease, leading the two boys to conclude that this must be the legendary sword of Excalibur and that fate has decreed they must embark on some great quest in order to save Britain.

Soon Alex is visited by the great wizard Merlin (Angus Imrie), who appears in the form of a teenager and poses as a pupil at the boys’ school under the cunning pseudonym of ‘Mertin’. An eccentric figure who’s liable to transform into an owl or his older self (played by Patrick Stewart) when he sneezes, he reveals to Alex and Bedders that the return of the evil sorceress Morgana (Rebecca Ferguson), Arthur’s greatest enemy, is imminent. It is Alex’s destiny to take his place as the king the country desperately needs right now and to vanquish Morgana before she can rise with her minions and unleash her wrath on the world. Suspecting that the his estranged father might have a role to play in all this, Alex resolves to set out for Tintagel, the last place the two of them and the supposed birth place of Arthur himself. Joining him on this quest, as well as Bedders and Merlin, are Lance and Kaye, whom Alex knights so that they might redeem themselves and help save Britain from peril. Along the way Merlin trains them in the ways of the greats knights of yore and presses upon them the chivalric code and its tenets of bravery, decency, and honour. If the kids fail to stand by this code and follow it to the letter, then their quest is already lost.

While there is plenty of action along the way, it should be clear from the word go that The Kid Who Would Be King is not a high-concept epic fantasy on the level of The Lord of the Rings. It’s more like if The Goonies or Stand By Me were made today and included a fair few moderate action scenes with modest special effects. This isn’t to say that we don’t get some sense of the grand scale and threatening stakes of the adventure they’ve embarked upon. Cornish treats us to sweeping shots of the English countryside, has the fellowship do battle with animated trees and CGI skeletons on horseback and there is even a climatic siege where the weathered fortress of Helm’s Deep is replaced with a London secondary school. Far from threatening to overwhelm frame after frame with endless masses of CGI like most of the blockbusters you’re likely to see these days, Cornish keeps things simple and clean and the film is stronger for it. It’s a style that enables them to emulate the heroic fantasies that the tale of King Arthur helped inspire while still allowing them to keep things light-hearted and childishly playful; more Narnia than Middle Earth.

The action doesn’t really matter so much as the quest itself. The film is, more than anything, about Alex’s journey of self-discovery. What makes this story work in an era where modernised takes on the Arthurian myth continuously fail (remember Legend of the Sword?) is the way in which it draws new morals from the old, familiar tales. For one thing, the film drops the feudalistic notion that nobility and greatness is borne from one’s birth. In the end it isn’t Alex’s blood or his parentage that makes him great, it’s the lessons that he learns on his journey and that fellowship he builds with his brothers and sisters in arms along the way. The movie is a celebration of community and its ability to overcome any threat through unity and co-operation. The ensemble, many of whom were young and untested actors as were those in Cornish’s previous film Attack the Block, do wonders to sell the idea as well as the fantasy of it all. I especially liked Chaumoo, who I think is destined to deliver a Samwise Gamgee performance for the ages one of these days, and Imrie, who commits to his role wholeheartedly. Together they’ve made a highly charming and enjoyable film and, while it’s still unlikely to solve the world’s problems, it can at least provide a couple of hours of escape and that’s nothing to turn your nose up at.

★★★★

The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part

Cast: (voiced by) Chris Pratt, Elizabeth Banks, Will Arnett, Tiffany Haddish, Stephanie Beatriz, Charlie Day, Alison Brie, Nick Offerman, Maya Rudolph

Director: Mike Mitchell

Writers: Phil Lord, Christopher Miller


In all the years I’ve been going to the cinema, watching The LEGO Movie in 2014 is still one of the best experiences I’ve ever had. It’s not just that the film was so irresistibly funny, stupendously animated and surprisingly clever and moving, but also because I went in that day entirely convinced that I was going to detest every second of it. The very idea of it stunk to me of cheap corporate marketing tactics and I thought all I was going to get out of it was a 2-hour commercial. What I was totally unprepared for was what an astounding commercial it would turn out to be. It favoured a delightfully anarchic comedic style, it showcased dozens upon dozens of inventive and colourful sets and characters and it had a smart story to tell about the push-pull between going by the rules and individual creativity, all of which were given even greater weight with the revelation that this whole universe was born from the imagination of an eight-year-old boy. The inevitable obstacle facing this sequel is that it’s never going to astound me in the same way its predecessor did. Short of a complete reinvention of its whole ethos from the ground up, the humour is now going to feel familiar, the premise won’t be as fresh and, no matter what this sequel offers, its going to be encumbered by the burden of expectation.

Five years after the first film’s release, the second chapter cleverly realises that its original audience of young kids have now grown up to become pre-teens and so the film resolves to grow up with them. Picking up from the last film’s ending where Bricksburg is visited by Duplo invaders, the city has grown into a gritty, dystopian wasteland like something out of the Mad Max films that only adults and big kids are allowed to watch. Lucy (or Wyldstyle, as she prefers) feels right at hope in this desolate landscape, dressed up as a post-apocalyptic warrior and brooding all day long whilst contemplating their hopeless future and loss of humanity. One character who hasn’t lost a shred of his humanity though is Emmet, who continues to cheerfully go about his day humming the tune to ‘Everything is Awesome’ in an environment that’s anything but. Lucy presses onto him that Bricksburg (or Apocalypseburg as its now called) has grown too harsh and inhospitable for Emmet to survive with his upbeat disposition and one of the central conflicts of this film is whether he ought to (or even can) become tough and mean enough to be that kind of ‘hero’. Either way, Emmet must spring to action when the Duplos return once again and abduct Lucy, Batman, Benny the Astronaut, Metalbeard, and Unikitty, taking them back to their home in the dreaded SyStar System.

Given that those who have seen the first film already know about the real-world twist, there’s little point in dancing around the fact that the same device returns and is even more prominent this time around. The little boy Finn (Jadon Sand) is now five years older and his interests have moved on from the childish antics of the first film to the more gritty, angsty wasteland of Aposalypseburg. The SyStar System, meanwhile, is the bright, sparkly realm of Bianca (Brooklynn Prince), the little sister who wants nothing more than to play with her big brother. While he has a clear, controlled idea of what he wants his world to be, she favours more of an anything and everything approach, going with her whims and doing whatever it is that seems the most fun (sound familiar?). Thus it is soon made clear to us that the cosmic scale of Emmet’s quest to cross the galaxy and save his friends is in fact being driven by a spat between two siblings who can’t get along. Hanging over them throughout is threat of our-mom-ageddon, which will erupt should their conflict grow too out of hand. What’s smart about this revival of a previous device is how it expands on the conflict that shaped the first film rather than merely repeating it, even if the device is so pronounced this time around that it borders on distracting.

Back in the world of the imagination, Lucy and her captive friends are brought before Queen Watevra Wa’Nabi, a shape-shifting amalgamation of bricks and “the least evil queen in history” (words that describe her include unduplicitous, unmalicious and unconniving). She embodies the limitless and overwhelming energy of Bianca’s world and she entices the captured party (apart from Lucy) with promises of happiness and fulfilment. Her domain appears to be an idyllic one where nothing bad ever happens, much in the vein of the picturesque and musical world that Bricksburg used to be (complete with another irrepressibly catchy song appropriately titled ‘This Song’s Gonna Get Stuck Inside Your Head’). Meanwhile Emmet is doggedly on his way to rescue Lucy and co. and helping him is Rex Dangervest, a Chris Pratt-ish character who embodies the Kurt Russell sci-fi hero persona that Pratt has grown into in the five years since the first movie. He is a space cowboy who travels the galaxy on his spaceship searching for lost, ancient artefacts, training raptors and sporting chiselled, buff features where he once had baby fat (Rex Dangervest is even the exact kind of name that Andy Dwyer would invent for this kind of character). Realising that Rex is precisely the kind of guy Emmet feels like he needs to become in order to satisfy Lucy, he determines to follow his example and learn all he can from the badass hero.

Like many kids films this tells a story about growing up, but it offers a slightly different spin on the idea. Emmet’s arc in this film revolves around the idea that he needs to grow up in order to be a hero and the kind of man Lucy would want as a boyfriend. The film thus pairs him with Rex who is the personification of many of the tropes we associate with modern-day action movie heroes. Rex is less of a character than he is an archetype of the masculine ideal; one who is tough, confident (or maybe arrogant is the word), impulsive, aggressive and emotionally repressed. If he isn’t showing off his awesome lifestyle and heroic accomplishments, he’s brooding about his tragic backstory and how anybody who gets close to him is doomed to get hurt. While Emmet’s talents lie in hope and creation, Rex’s talents are all about power and destruction. This dynamic helps to inform the story taking place in the real world where Finn, a boy who has doubtless consumed much of the media celebrating such ultra masculine superheroes as those that Chris Pratt has portrayed, is playing with his LEGO more along the lines of what he now considers to be more grown-up and cooler, whereas his sister wants to play in a more light-hearted and carefree manner (along with the hearts, smiley faces and glitter that he now finds contemptible). The story is thus not so much about growing into maturity as it is about refuting a certain misguided idea of maturity that a lot of kids experience.

The film is also more self-aware than its predecessor, which is sometimes a good thing and sometimes bad. One example is when they rightly call the first film out for featuring Lucy as a strong female character who did all the work only for the hapless male to get the credit (a trope that is as common in movies today as it is tired), but if there was an attempt on this film’s part to give her more agency then it was never really brought to fruition. The self-awareness is ever present in the comedy as well, ranging from the portrayal of Rex Dangerfield as the epitome of all that is Chris Pratt to the knowing references and asides that only the adults will understand. Sometimes it gets a laugh and sometimes it feels like the movie is trying too hard to be cleverer than the already clever material delivered by the previous film’s directors Lord and Miller demands. Or maybe that has more to do with the challenges of making a comedy sequel when the audience is already in on the joke. In any case there is plenty to enjoy in The LEGO Movie 2. It has many worthwhile ideas on its mind, it boasts fantastic visuals with a greater wealth of detail than ever before, and it is consistently entertaining from beginning to end.

★★★★

Alita: Battle Angel

Cast: Rose Salazar, Christoph Waltz, Jennifer Connelly, Mahershala Ali, Ed Skrein, Jackie Earle Haley, Keean Johnson

Director: Robert Rodriguez

Writers: James Cameron, Laeta Kalogridis


It seems in today’s Hollywood blockbuster landscape that unless a big-budget sci-fi/fantasy action-adventure flick stars an Avenger or bears the Star Wars title (both Disney properties, make of that what you will), it is destined to flop. As much as I enjoy the movies that Disney systematically produces, I find it rather disheartening how unwilling studios are to promote ambitious and grand-scale titles bearing IPs that audiences don’t immediately recognise. Once upon a time 20th Century Fox released the James Cameron sci-fi epic Avatar, a movie that was not directly based on any property that audiences had seen before. Boasting a big-name director and groundbreaking visual effects, Fox had so much faith in their multimillion-dollar 3D blockbuster that they launched a multimillion-dollar digital marketing campaign to promote the movie as widely and persistently as possible. Avatar became the event movie of 2009 and, whatever you might have thought of the movie itself either then or today, it didn’t become the highest-grossing film of all time by accident. I honestly wonder how the film might fare if it were made today because earlier this year we saw the release of another sci-fi epic bearing the Cameron name and the promotion it received barely amounted to a tenth of the publicity surrounding Avatar.

Alita instead follows in the tradition of such films as Jupiter Ascending, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets and The Mortal Engines, all of them ambitious sci-fi blockbusters based on original or unfamiliar properties that didn’t receive nearly the amount of attention they doubtless would have been given in a pre-Avengers world. All of them made meagre returns at the box office and have only confirmed to the major studios that audiences today are only interested in what they recognise and find familiar. The merits of these individual films isn’t really the point (I personally liked Valerian but was not a fan of Jupiter Ascending), the point is that the less willing studios are to take risks on new and foreign ideas, the more complacent will they grow with their tentpole films and the more static will the Hollywood machine become as it churns out and recycles the same titles year after year. While such a move would be sound from a purely economic point of view, it means that there would be no room for the likes of the Wachowski siblings, Luc Besson or for James Cameron himself to surprise and astound us with something well and truly different. There wouldn’t be any more room for something as refreshingly novel and bonkers as Alita: Battle Angel.

The film itself, based on a popular manga, is about Alita (Rose Salazar), a cyborg manufactured in the likeness of young, wide-eyed woman. Her fractured remains are discovered in an Iron City junk pile by the robotics scientist Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz), who revives her intact head and heart using a cybernetic body he had previously designed for his disabled daughter. Alita, as Dr. Ido christens her after his late daughter, has no memory of who she is or of her past. Like a cybernetic Jason Bourne, she soon learns that she possesses some extraordinary abilities, including an adept instinct for martial arts and gymnastics, and so she sets out to find the truth about who she once was. Helping her Hugo (Keean Johnson), a dreamy street urchin who befriends the android and introduces her to the city’s favourite pastime, Motorball (a gladiator style sport that’s as fun to watch as it is absurd in concept). As she explores more of Iron City, a rundown metropolis lying in the shadow of the spectacular and unreachable sky city of Zalem, the more embroiled she becomes in the happenings of the rougher side of town. Amongst the colourful characters who pose a threat to Alita are Zapan (Ed Skrein), a vain and cybernetically enhanced bounty hunter, Grewishka (Jackie Earle Haley), a mammoth cyborg with a thirst for blood, and Vector (Mahershala Ali), a criminal overlord who works for the mysterious Nova.

Alita was directed by Robert Rodriguez, a filmmaker who definitely feels at home making live-action cartoons (like Sin City and Spy Kids), and he is on form in his depiction of this dystopian steampunk city in all of its grunginess and surrealism. What impresses about the Iron City is not just the abundance of detail and the dizzying colourfulness but also the clarity with which it is all presented, a crucial part of what was missing in the similarly extravagant Ready Player One. The film is so good at letting its environment speak for itself in the way that animes such as Ghost in the Shell and Akira are that we need only follow Alita on her journey of discovery to get a sound understanding of the city’s history, organisation and personality. This clarity also extends to the action sequences, of which there are many. By fully embracing the possibilities of the CGI motion-capture technology that Cameron employed in Avatar, Alita is able to create the kind of universe where people’s limbs can turn into swinging flails, miniature canons and roaring chainsaws, where a 60-year-old, 5ft 7 actor can wield a rocket-powered hammer nearly twice his size and where being cut in half is more of an inconvenience than it is a death sentence. These are all developments we get to see unfold in perfect intelligibility rather than as wisps in a cloud of chaotic CGI thanks to the clear-cut editing that the film employs.

Still, even with Rodriguez assuming directorial duties, the film truly belongs to its producer James Cameron. There is little ambiguity about which characters are good and which are evil and the love story at the centre of it all is so schmaltzy and sentimental that you’ll wonder why there wasn’t a scene in which the two lovers stood together on the bow of a spaceship in a passionate embrace as the sun set over the sea. In a film filled with strong, entertaining characters, the bland Hugo is the one who drags things down as he constantly proves himself to be little more than a hindrance for whom the plot must slow down. Even at the end when the story is effectively over, he still annoyingly persists and refuses to grow up or quit. The film is far stronger when he is absent and can instead focus solely on Alita. As well as being a charming and compelling presence whom Salazar plays with both the indomitable grit of a warrior woman and the bright-eyed whimsy of a Disney princess, the film also hands her a surprisingly complex and compelling arc. In her quest to learn the truth about her own identity, she also tackles issues of female autonomy, bodily acceptance and human nature. Yes it can sometimes be heavy-handed (this is still James Cameron we’re talking about), but it works.

Alita is a goofy, action-packed romp with a lot to enjoy even if it can be a little too formulaic for its own good and the corny romance does slow down an otherwise gripping story, especially as we get closer to the end. The film is at its best when treating us to over-the-top, no-holds-barred action that only a giant-budget CGI cartoon such as this can possibly make. That the unrestrained spectacle never feels empty is thanks mostly to Salazar who sells every pixel. Her unnaturally large eyes, far from being the garish distraction they initially seemed poised to be, turn out to be the most entrancingly expressive part of her commandingly engaging character. The likes of Waltz, Ali, and Jennifer Connelly, playing a small but intriguing part, do lend the film some of the substance and gravity that make it work but it is Salazar more than anybody else who convinces you that there is some genuine humanity inhabiting this computerised world. The film is no Blade Runner; it’s not going to leave you grappling with existential questions about morality, humanity and the meaning of life, but it makes no pretence towards being that kind of film. There is some depth to Alita, and some issues as well, but mostly it’s a movie that offers viewers the kind of head-crushing, limb-severing, physics-defying action they won’t see anywhere else and plenty of it.

★★★★

If Beale Street Could Talk

Cast: KiKi Layne, Stephen James, Colman Domingo, Tayonah Parris, Michael Beach, Dave Franco, Diego Luna, Pedro Pascal, Ed Skrein, Brian Tyree Henry, Regina King

Director: Barry Jankins

Writer: Barry Jenkins


One of the most extraordinary things about If Beale Street Could Talk, Jenkins’ adaptation of the James Baldwin novel of the same name, is how specific its story is to the experience of these characters and yet how universal the emotions and themes that it conjures feel. Like in Jenkins’ previous film Moonlight, which found such aching beauty in the tormented life of a gay, African-American man and his harsh upbringing in the rundown, drug-infested slums of Florida, Beale Street taps into the sensuous depth of feeling and severe social-political realities of its story to craft a profoundly poetic work of cinema. This is a story about a young man who is accused and convicted of a crime he did not commit and of his bride-to-be in her desperate attempt to clear his name, but the film is also so much more. It is both a love story and a coming of age story, a striking portrait of the realities of being black in America and a song of light and colour that transcends both time and space. Through intimate, lovingly composed camerawork, the generous democratisation of its time-jumping story across different perspectives and the depiction of such racially-charged themes as housing discrimination, police bigotry and unjust incarceration, what Jenkins has created is a magnificent and moving picture that, above, all is about love, loss, grace and faith.

Literally speaking, Beale Street is in Memphis, Tennessee, and is remembered as the place where such legendary black musicians as W.C. Handy, B.B. King, and Muddy Waters invented the blues. According to the Baldwin quote that opens the film however Beale Street is, to him, the street in New Orleans where his father, Louis Armstrong and jazz were all born. “Every black person born in America” he says, “was born on Beale Street”. Beale Street refers to any street in the USA, “whether in Jackson, Mississippi, or Harlem, New York,” where African-American people lived and died, loved and lost and built enduring communities where they could be free, happy and black. The same opening quotation also talks about “the impossibility and the possibility, the absolute necessity, to give expression to this legacy”. Thus the film, just like the novel its based on, endeavours to tell a story set mainly in Harlem, just one of the countless hidden stories that occurred within the Beale Street of 1970s New York. The story is fictional and yet it speaks to truths that Baldwin, Jenkins and the other residents of Beale Street have lived and learned over the course of their own lives. It is a story rooted in its time and place yet seems to be about the world entire, such is the legacy of Beale Street.

This particular story is about 19-year-old Tish (KiKi Layne) and her sweetheart Fonny (Stephen James), a boy she’s known since they were kids together, who is behind bars and awaiting trial on the charge of rape, a crime which we’ll soon learn he could not have committed. Tish is pregnant and determined to get her husband-to-be home before the baby is born, but that prospect grows all the more unlikely when Fonny’s accuser, a Puerto Rican woman who picked him out of a line up, flees the country. Without her, the case is reduced to Fonny’s word against that of Officer Bell (Ed Skrein), the cop who claims to have seen him fleeing the scene and whom we learn harbours a grudge for the young man. We don’t learn all of this straight away though because the film adopts a non-linear approach to the story and starts off in the middle with Tish visiting Fonny in jail to share the special news with him (“I hope that nobody ever has to look at anybody they love through glass” she muses in voiceover). We then follow her home where she breaks the same news to her family. Her parents Sharon (Regina King, fantastic every second) and Joseph (Colman Domingo) and sister Ernestine (Tayonah Parris) are worried about her future but promise to support her no matter what. The same cannot be said for Fonny’s family whose God-fearing mother Alice (Aunjanue Ellis) condemns Tish for conceiving a child out of wedlock.

While the film jumps back and forth in time and switches perspectives, the focus throughout remains on the love between Tish and Fonny. As we follow Tish we travel back in time with her to a simpler and happier stage when she and Fonny were childhood friends discovering something that hadn’t been there before (or maybe it had been, they just hadn’t seen it). When the two lovers gaze into each other’s eyes, there is a certain radiance that engulfs them. The whole world feels warmer and softer when they’re together and we can feel it as well in the bright colours exuding their warm glow and the intimate ways in which Jenkins’ frames the couple, favouring close-ups that lock squarely onto their faces as if the film were trying to break the fourth wall. Sometimes the film goes even deeper than that, focusing on their eyes and mouths with everything else out of focus. There is a love scene that the two share which feels far more tender and dreamy than it does voyeuristic because it was discreetly and lovingly captured by a director who loves people and knows how to photograph their beauty. The love between Tish and Fonny isn’t lustful but spiritual; it’s as if when one stares into the eyes of the other as they make love, they can see right into their very soul.

The reality of the world they live in however means that they cannot simply live their lives as two souls in love. Whether it’s moving into a cheap apartment in a converted warehouse because most New York landlords are unwilling to rent a place to a black couple or happening to get on the wrong side of a racist cop in a chance encounter, the world will not abide the purity and grace they share as a black couple. When Fonny is arrested, it’s a given that the justice system is ready to fail him at every turn. In their effort to clear Fonny’s name the family turns to a lawyer they cannot afford and even use what little money they can raise to send Sharon to Puerto Rico, hoping against hope that she might track down the absconded woman who accused Fonny of this crime and persuade her to drop the charge. The brutalities of the prison life that people like Fonny are subjected to are also made clear to us, not through the explicit and graphic depiction you might expect in an episode of Oz, but through a sombre monologue delivered by Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry), a friend of Fonny’s who spent a year inside after being convicted on a similarly trumped-up charge. Beale Street could very easily have been a bleak film; the story it tells is furious and tragic and its ending is at best ambiguous. Jenkins however finds hope and beauty wherever he can and the film he has made is a deeply rich and emotionally resonant one.

★★★★★

How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World

Cast: (voiced by) Jay Baruchel, America Ferrera, Cate Blanchett, Craig Ferguson, F. Murray Abraham

Director: Dean DeBlois

Writer: Dean DeBlois


DreamWorks Animation, the studio most famous for such franchises as Shrek, Madagascar and Kung-Fu Panda, doesn’t get enough credit for How to Train Your Dragon. In an age where Disney and Pixar are held up as the gold standard for mainstream animation, this is a trilogy that boasts the same standard of breath-taking animation, the same exceptional ability to handle complex and profound themes and the same universal appeal as the best of what the Mouse has to offer (that the second film lost the Best Animated Film Oscar to Big Hero 6 is still a sore spot for me). An epic fantasy for children and adults alike about heroism, family and growing up, what makes How to Train Your Dragon special is how adult and mature it is capable of being while still remaining light-hearted and whimsical and also how whole-heartedly committed it is to illustrating positive portrayals of wholesome themes. This is a series where the weedy, awkward boy finds strength through compassion and friendship, where the tough, beefy Viking chief has no trouble openly expressing affection to his wife and son and where diplomacy and de-escalation are the preferred methods for resolving conflict while violence is depicted as a tragic resort. The Hidden World is the conclusion to the trilogy and it brings this wonderful tale to a fitting and bittersweet end.

Berk, the island community that grew into a haven where man and dragon could co-exist in harmony, has grown further still into a bustling metropolis. Under the leadership of Hiccup, the inventive and progressive chief whose friendship with Toothless, the loveable Night Fury, made all of this possible, it would seem that the Viking tribe has never known a greater period of prosperity and peace. It soon becomes abundantly clear however that the more dragons Hiccup and his fellow dragon-riders, including his long-time girlfriend Astrid, rescue, the more overpopulated Berk becomes. So chaotic and crowded is their human-dragon utopia that some are starting to question whether the two species can continue to live together in the long run. Hiccup thus resolves to find the Hidden World, a legendary realm where dragons supposedly live in peace free from the intrusion of humankind. Meanwhile Hiccup and Toothless discover a female Night Fury (dubbed the Light Fury by Astrid for her sleek, white scales) and the puppy-like dragon is entranced. The heartening revelation that Toothless is not the last of his species after all however carries with it a more sombre realisation that maybe the time has come for Hiccup and Toothless to go their separate ways so that they might build new lives for themselves with their companions.

In the grand scheme of things, The Hidden World is the weakest of the How to Train Your Dragon films in the same way that Return of the Jedi is the weakest of the original Star Wars films. It is still a good film in its own right and it offers a satisfying ending to its epic, sprawling narrative, but it also suffers from a rather digressive plot and a tendency to recycle ideas from previous instalments. The main villain this time around is Grimmel, a dragon-hunter whose motivations are not any subject of interest and who, like Drago, only really exists as an explicitly evil obstacle for the benevolent heroes to overcome. He is voiced by F. Murray Abraham, which definitely counts for a lot, but it isn’t enough for him to stand out as more than a generic baddie whose existence you forget about as soon as he exits the picture. The characterisations of such side characters as Hiccup’s comic relief entourage of Snotlout, Fishlegs and Ruffnut also feel rather routine at this point as the series no longer really knows what to do with them beyond giving them some funny lines and bits to perform (which, don’t get me wrong, are good, especially the scene where an imprisoned Ruffnut irritates her captors into letting her go). The same goes for Hiccup’s mother Val who had such an astounding role in the previous film but here is pretty much relegated to the wise sage offering advice when needed. The plot also has a little trouble taking off as much of what occurs simply serves to delay the characters in their course.

When the film does get things moving and plays to its greatest strengths, that’s when The Hidden World really shines. One thing the series has always done astoundingly well is visual splendour (the illustrious Roger Deakins did serve as a visual consultant on all three films after all) and that is as true here as it’s ever been. One of the best scenes in the whole trilogy takes place when Toothless and his newfound sweetheart flirt by swooping and soaring all around the island together, zipping in and out of clouds and dancing around each other as if they were partners in an aerial ballet accompanied by John Powell’s enchanting score. When the film is less about Grimmel and more about the dragon romance and what it means to the relationship between Hiccup and Toothless, the film is able to really draw from the themes and character development at its disposal thanks to the splendid efforts of the last two films and it pays off here in spades. One of the central themes of the trilogy is personal growth as we’ve seen in Hiccup’s transition from childhood to maturity. It’s not just Hiccup who has to grow up however but Toothless as well as he finds himself with desires and commitments that require him to be with his own kind, even if it means sacrificing a friendship that has meant so much to him. While the first two films were about bridging the enmity between humans and dragons through compassion and understanding, this is a film about the value of letting these wondrous beasts be so that they might find their own way in peace.

How to Train Your Dragon is a sublime trilogy of a kind that I wish Hollywood would make more of. Aesthetically it is amongst the finest animation you’ll see today with exquisitely designed environments resplendent with colour and the hundreds of dragons of all shapes, sizes and forms who are brought to vigorous life. Narratively it is a moving tale about growth and change that never flinched from depicting how difficult and harsh life could be yet remained inspiring and hopeful through it all. One of its greatest accomplishments is its portrayal of a human-animal relationship as visceral and as powerful as that of Hiccup and Toothless. Through expressions, body language, actions, gestures, parallels and the language of visual storytelling, How to Train Your Dragon formed an intrinsic bond between the two characters that felt as real as any relationship you might care to name between two humans and conveyed in visual terms what dialogue never could. This conclusion to a trilogy that comes second only to Toy Story in the hierarchy of animated film trilogies (although let’s wait and see how no. 4 goes) closes on such a beautifully poignant and heartfelt note that no amount of minor flaws that I could point out can even come close to making me feel like the journey wasn’t worth it. The Hidden World is not a perfect film but it does contain the perfect ending and that is enough.

★★★★

Green Book

Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali, Linda Cardellini

Director: Peter Farrelly

Writers: Nick Vallelonga, Brian Hayes Currie, Peter Farrelly


In the grand scheme of things, Green Book isn’t that bad of a film. It’s well acted, the structure and direction are competent and it ably transmits an appealingly heartwarming and humorous tone that would make it a rather pleasurable watch if not for, well… the rest of the film. Even its outdated, grossly misinformed views on racism wouldn’t be so infuriating if the film hadn’t been as lauded as it was, the final insult being its Oscar victory. Comparisons were made with the 1990 ceremony where Driving Miss Daisy won the top prize while Do the Right Thing went largely ignored. The former offered audiences a heartwarming tale of racial reconciliation and assured them that the racism of the pre-Civil Rights era was a thing of the past. The latter was Spike Lee’s scorching treatise on how racism had continued to be a potent, destructive force in the world which bleakly concluded that there were no simple solutions to its divisive, institutional problems. Why the Academy, a body whose membership has historically been dominated by white, middle-aged men, were more receptive to the movie that offered the more comforting take is obvious. That this same body were so moved by this film’s presentation on racial harmony in a year that saw Black Panther and Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman as Best Picture contenders (funny how history repeats itself) shows that, in the last three decades, not a lot of time has gone by.

Directed by Peter Farrelly with a screenplay he co-wrote with Nick Vallelonga, the protagonist’s real-life son, Green Book is a film “inspired by a true friendship” between Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) and Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali). Tony (knows as Tony Lip to his friends because of how much he loves to run his mouth) is an Italian-American bouncer working at the Copacabana nightclub. In the twenty or so minutes before we meet his co-star, the film follows Tony around and teaches us a few things about him and his life. Tony, we learn, is pretty good at his job and can pack a punch when needed but that he’s also not above earning cash through less legitimate means and socialising with some of the local mob guys. He lives with his wife Dolores (Linda Cardellini) in their Bronx apartment and wakes up one morning to find that half his in-laws have dropped in to watch the game on their TV, just happening to be there at the same time as two coloured plumbers who have come round to fix the sink. Dolores offers each workman a glass of water, after which Tony decides that there’s nothing to be done with the used glasses except that they be thrown into the trash. Thus we’re treated to our first instance of casual racism from the film’s protagonist, a man who is apt to refer to blacks as “eggplants” when conversing in Italian with his friends.

By this point Tony’s club has shut down for renovations and the guy is in need of some steady work for the next few months. He learns that there’s some doctor in need of a driver and so we are introduced to Dr. Donald Shirley, the famed, black pianist. Dressed in his embroidered tunic and seated on an ornate throne amongst his African artefacts, it is immediately clear that he is an impressive, cultured and wealthy man living an upper-class life and presenting himself to the world as an exemplar of elegance. His speech is formal, his poise is graceful and his taste is refined. Don reveals to Tony that he is set to embark on an eight-week concert tour through the Deep South (this is in 1962 when Jim Crow laws were still in effect) and that he needs a driver/bodyguard to safeguard his passage. As well as driving his car and dealing with trouble, Don needs somebody who can take care of his itinerary, launder his clothes and shine his shoes. “I ain’t no butler” objects Tony in his fuhgeddaboudit Italian accent. Tony has no problem driving a black man around Kentucky, Georgia and South Carolina but, even when he needs the work, carrying the bags and shining the shoes of such a man is beneath him. Still, he accepts the job in the end and so off they go on what will prove to be a life-changing road trip for the both of them.

The film very much wants the friendship that develops between Tony and Don to be the heart of its story, which means that the mismatched duo need to enjoy a certain rapport through which they can find common ground and bond. Thus the film adopts a centrist standpoint whereby it treats the two parties as if the prejudice between them is equitable and that both of them have flaws that need to be overcome. Tony is racist (but luckily not as racist as those intolerant Southerners who won’t allow Don to try on a suit or dine in the venue hosting him) and he is also uncouth, vulgar and ignorant. The film therefore determines that Tony must be taught some manners by Don because it thinks the key to bettering him as a man is not to challenge his bigotry in ways that might turn the audience against him but to instead teach him to be less overt in his racism. Don meanwhile, as a black man who was classically trained as a pianist, has two honorary doctorates and is able to speak eight different languages fluently, is stuck-up, which is the film’s way of saying that he is too ‘white’. According to this film, Don has divorced himself from his cultural roots by being too accomplished and sophisticated and it is up to Tony to teach him about what the movie thinks black culture really is (i.e. Little Richard and fried chicken).

The premise of their journey together is that Tony and Don are supposed to clash over their differing values and backgrounds, sometimes in comical Odd Couple ways and sometimes in soberly dramatic ways, and their shared lessons and experiences lead them to develop a friendship founded on mutual respect. This is depicted almost entirely from Tony’s perspective because its his story that the film is interested in telling. We learn next to nothing about Don’s personal life excepted that he is estranged from his family (a claim that the real Don Shirley’s family have since disputed) and, when the film does follow him for any extended period of time, it’s to set up some kind of trouble that Tony needs to rescue him from. In order for this film to revel in its White Saviour complex, it has to turn Civil Rights activist Don Shirley into an idiot who somehow doesn’t understand the dangers of being a black man in the South despite hiring Tony for that very reason. He leaves his segregated hotel in order to get drunk at a bar and is accosted there by three white meatheads whom Tony deals with by threatening to shoot them with the gun he may or may not be packing. Even worse is the scene where the homosexual Don is caught having sex with a white man in public because a whole lifetime of being a closeted person of colour still hasn’t taught him to exercise greater restraint and caution when travelling in a part of the country where people like him have been lynched for less.

There are moments where it seems like Green Book might actually confront the contemporary realities of racism, including one where a cop pulls their car over. The officer demands to see Don’s licence even though it’s plain to see that he is the passenger and Tony’s protests are met with umbrage. Tony thus makes this bad situation worse by punching the cop and, despite clearly doing nothing wrong, Don gets arrested along with his hothead driver. This presents the film with a golden opportunity to delve into the issue of how the police discriminate against people of colour and their complicity in enforcing unjust laws, but that’s not what Green Book does. Instead the cop is revealed to be a bad apple who abused his authority beyond his legal duty to the displeasure of his precinct. This is because the film operates under the false assumption that racism is individual rather than institutional and is born more out of ignorance than it is from systemic injustice and imbalances in power. This is why Tony’s friendship with Don is presented as such a resounding victory for the both of them in the way that it is, because Green Book believes that the answer to racism is simply for black and white people to learn to understand each other and get along.

The movie’s culminating moment is when Don, frustrated with being treated as an outsider by both the white community he affably performs for and the black community that apparently doesn’t accept him, laments in the rain “If I’m not black enough and if I’m not white enough and if I’m not man enough, then tell me Tony, what am I?” This is the film’s ultimate declaration that both sides are really the problem and that the solution is the kind of middle ground neutrality that poses no threat to the status quo. It is one of the most patronising scenes in the film and Mahershala Ali, who very nearly sells it, deserves better. As does Don Shirley for that matter. The way that the film portrays Don as being isolated from his African-American heritage is not only false (this is a man who followed Martin Luther King Jr. to Selma and marched by his side), it’s also actively harmful to the very perception of black culture. The film suggests that black people have more in common with the racist Italian driver than they do with the college-educated musician because they could never see Dr. Shirley as someone to be admired, someone the black community could be proud of for his accomplishments and someone they could aspire to be like. The idea that Shirley was an outcast trying to make himself more amenable to the white community by performing for their richest patrons is frankly insulting to his role, along with the likes of Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke and Little Richard, in building the bridge that allowed other black artists to find success.

Green Book is a film that, whether through design or otherwise, appeals itself to white liberals and conservatives who want to feel ‘woke’ without being made to confront any prejudices they might hold or question any privileges they might benefit from. It presents this historically false narrative of how racial harmony overcame the inequalities and injustices of the past to create the enlightened future we live in today, an idea that can only possibly ring true if you think of housing discrimination, inadequate education, inequitable employment, mass incarceration, and endemic police shootings as ‘enlightened’. It does so through a quaint, comforting lens that assures its viewers of their own amiability. I’ll admit that the film can be pretty funny if you’re wont to find its brand of humour to your taste (I recall one gentleman in the same row as me who was so amused by the fried chicken scene that he applauded). The film was after all directed by a filmmaker who specialises in comedies and he found that by leaning on Tony’s buffoonish antics and Don’s dry wittiness, he could make the film more upbeat and therefore more appealing to those in search of a light-hearted and uplifting feel-good film. While I don’t begrudge anybody for wanting to watch that kind of film, what Green Book offers is the same old regressive, outdated fantasy about a serious, infinitely complex problem that continues to plague the world today and nothing about that is reassuring to me.

★★

Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Cast: Melissa McCarthy, Richard E. Grant

Director: Marielle Heller

Writers: Nicole Holofcener, Jeff Whitty


It’s no easy feat to make a film about ageing, loneliness and self-loathing as funny and enjoyable as this but damned if Marielle Heller didn’t pull it off. Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a film that’s never short on laughs, especially in the hilariously bitter ways that Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) treats the world around her. It’s only when the film hits you with a moment of such tragic melancholy that you remember it’s not actually a comedy. Most of the time in films loneliness is the image of a sole figure in an open, empty space gazing into the distance while some gloomy music plays. The image of loneliness presented here is altogether more despondent; it’s like a parasite that’s latched onto you and burrowed itself so deeply that you’ve convinced yourself it’s an actual part of your physical body. It’s a tragic self-fulfilling prophecy whereby a miserably lonely figure such as this film’s depiction of Israel won’t make any meaningful effort to change their lives because they’ve convinced themselves that the loneliness is simply who they are. That the film is able to make that dejected feeling felt as viscerally as it is while still scoring laughs and leaving you feeling like you’ve just watched a feel-good movie is a testament to how superbly it balances itself on that delicately fine line between comedy and drama.

Based on the real Lee Israel’s memoir of the same name, Can You Ever Forgive Me? recounts her short-lived career as a literary forger. Once a bestselling author of biographies of such cultural icons as Tallulah Bankhead and Estée Lauder, we first meet Lee in 1991 when she hasn’t had a successful book in years. She has taken a proofreading job for which she is vastly overqualified (to the point that she can (and often will) do it drunk) just to pay the bills and has had to resort to impersonating Nora Ephron on the phone just so that her agent Marjorie (Jane Curtin) will take her calls. Her latest project about vaudeville comedienne Fanny Brice is failing to gain any traction with the publishers she used to work with and it is all too apparent that whatever pull her name had back in her more prolific days has long since dissipated. Her bitter and belligerent conduct has resulted in the burning of whatever bridges she once had to the publishing world and the hapless author has only grown more resentful over time. The depths to which Lee has fallen is made readily apparent when she is compelled to infiltrate the kind of fancy party she has always hated with the kinds of literary bigwigs she has always despised (including Tom Clancy) just to get a straight answer from someone. Thus, as likeable a protagonist as she is, it’s no great surprise to see that Lee lives in a run-down apartment alone with her cat.

While carrying out research for the book that nobody wants, Lee happens upon a small bunch of letters written by Brice. She swipes one of the notes to have it valued at her local bookshop and learns that the writings could earn her some pocket money but not much more. That is until she adds a saucy P.S. to one of the notes with her typewriter and finds that collectors are willing to pay far more for its witty, scandalous content. Realising that she may have tapped into something potentially huge, Lee proceeds to compose forgeries in the likeness of such icons as Noël Coward and Dorothy Parker. Her new venture becomes so lucrative and successful that she enlists the drunken, out-of-work actor Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant) to peddle the texts to several different bookshops and collectors in order to avoid rousing any suspicion. What ends up surprising Lee the most about this whole scam, more than its profitability, is how good she is at capturing the voices of some of the greatest wits and minds of the 20th century and how ravenously hungry people are for something that she herself has written after so many years of obscurity and irrelevancy. “I’m a better Dorothy Parker than Dorothy Parker,” she announces with pride.

This film finally gives McCarthy a chance to flex her dramatic acting muscles and the result is the performance of her career thus far. Her comedy instincts might have tempted her to overplay the character by exaggerating her aggressiveness or hamming up the drunkenness, but that would have been a mistake. Instead her focus is on the human being behind the cursing and booze, one who feels inconsolably estranged and abandoned by the world. She has alienated all those who once loved and respected her and has been left behind by her community and peers due to this fundamental inability to connect with others and adapt to change. One of the more poignant moments in the film is when the romantic bond Lee as formed with local bookshop owner Anna (Dolly Wells) comes to a head as the self-destructive author, convinced of her worthlessness, is ultimately unable to accept the affection that she so desperately craves. This is the kind of role that could easily have been a typical loser-turned-criminal but the depth McCarthy brings instead allows the audience to appreciate Lee as a profoundly broken human being, one consumed and trapped by the loneliness that drives her to act out in such harmful ways. That we empathise with this antagonistic fraudster and find her as funny and sympathetic as we do is as much due to McCarthy’s talents as it is Holofcener and Whitty’s writing.

One of the great pleasures of the film is watching Lee interact with Jack, the only person she knows more wretched than herself and thus the only one willing to put up with her. The casting of Grant invites us to view the character as an older Withnail, still addicted to booze and cigarettes and still putting on an elaborate performance as the character of himself, but there’s a little more going on here. He is homeless and HIV positive and, like Lee, he has been similarly exiled by the New York literary scene. In addition to this Jack is a gay man who, like many other gay men in 1991, feels like has had been abandoned by the world at large and left behind to die. It is a begrudging friendship that they form and seldom do they have anything nice to say about one another but over time it becomes clear to them both that the reason they keep meeting in the same bar at the same time is because neither has anywhere else to go or anybody else who will drink with them. That Jack is so full of glee and bravado (a mask for his anxieties of course) while Lee is grumpy and vicious allows for same great contrast between the two which make their back-and-forths amongst the most delightfully funny moments. Like many things in this film it is both sweet and sad to watch these two nasty characters realise, even after all the insults they trade, all the harms they inflict and all the trouble the con gets them into, not only how much they actually like each other but also how desperately they need each other.

What impresses the most about Can You Ever Forgive Me? is how seamlessly it captures its comically dramatic (or dramatically comical) tone. This is a film that could have easily been either too miserable to be enjoyable or too humorous to be taken seriously. Instead Heller manages to make it land in that perfect middle ground where The Apartment, Harold and Maude and Withnail & I live, all of them films that will make you laugh until you realise how tragic the characters are but then still somehow keep you laughing anyway. The premise about how Lee fools the world with her fabricated letters might lead you to believe that her story will work out something like The Producers, but this film is not a comedy (or at least it’s not that kind of comedy). Some of the circumstances are amusing and Lee is herself a funny character, but when the whole plot inevitably unravels and the truth comes out, it’s not a pay off, it’s a disaster. At the same time, however, it comes with a silver lining, a small but meaningful victory for Lee that nobody can take away. The film ends on a humble but touching note while still maintaining its sense of humour and every second that came before was a pleasure to watch.

★★★★★