As I’m still slowly moving through my 2018 to-see list (only 23 more to go!), here’s the latest crop, a much better batch in terms of quality than last time. I think my favorite of this group was probably A Star is Born, but that hardly needs a plug, does it? Minding the Gap is a very close second and will place highly on my top ten, I’m sure. Everyone should see this documentary. It’s on Hulu- seek it out.
THREE IDENTICAL STRANGERS * * * (Dir. Tim Wardle)
Three Identical Strangers tells a remarkable true story that is constantly shifting gears, from comic human interest miracle to nefarious mystery to a moving and tragic tale of loss spurned by the unethical, inhumane deeds of long shadowed figures who got away with human scientific experiments. Director Tim Wardle keeps the story unfolding in a continuously entertaining fashion as more secrets are revealed and the tone of the film shifts yet again. It starts off telling us about triplets Edward, David, and Robert who were separated at birth in 1961, found each other by coincidence twenty years later, and keeps investigating as we, along with the filmmaker, journalists and subjects, try to piece together the puzzle of the illusive circumstances surrounding the triplets’ adoptions and separation. A wider conspiracy is at play, exposing the consequences to perhaps dozens of lives, many of which to this day remain hidden in the sealed records of a still buried scientific study. The investigation is intriguing at every turn, but ends up raising more questions than answers as Wardle is barred from discovering the real truth behind this decades long mystery. In spite of the lack of conclusions, the film is made with empathy for all the victims involved and will leave you contemplating the mysterious and heartrending nature of these events long after it’s over.
SORRY TO BOTHER YOU * * * (Dir. Boots Riley)
Rapper and activist Boots Riley has a lot on his mind, and with his feature film debut he gives it to us in a wild, satirical, unexpected yarn worthy of Charlie Kaufman, but with pointed jabs at current society that are unmistakeable. Lakeith Stanfield stars as Cassius “Cash” Green, an Oakland resident who lives with his uncle, drives a broken down bug and just needs a job that pays the bills. He finds one in telemarketing and discovers that he’s quite a natural when he affects a “white accent” (the voice of the very white David Cross) to make sales and soon skyrockets up the corporate ladder, where some surreal, unpredictable events lie in wait. This is a movie that’s difficult to describe, filled as it is with visual gags, absurdist humor and pointed commentary on the nature of exploitation of the working class, both racial and economic, for the entertainment, profit and benefit of the one percent. You never quite know where this is going, as it starts out only subtly offbeat, but eventually takes turns that lead us down a darker and more fantastical path. Even with the twists you don’t see coming, the humanity of the characters is preserved, especially in the focus on the relationship between Cash and his girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson), but the unpolished, amateur directing style of Riley hinders the cleverness of the script somewhat. Still, the zany nature of this unique film is like nothing else you’ll see this year (or most years) and for that it’s worth experiencing.
MINDING THE GAP * * * 1/2 (Dir. Bing Liu)
A deeply thoughtful, compassionate and introspective debut film from Bing Liu, who spent his childhood and teen years filming himself and his friends, and then wove the footage together to create an extraordinarily empathetic portrait of young adult life in a blue collar city, and the effects that the cycle of poverty and abuse can inflict on the next generation. Bing and his friends Zack and Keire grew up in Rockford, Illinois. They all come from broken homes, all dropped out of high school, and all loved skateboarding as a way to escape the hardships of every day life in this seemingly desolate, dead end wasteland. Similarities don’t end there as we spend time getting to know each of them, and discover the lifelong patterns of domestic violence inflicted on them and their mothers by their fathers and stepfathers, and how that tragic cycle may be repeating itself in some of their own tendencies. Liu knows his friends well and tries to bring each of them out with on camera confessionals, weaving together recurring themes of race, class and abuse of women that are seemingly inescapable in this slice of middle American life, demonstrating the prevalence of these issues at the heart of society and in the country as a whole. At less than 90 minutes, every bit of Minding the Gap is an encapsulation of what eats at the souls of struggling young men in America, reminding us of the potential in all corners of the world that can so easily fall through the cracks, as hopelessness turns to despair and anguish. A must-see.
COLETTE * * * (Dir. Wash Wastmoreland)
Fun. Sexy. Breezy. These are words that don’t often describe period piece biopics, and yet Wash Wastmoreland’s Colette is exactly that- a light, frothy concoction of a movie that feels so airy it almost drifts away on its own weightlessness, and if not for the spirited performances of its stars, might do exactly that. Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, one of the most famous French writers of all time, was a bisexual icon and celebrity of her day. This biopic covers a period of her life when she was married to her first husband Willy Gauthier-Villars, a pompous, self-indulgent man who ran a publishing house and took credit for the novels his wife wrote, novels which turned them both into the talk of Parisian society in the era of the Belle Epoque. Keira Knightley, the queen of the period piece, embodies Colette as her latest historical heroine, taking her from ages 19 to 34, when she was whisked away from the French countryside by Willy (rousingly played by the charismatic Dominic West) and blossomed as a socialite, writer and actress in turn of the century Paris. Never given credit for her bestselling Claudine books during her marriage, which were based on her own schoolgirl days, she eventually outgrew her piggish husband, coming into her own as an androgynous woman who wore men’s suits and demanded recognition. Colette and Willy’s marriage was unconventional for the time, as both openly pursued affairs with other partners (the chauvinist Willy accepts Colette’s infidelity as long as it’s with other women), and the movie’s focus on Colette and Willy misses an opportunity to further explore her relationship with the fascinating Missy (Denise Gough), an early transgender man who wore his identity out in the open. This feels like it could have been its own story, yet the movie stays built around Willy long after Colette has outgrown him, depriving us of a chance to see her in the bloom of her independence. Willy’s juvenile, fun-loving, chauvinist nature at times comes across as helplessly appealing in spite of it all. You can see what Colette saw in him, yet also how it was necessary for her to break free. Knightley and West have sparkling chemistry and shine together in a film that feels contemporary in the issues it confronts, yet lighthearted in its enjoyment of sexual liberation and female empowerment. Still, the Missy and Colette movie would make for an intriguing postscript to this chapter.
VENOM * * (Dir. Ruben Fleischer)
Sony has had a rough time with its superhero slate. The studio that owned the rights to Spider-Man lent him out to Marvel so that it could make a successful go of it with the character, leaving them with the rights to the rest of the Spider-Man universe, so of course they attempted to do something with Venom, one of the most popular antiheroes in the canon. But what they made was a weak, generic superhero origin story with one thing going for it, and that’s Tom Hardy’s utter commitment to the character. Giving a live wire, Nic Cage-esque performance as Eddie Brock possessed by the Venom symbiote, his bizarre, physical commitment to doing something weird with this formulaic script kinda carries the movie through its mercifully short running time, even if it doesn’t save it altogether. After a long, meandering setup establishing Brock as a failed journalist and loser, the symbiote finally attaches itself to him, allowing Hardy to go for it with the histrionics, leading to some unintentionally (and intentionally) funny bits as Venom (also Hardy, with a digitally altered voice) and Eddie trade barbs and battle for inhabitance of his body. This is a bizarre movie, with no memorable characters, an uninteresting plot, random action scenes, and a dull love interest in Michelle Williams, but it also doesn’t take itself that seriously (Hardy’s nuttiness pretty much prevents that from happening), so in the end it all pretty much comes to naught.
A STAR IS BORN * * * 1/2 (Dir. Bradley Cooper)
One of the oldest Hollywood stories in and about showbiz, A Star is Born is a tale that has been told onscreen three times before- the first was the 1937 drama with Fredric March and Janet Gaynor, the second 1954’s Judy Garland/James Mason musical version (probably the most famous) and the last was the 1976 Barbra Streisand/Kris Kristofferson telling (that of ‘Evergreen’ fame). By now the tale is nearly as old as the movies themselves, and yet the timeless nature of it makes for a smooth, classic retelling for yet another generation, this time in the form of Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut, a transition he makes seamlessly. Acting in the movie as the veteran star (this time a country rock singer in the vein of the Kristofferson role) who discovers the talent at a drag bar, his Jackson Maine finds Ally (one Lady Gaga), they fall in love, and she rises as he falls, following the well-trodden notes of the story. Still, there’s a warm comfort to this familiar melodrama, akin to meeting up with an old friend, especially when told as gracefully as Cooper manages it, staging the concert scenes in spectacular, exciting form (he does his own singing!), as Gaga takes over with her powerhouse performing talent. The music is all original and fantastic, especially the show stopping duet “Shallow,” (the future Oscar winner for Best Song). Gaga reveals a natural ability in front of the camera (and onstage of course), but Cooper really shines as the alcoholic Jackson, this time around given at least a stint in rehab and a moving relationship with an older brother (Sam Elliott) to give the character more depth than he’s ever had before. The chemistry between Cooper and Gaga is real, sweet, and authentic, with the ensemble cast (see if you can recognize Andrew Dice Clay) giving solid turns in support of the leads, who carry the movie through to its inevitable, tearjerking ending. It’s hard to make any movie that recalls the classic beats of an old Hollywood melodrama, let alone one that’s been told three times before, yet Cooper’s assured, confident and romantic ability behind and in front of the camera, paired with Gaga’s original music and performing talent makes for a gloriously heartwarming triumph of old-fashioned entertainment.