Just Mercy 2019 ****

191222-just-mercy-cs-1002a_80958dba34116cd8265ee4fe3e5280b4.fit-760w

The American Academy acted to ensure that race and gender bias would not be an on-going issue; the lack of recognition for Destin Daniel Creton’s Just Mercy in terms of coveted Oscar nominations suggest they will have to go further.  This is a compelling drama about wrongful accusation, race and capital punishment that should be a good bet for recognition. The shunning of this, and of Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us in tv/streaming awards, suggests that Just Mercy will have to settle for satisfying its own audience. It sets a bad example for the US academy to view and then not recognise strong work due to the race or gender of the film-makers; there’s considerable evidence that this happened in 2019/2020.

Michael B Jordan doesn’t have much to go on as lawyer Bryan Stevenson, but the actor’s charisma and personable approach take him a long way. He’s strip-searched on his way to Death Row, where he interviews a number of potential clients, notably Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx). The temporary loss of Steven’s dignity is nothing compared to McMillian’s long terms incarceration for a crime that doesn’t have any existing evidence for. Stevenson makes contact with a number of Death Row inmates, the execution of one of whom forms a key moment here. But with the improbably glamorous Eva (Brie Larson) shuffling the papers, it’s an aspirational fight for justice that keeps dignity until a swirl of celestial choirs overwhelm the final scenes.

Miscarriages of justice make for compelling cinema, and Just Mercy gains from being based on Stevenson’s book about the real-life case. There are touches of worldly humor; when Stevenson finds cassettes relating to a false confession and asks for permission to copy them, the black woman manning the evidence desk shrugs and says ‘They ain’t paying me enough to stop you.’ Such interludes are welcome, because Just Mercy feels a little sanctimonious at times; it feels like McMillian’s cynical voice is too often left off-screen.

Such nit-picking aside, Just Mercy has a strong relevance to the black experience of America in 2020. ‘I’m just trying to help,’ says Stevenson, and the thrust of the film is that black communities will have to help themselves, because no-one else will be willing to right the wrong perpetrated against them. That’s a truth worth articulating, whether white-dominated awards bodies recognise it or not.

Due Date *** 2010

Due-Date-1-758x494

The brief furore over Todd Phillips’ Joker provides a reasonable opportunity to look back on the other work of this unheralded auteur; before winning the Golden Lion of Venice, Phillips has been a prolific purveyor of low-brow comedies like the Hangover trilogy, tv reboot Starsky and Hutch, or teen comedy Road Trip. There have been attempts to lift his game as writer and director; War Dogs wasn’t bad at all, and this vehicle for Zack Galifinakis and Robert Downey Jr rehashes Planes, Trains and Automobiles and many odd-couple comedies to mildly entertaining effect.

Peter Highman (Downey Jr) is a tightly wound exec who gets knocked out of his rut when he meets Ethan Tremblay (Galifanakis) an aspiring actor who accidentally puts the two men on a no-fly blacklist after some on-board shenanigans involving lost luggage. Despite having little in common, the two men decide to drive from Atlanta to LA, with Tremblay’s dog in tow, and encountering Juliette Lewis, Jamie Foxx, Danny McBride and a few other notables along the way.

Due Date’s odd-couple comedy is pretty tired, and the tropes, which include various indignities for the ashes of Tremblay’s father, have been done to death. And yet Galifinakis does a great job of making Ethan a three-dimensional threat to his new friend, and even when the action gets quite silly during an extended Mexican border car-chase, the relationship stays grounded. Downey Jr is, despite his lengthy exposure as an A list star, still somewhat unfamiliar in such a low-key context, and he tests the unlikable edges of a self-absorbed character.

Critics may carp that Phillips is not a major director with something important to say, but there’s merit in making comedies, as there can be profundity in the tears of the clown. Joker aside, Phillips has been involved with a lot of big films; for those who didn’t take him seriously, who’s laughing now?

Robin Hood 2018 ***

ROBIN-HOOD

The so-bad-it’s –good file is already groaning, but there’s always room for a project as fatally misbegotten as Robin Hood. As always, it takes a number of simultaneous failures to create a truly awful film. First up; Taron Edgerton, who gained some kind of fame as the yob made good Eggsy in the juvenile, misogynist Kingsmen films. Sure, he made a passable Elton John in Rocketman, but under those specs and outfits, there’s barely a performance to see, and he’s physically nothing like John at all and makes no effort to emulate him. Throw in a phoning it in Jamie Foxx as Little John, plus Ben Mendelsohn hamming it up in his umpteenth villain role in a row, and you have an uninspired cast in a reboot that no-one asked for. Robin leaves home for the Crusades, or at least some kind of archery inspired Call of Duty video game, and returns to seek his rightful place against the usurping sheriff (Mendelsohn). Whatever the high-concept was doesn’t land, leaving a stew of CGI fights, woeful set-pieces and laughable world building. Otto Bathhurst’s period romp went straight down the tubes on release, and a cheap streaming option (99p over in the UK right now, which is about 98p too much) gives us bad movie gannets the chance to see exactly why in this roaring dumpster fire. What a decent comic like Tim Minchin is doing in here, only his agent knows.