Green Book 2018 ***

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Why don’t the Academy Awards reflect my own personal politics and prejudices? That seemed to be the main argument against Peter Farrelly’s Green Book in the 2018 awards season, and winning Best Picture seemed to alienate many. But with voters split between Black Klansmen and Black Panther, it’s not surprising that there might be enough white and elderly voters to propel Green Book to the top of the pile. It’s an upgrade on Driving Miss Daisy, with Viggo Mortensen as chauffeur for Maharshala Ali, driving around the Southern states in the 1960’s and encountering racial prejudice that tests their friendship. While there are familiar elements of despised white saviour and magical Negro tropes in here. Green Book slyly dodges most of the expected lecturing and hones down on a more gentle conflict of characters between the two men. It might not be the most challenging, outspoken or creative in the awards-season crop, but it’s also an effective civics lesson that’s not really deserving of the levels of abuse it got.

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Holmes & Watson 2018 ***

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Some films seem destined to be whipping boys; like Bohemian Rhapsody, Holmes & Watson had Sasha Baron Cohen for a lead for a while, only to be reworked for the established duo of Will Ferrell and John C Reilly, from Step-Brothers and Talladega Nights. The public flocked to those films while shunning Etan Cohen’s take on Conan Doyle’s character, and yet it’s probably not that different a proposition. Ferrell plays Holmes as an idiot, Reilly even more so with Watson, and most of the jokes come from anachronisms, like a Make American Great Again hat, a Victorian gym with a 21st century ethos, or the blithe use of cocaine or heroin. Ferrell and Reilly go for it, and the supporting cast includes Ralph Fiennes, Hugh Laurie, Rebecca Hall, Steve Coogan and Rob Bryden. Comedy is so rare that Holmes & Watson’s old-school gags deserved a better reception; despite the critical obloquy, there’s plenty to amuse here.

Bumblebee 2018 ***

bumblebee-2018-001-hailee-steinfeld-bumblebeeHow about a film about a towering yellow robot learning to love The Smiths? That might sound great, but Bumblebee is also a Transformers movie, so you have to sit through a lot of rubbish about Autobots and Decepticons to get to the funny bits. This is the first modern Transformers movie without Michael Bay directing, and they’ve clearly rethought the running time (not three hours long!), the usual sexism, racism and massive dumps of exposition are missing (a female writer!), and the whole film is more of a throwback towards 80’s movies like ET or Mac and Me. Pop star Hailie Steinfeld is the lucky girl who buys a VW Beetle from a scrapyard only to find it has magical powers like Herbie. It’s an Autobot on the run from Decepticons, two muscle cars which also transform into huge robots. Wrestler John Cena leads the army forces trying to get in the way of the big robot battle. Bumblebee is a cute film, not as loud or bombastic as the other Transfomers movies, and actually kind of small and charming in comparison. 80’s music is slathered on, complete with pop-culture references to ALF, The Breakfast Club and somehow, The Smiths.

Brigsby Bear 2017 ****

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Seemingly a holiday project for various members of the Saturday Night Live team, Brigsby Bear is a touching comedy-drama about a nerd’s obsession with sci-fi. That’s a fairly universal phenomenon, but Brigsby Bear triples down on it by having James (Kyle Mooney) kidnapped from his parents and raised on nothing but the Brigsby Bear tv show, which is created especially for him by his father (Mark Hamill). When James is rescued, he misses the show of his formative years so much that he enlists the help of his fellow teenagers to direct a concluding episode and bring the cycle to a close. The casting of Hamill is a nod towards where Dave McCary’s film is going, and a comic highpoint is Greg Kinnear, whose initially sceptical cop ends up playing the Obi Wan Kenobi role in the fantasy saga. Cameos from Andy Samberg, Clare Danes and Beck Bennett help move things along, and Brigsby Bear manages to be uplifting while also offering a cautionary tale about the stories we consume and why they were constructed.

Bad Times at the El Royale 2018 ***

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Writer and director Drew Goddard offers up an all-star, single-location thriller that looked like a Tarantino-lite knock-off from the trailer, but mines it’s own unique seam of neo-noir drama. A number of different parties converge on the remote and isolated El Royale Hotel, including suspicious priest Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges), Charles Manson-like serial killer Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth) and an assortment of others including John Hamm, Dakota Johnson and Cynthia Erivo. There’s buried treasure at stake, but the hotel itself, built over a state border and previously used for nefarious surveillance purposes, has a few secrets of its own. At nearly two and a half hours, Bad Times at the El Royale has a few longeurs, and there’s also some big revelations and genuine tension, particularly in the first half when motivations are still obscure. Goddard’s slow-burn tension doesn’t require any comparisons; he’s flying a flag for old-fashioned crime fiction, and approached in the right mind-set, the twists and turns of El Royale are well worth following

The Rise and Fall of Idi Amin 1981 ***

amin2018’s rather drab Entebbe casts minds back to fondly reminisce about mass –murderer Idi Amin, whose genocide made exploitation fodder for this lurid 1980 feature. Played by Alien star Yaphet Kotto, Amin is a mischievous, brutal presence, seen at one point casually opening a fridge to take a bite of human flesh cooling within. There’s no whitewash here, just the dramatization of tabloid headlines. And yet, a plotline about Amin’s relationship with a British journalist, arrested and imprisoned by Amin’s regime in defiance of the UK, feels authentic, not least because the character is played by the journalist in real life. Such a Paul Greengrass-style verisimilitude adds a certain vividness to the proceedings, but there’s also an admirable directness to the way Amin’s hubris and downfall are captured. Whether this happened or not, it’s compelling to watch a film so contemporaneous as a primary source.

 

Mile 22 2018 ****

MILE 22Mark Wahlberg is a kick-ass action hero, and working with director Peter Berg, he follows up on the true-stories of Lone Survivor, Deepwater Horizon and Patriots Day with a fictional account of secret-agent action that’s packed with action. After an explosive intro, the first section of the film establishes CIA operative James Silva (Wahlberg) as the go-to guy for solving tricky situations. That kind of problem comes in the form of asset Lee Noor (Iko Uwais from The Raid), who may or may not be a double-agent, but need extracted from a unnamed Asian city. From about forty minutes in, Mile 22 hits a high gear, quite literally delivering an all action scenario for the final hour as Silva and Noor tear up the streets, motorway and cafes against a seemingly endless supply of villains. The action is graphic, including drone strikes and a gruesome neck-slitting using the shattered glass of a car door. If you like explosions, tough-guy attitude and spy-driven mayhem, Mile 22 goes the extra mile to satisfy.