STAN & OLLIE *** Pleasant. Nothing more


THE BIG QUESTION that hovers over this well acted, efficiently directed movie is “why bother”?

It’s a charming tale about love and friendship; and (Stan) Laurel & (Olliver) Hardy are certainly part of comedy history. But there’s nothing here – that’s noteworthy or breakthrough or insightful – to really earn our engagement.

It’s Laurel & Hardy. The movie is big of heart, but that’s really not enough to answer that question

The movie is based on their last few years. At this point (mid nineteen fifties), the comic duo, who had their heyday just before the war, are playing to half empty music halls in England. Why? The suggestion is that a combination of (relatively) poor salaries, multiple alimonies and spendthrift ways have forced them to keep on performing, rerunning old routines to devoted if sparse English audiences. Almost as a sop to their egos, they fool themselves that they’re only in England as a stop-gap measure before filming a Robin Hood story.

But beyond the need for cash, the idea that runs through the movie is their need to keep performing as if somehow this would act as a brake on the flow of time. Ars longa, vita brevis and all that. Their ars will not be longa for long: comedy is evolving and new performers – Norman Winston, Abbot and Costello – are grabbing the headlines. But Stan and Ollie and their audiences seem to live in a bubble where nothing has changed, where time stands still; where only the ghosts of the past – performances, audiences, old grievances – still exist

Except of course time doesn’t stand still. Their bodies are aging. Ollie’s heart, like his knees is weakening. And behind the staged bonhomie, their friendship, still shaken from an event seventeen years before over a money issue (forcing Hardy to appear in a movie without Laurel) is fraying.

The tension between their obvious love for each other and their irritation with each other gives the story the feel of one long drawn out therapy session. Will they recover their lost mutual affection? Will Ollie’s heart and knees survive for one last hurrah?

Do we care?

Both actors – John C Reilly as Hardy and Steve Coogan (Philomena) as Laurel – are superb. Coogan in particular (who fortunately didn’t have the handicap of playing in a fat suit and under tons of prosthetics) channels Stan Laurel stunningly well. Director Jon S. Baird (Filth) manages to avoid schmaltz and conjure up the kind of childlike silliness of their routines with great affection. Perhaps there’s a meta fiction at work here: a nostalgic evocation of a lost time…a fond remembrance of things past in a world less divided.

The idea is as silly as their routines…a piece of froth to enjoy for ninety minutes before getting back to movies that matter

 

STAN and OLLIE. Dir: Jon S Baird. Writer: Jeff Pope (Philomena). With: John C. Reilly, Steve Coogan, Shirley Henderson (Happy Valley), Nina Arianda (Goliath), Rufus Jones (W1A and the voice of Thomas the Tank Engine). Composer: Rolfe Kent (Downsizing). Cinematographer: Laurie Rose (Journeyman)

 

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Colette**** Another Star is Born


ABOVE AND BEYOND its compelling story, there are two great reasons to see this engagingly enjoyable film: a fearless Keira Knightley as the eponymous Colette, who convincingly morphs from ingénue country bumpkin to self-possessed cultural icon. And Dominic West (The Affair) in a barnstorming Oscar-worthy role as her charismatic, bullying, unfaithful, attractive, eloquent, selfish bastard of a husband and mentor and putative lord and master.

They are a dynamite couple; probably one of the most memorable movie couples in many years.

The story is based on the real story of an extraordinary woman: Sidonier-Gabrielle Colette. She was married at a tender age to this much older man, Henri Gauthier-Villars (West) who then whisked her away from the safety of her country home…from her childhood and her past…to sophisticated, decadent Paris. Henri is a Svengali type creative producer with a stable of writers working for him on books, plays etc. under his brand name, Willy. He’s a larger than life salon celebrity whose excesses have bankrupted him.

It is the written reminiscences of his young wife, daydreaming of a past she knew and loved, that come to the rescue. Colette’s early drafts of her youthful daydreams he finds charming but naïve. Henri’s genius lies in the way he reshapes, edits and redirects her writing (to the point of locking her in her room until she’s written enough). The result is the wildly popular best-selling Claudine, a fictional creation based so closely on reality that Gauthier-Villars’ controlling hand even threatens to neutralize the real Colette by the imagined creation.

For a while, Colette is content to be a mere extension of his brand…to live the lies of his serial infidelities and of the carefully curated narrative that a 45 year old Parisian man could have the nous to convincingly write from the perspective of an 18 year old girl. It is a toxic co-dependency.

But truth will out. And soon enough, her dual, interwoven demands for a relationship based on honesty and the need to assert her own identity, to stop playing the part of the adoring wife, raise their head. She demands recognition of her authorship. It’s a demand to be recognized as an individual, to have her stories based on her memories be credited to her. This is paralleled by her need to understand, explore and consummate her own (passionate) sexual identity. (which she does initially with the frustrated American wife – Eleanor Tomlinson from Poldark – of an aging millionaire).

In order to be herself, to be true to herself, she must free herself from Henri, from the constraints of her society, even from Claudine, her creation and alter ego.

And this is what Colette is all about: the idea that we’re socialized into acceptable roles – as mother, wife, heterosexual – that we feel obliged to act out and live up to. But to be true to ourselves (and those around us), we need to be brave enough to free ourselves, no matter the consequences.

It is only once Colette has freed herself from Henri and the world around him that she can allow herself to fall in love (again) on her terms; this time with a cross-dressed woman (Denise Gough) Finally, liberated to be herself, she becomes the author of her own story…beholden to no man, to no narrative of lies.

One notable element of the movie is the brilliance of Andrea Flesch’s costume designs. Like The Favourite, much is made of the clothes people are wearing. At the very beginning, when the young Colette leaves her parent’s cottage to fetch some fruit for her mom, the mom (Fiona Shaw) insists that she change her dress. It’s a simple, ‘girlie’ country frock that she’ll soon shed in the barn where Henri, even then her lover, awaits her. Later in Paris, as a signifier of his ‘ownership’, Henri dresses her to his pleasure, which even includes dressing her as a schoolgirl (as a route to his, increasingly difficult, stimulation). Her emergence as an individual is shown as she changes her sophisticated, if generic, Parisian couture, first to a very stylish fin de siècle modernism and then to a man’s clothes which at the end is dramatically ripped to reveal her breast…the naked truth. She has finally become herself by leaving behind the trappings of how heterosexual society expects her to dress. In a sense her clothes – that proclaim her homosexuality- become true to her.

The movie was directed by Wash Westmoreland who with, now deceased, writer Richard Glatzer (to whom the movie is dedicated) gave us the brilliant Still Alice. It’s one of those really well written movies, cleverly masking very thoughtful explorations of identity and truth with the semblance of ‘everyday’ dialogue.

And it is by far one of the best performances by Knightley

 

COLETTE. Dir/Writer: Wash Westmoreland. Screenplay: Richard Glatzer. With: Keira Knightley, Fiona Shaw, Dominic West, Denise Gough. Composer: Thomas Adés. Production Designer: Michael Carlin (The Two Faces of January). Costume Designer: Andrea Flesch

 

 

 

 

THE FAVOURITE***** A Definite Favourite


Finally. What a year this has been for women in the cinema, in movies bad and good, we’ve engaged with Women as women, not appendages. They were strong. In charge. Un-beholden to the men, wherever they were (lost somewhere flexing faux superhero muscles). Powerful. Clever. Sexy. The list goes on. They weren’t the supporting cast, the doting eye candy. These were movies, often written by women, and directed by them, about fundamental issues of power, identity, Independence etc with women at the centre.

And they made money.

Here’s a list of movie feminism circa 2018: Frances McDormand (Three Billboards Outside…), Saoirse Ronan (as Ladybird and Mary Queen of Scots), Margot Robbie (I, Tonya and Mary, Queen of Scots), Natalie Portman and Jennifer Jason Leigh (Annihilation), Gabrielle Union (Breaking In), Sandra Bullock (Oceans Eight, Bird Box), Julia Roberts (Homecoming), Sacha Parkinson (Apostasy), Emma Thompson (The Children Act), Glenn Close (The Wife), Viola Davis (Widows), Carey Mulligan (Wildlife), Rachel McAdams and Rachel Weisz (Disobedience), Rachel Weisz, again, with Emma Stone and Olivia Coleman (The Favourite), Keira Knightly (Collette), Emily Blunt (Mary Poppins), Yalitza Aparazio (Roma). Even Captain Marvel’s gender has be reassigned.

But I digress.

The Favourite is a delicious, wildly entertaining, hugely satisfying Court romp about power, politics and (devious) ways of persuasion. The story centres on the toxic ménage a trois of Queen Anne (Olivia Coleman), who ruled Britain between 1702 – 1714, her confidant, Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz) – yes, that Churchill- wife of Lord Marlborough, the Queen’s Captain-General and Sarah’s cousin, Abigail (Emma Stone), a disgraced ingenue from the country, with an eye for advancement.

It’s a tale of sex, seduction, cross-dressing, deceit and intrigue.

And it all begins when Abigail is unceremoniously dumped in the mud outside the Queen’s palace. She has come in the hope that cousin Sarah can find her a place in the palace. This cousin Sarah reluctantly does. She’s given the post of scullery maid, beholden to an abusive kitchen hand, one notch above her in the pecking order. Abigail becomes, albeit briefly, the defenceless victim to the exercise of -abusive- power at its most basic.

She’s an attractive young thing, and pretty soon catches the eye of one of the lords of the court. When he barges into her chamber one night, she questions whether he’s there to seduce her or rape her. He answers that he’s a gentleman. So, it’s rape then, she replies.

Thus does director lay out the idea that drives his story: the symbiotic knit of sex and power…the power of position and status to demand sex and the power of sex to achieve position and -favoured- status. At one point in the story, we find ourselves in a bordello. It’s a brilliant, if not too subtle expression of the transactional nature of sex. Open your legs and here’s your reward : a job, an army, a sinecure, a better room, a palace, a position of authority forever.

In other words, the present British aristocracy

At the head of the pecking order is of course the Queen, who, when we meet her, is a depressed, infantilised, petulant woman whose seventeen pregnancies have all failed to bear fruit. She keeps rabbits, one for each departed child. And she is entirely dependent for any emotional succour on Sarah, her counsel, puppet master and lover. Sarah is the cunning conduit between the Prime Minister and the Queen.

England is in a state of war; life and death decisions of the most far-reaching consequence are made through the whispers in dark corridors and silk bed sheets.

Abigail’s arrival quickly upsets this status quo. Her farmer’s know-how about herbs and natural poultices soon endears her to the gout ridden queen (Oh England, thou art sick). And having conveniently fallen asleep on the Royal bed, her lithe naked body quickly endears her to the Queen even more. And thus begins the duel for power between the dark, older Sarah and the fair, younger Abigail. Each is aligned with opposing political power bases: Tory v Whig; hawk v dove. One moment you’re in favour; the next you’re not.

Whisper, whisper.

Yorgos Lanthimos’ directing, along with his wonderful production and Costume designers, Fiona Crombie and Sandie Powell, present us with an absurdist, vulgar, grotesque world. It is as grotesque as the idea of divine, God given, Royal power. It is a world of effete men in their effeminate wigs and powdered, pomaded faces and crack shot women dressed like buccaneers.

The actions unfold on two stages: an indoor stage of dark tapestries and hidden corridors that barely obscure the serial seductions and stealth within; and an outdoors world of violence…birds are slaughtered, a woman is thrown from her horse and pulled for miles, another is chased like prey by her hunter lover.

Indoors or out, you’re either the hunter with power of the hunted without. In this world, there are only winners and losers.

The three principals in this fine romp are outstanding. Olivia Coleman probably had the hardest job: her richly complex character – self indulgent, self pitying, clueless, abusive – still manages to win the audience’s favouritism when we finally realise what she must clearly have know all along, and which we see in her eyes in the closing shot: that she’s being played. Rachel Weisz’ Lady Sarah is steely and cunning, but with an honesty and genuine love for her Queen that is at times almost touching. Not so Emma Stone’s Abigail. We feel for her as she’s knocked about by men and punished by Lady Sarah. We’re seduced by her fearlessness and spunk (and impeccable English accent). And in the end we’re disgusted by her heartlessness. Stone’s brilliance is that she always allows us behind the mask to the nastiness within.

This is of course an “historical drama”. But as if to ensure that viewers don’t relegate it to ‘an event that took place in the past’, the semiotics of the film – the racy dialogue, the (break) dancing, the exaggerated foppiness of the clothes, and even the focus of the story (where the men are largely bystanders) – demand that we view the morale of this tale through the lens of our present winter of discontent.

It’s almost as though Yorgos Lanthimos is suggesting that three hundred years after her death, the nobility who rule are vainglorious fops, and the policies of their government are still shaped by favouritism, cunning whispers, and self seeking power brokers.

Madness

 

THE FAVOURITE. Dir: Yorgos Lanthimos (The Lobster), Writers: Deborah Davis, Tony McNamara. With: Olivia Coleman, Emma Stone. Rachel Weisz, Nicholas Hoult. Cinematographer: Robbie Ryan (I, Daniel Blake). Production Designer: Fiona Crombie (Macbeth). Costume Designer: Sandy Powell (Cindarella)

 

 

MY VERY PERSONAL TOP TEN FOR 2018


PERHAPS THE REAL threat from Netflix and HBO have raised the standards of quality cinema this year. Whatever, it’s been a pretty good year with a number of fabulous movies. And not even the so-called “high brow” ones; there have been multiple other “low brow” offerings, such as Incredibles II, Soldado 2, even Mama Mia, Here We Go Again, which were immensely enjoyable.

Here’s my list of the ones that knocked my socks off (and an apology to the timing of them; we here in highbrow cultural England only get the December pre-Oscar American releases until sometimes March. So there are a few movies here that were released last year; just not over here)

  1. DISOBEDIENCE

What it’s about:

An affair between (Rachel McAdams) the wife of an orthodox rabbi and her exiled lover (Rachel Weisz) is reignited. It’s a richly philosophical look at the meaning of free will in a community which demands obeisance to strict laws and protocols. Was strict obedience what God wanted, the story asks? Free will, the power to choose to obey or not, the story suggests, is a fundamental part of who we are. But freedom does not equate with happiness. Freedom is a burden. It is easier simply give in to the communal will. Mindlessly. Superb writing from director Sebastian Leilo and Rebecca Lenkiewicz. With the two female actors giving their all.

  1. BLACKKKLANSMAN

What it’s about:

The story centers on the (real life) undercover penetration of the KKK by a black police officer (John David Washington) whose voice and ‘beliefs’ sound convincingly White (and racist). He insinuated himself into the Klan with Adam Driver as his doppelgänger who pretends to be the voice on the phone. The story is strategically set in the late sixties, the mid point between Emancipation and today…presented as a sort of seeding ground of today’s mainstream MAGA racism.

Spike Lee at his funny, vituperative, unaccommodating best

  1. APOSTASY

What it’s about:

The story questions the ludicrousness of religious dogma. It focuses on a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses in England. The oldest daughter (Sacha Parkinson), pregnant and rebelling at what she sees as the meaningless ideology of the “Witnesses”, is the ‘disfellowshipped’ apostate. The youngest, (Molly Wright) is in dire need of blood transfusions and is dying as a result of their ideology. Director Daniel Kokotajillo lets the story and the characters gently do the “talking” without undue added drama…making it all the more compellingly told

  1. SHOPLIFTERS

What it’s about:

This Japanese movie is a gentle and heartfelt exploration of the meaning of “family”. It focuses on a misfit cluster of individuals who manage to live together with all the joys and affection of any loving family. Except that they’re dirt poor, generally unrelated to each other and led by ‘dad’ who’s a shoplifter, a skill he generously passes on to his ‘children’. Director/writer Hirokazu Koreeda draws out the contrasts between this unconventional family with that of a more conventional, socially accepted but loveless one, given over, to selfishness and greed.

  1. LADYBIRD

What it’s about:

It’s an intimate, honest, carefully observed story about that moment when the child (Ladybird is the name she gives herself) emerges, fighting and kicking, as an individual…no longer just an expression of a parent. Ladybird desperately wants to be a distinct, unique being; one free from the nagging dictates of her mom, for whom “love” and “control” are inextricably linked.
Oscar nominee Saoirse (pronounced Shear-sea) Ronan (“Brooklyn”) and (mom) Laurie Metcalf are just tremendous. There’s not an ‘acterly’ gesture between the two of them. Director/writer Greta Gerwig, continues to shine

  1. AMERICAN ANIMALS

What it’s about:

Director/writer British BAFTA winner Bart Layton structures this brilliant narrative about truth, memory, identity and time by interspersing the drama of the action with interviews with the real persons involved, ten years after the event. It’s equal parts farce and tragedy. The event in question is that of a dumb robbery gone awry: four naive college students (Evan Peters, Blake Jenner, Barry Keoghan and Jared Abrahamson) decide to steal a number of rare books . To them it seems like a dashing caper…a romantic idea of self-transformation. The sad reality of their cummupance awaits.

  1. A STAR IS BORN

What it’s about:

It’s an absolutely brilliant remake of the earlier iterations of this classic tale of a selfless mentorship that morphs into love and that eventually sours with age and disappointments. As his star (and hearing and self respect) falls, hers rises. The pupil has overtaken the teacher. At its heart, the story’s a thoughtful examination of the delicate balance between artistic authenticity and commercial image making. Both director/writer/singer Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga – the lovers – are compellingly good. Director Cooper managers to immerse viewers into the sweaty heart-throbbing energy of a rock concert like no one’s done before. The first fifteen minutes of this movie alone are worth the price of admission

  1. WILDLIFE

What it’s about:

Paul Dano’s meticulously crafted tale of the archetypal nuclear family crumbling before our eyes. Dano’s world shines a light on that part of America that has somehow been left out of the upwardly mobile post-war boom (I guess nowadays these would largely be Trump’s people). These are the ones fighting their own internal wildfires and learning how best, like threatened animals, to adapt or die; and perhaps not knowing the difference between the two. It’s a nuanced, intellectually rich story, co written by Dano’s accomplished partner, Zoe Kazan. Jake Gyllenhaal, subtle and outstanding as always co-stars with Carrie Mulligan – an extraordinary actor who can manage to convey every possible human emotion without a word

  1. PHANTOM THREAD

What it’s about:

DANIEL DAY LEWIS is compellingly watchable as a famous 50’s fashion designer in Paul Thomas Anderson’s fabulous, multilayered story about the symbiotic relationship between creativity and (almost OCD-like) control. Day Lewis’ character is the fussy, fastidious, controlling perfectionist whose need for absolute control over everything comes unstuck when he falls for a humble waitress (Vicky Krieps). No passive muse her, she gradually poisons his life…a kind of infection he comes to accept and even encourage, perhaps suggesting that the antisocial, imperious control demanded of art, is fundamentally dependent upon the earthy vitality, the potentially poisonous drug of passion and chaos, for its essential sustenance and growth.

As usual for Day Lewis, it’s a towering performance.

  1. ROMA

What it’s about:

This year’s masterpiece. Director Alfonso Cuarón immerses us in a Mexico that’s tangibly real.
It focuses on a young maid and the family she works for. They live in a bubble of their own, secured behind heavy metal gates that both seemingly protect and close off the increasingly troubled world (of student protests and anger) without. Slowly the troubles without seep into the domestic ‘innocence’ within and both maid (Yalitza Aparizio) and wife (Marina de Tavira) must learn how to cope with a new order, perhaps the real world; one of deceptions, danger and an enforced self-reliance. It’s an extraordinary tour de force in which the dialogue, the locations, the interpersonal relations and the stunning acting have a casual, natural authenticity about them.

 

ROMA***** Movie of the Year


WHAT A MASTERPIECE of a movie this is! The story’s set in Mexico City (the area known as Roma, hence the title) just as 1970 turns into 1971…just as Mexico is transformed from a world of innocence to one of darkness.

The protagonist is Cleo, a young maid (a “muchacha”) in a fairly well off household. Cleo (along with another maid) performs more than the necessary domestic tasks, of cleaning and caring for the house. She’s the loving helpmeet to the four kids (waking them with tender kisses, escorting them to school, protecting them from harm, even sharing family TV viewing time with them). She’s a loved and integral part of the small nuclear family unit (mom, dad, the kids, the granny and the yapping dog). To the casual viewer, it’s an idyllic set up.

The dialogue, the locations, the interpersonal relations and the stunning acting (especially that of the non actor, Yalitza Aparizio as Cleo) have a casual, natural authenticity about them. Director Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity, Y Tu Mamá También) immerses us in a Mexico that from corner to corner of the screen, is tangibly real.

He offers us two worlds. The world of the family exists behind heavy metal gates (so typical of Mexican homes). They both protect and close off the increasingly troubled world (of student protests and anger) without. This is a world that seems as happily chaotic as the other is chaotically threatening.

But the times, they are a changing. The pleasant, familial domesticity of the world of the home, with its traditional and accepted power structure (where the woman is boss of the household even as the man is boss of the family), is in flux. The underpinnings of order – marital fidelity, the male as breadwinner, the committedness of young lovers – has crumbled. Both Sra. Sofia, the wife (Marina de Tavira), and Cleo – jilted women both- must learn how to cope with a new order; one of deceptions, danger and self reliance.

For those metal gates offer false protection. Cleo falls for Fermín (Jorge Antonio Guerrero) a charming young man who turns out to belong to los Halcones (the Falcons), a government backed, sinister para-military group. And thus, do the troubles without infect the calm within. In one powerful scene, this idea is underlined when Cleo and Teresa, the grandmother, are in a furniture store buying a cot. All is calm within, but outside, all hell is breaking loose. This is the student riots (terrifyingly realised by Cuarón in scenes of confusion, panic, disbelief and fear) that took place in Mexico in 1971. Hundreds of students were massacred by this same para-military group. Cleo and Teresa look on horrified as the Falcons burst into the furniture shop and shoot down a student hiding there.

These years, from 1968 – 1971 were Mexico’s 9/11 moments. In Roma, it is the definitive moment of transformation when both the fictional characters of the story and the real world of Mexico are changed – scarred – forever.

But, Cuarón seems to suggest, people, like countries survive. The family, shorn of its breadwinner, learn how to pull together even more tightly; they battle the elements and survive; they learn, as whole societies do, how to lean on each other to weather the horrible present and survive with the hope of a better future.

Apart from his crisp, beautifully shot black and white cinematography, Cuarón’s directing tricks delivers a real world feel that’s rare in the business. (Apparently for instance, he only showed the actors their lines just before each days’ filming to capture genuine feelings of surprise and shock free from actorly artifice; one traumatic hospital scene was shot in one take with all real hospital attendants and doctors for maximum authenticity.)

Roma is another big winner for Netflix.

For my money, it’s the movie of the year.

 

ROMA. Director, writer, cinematographer: Alfonso Cuarón. With: Yalitza Aparazio, Marina de Tavira, Verónica García. Production Designer: Eugenio Caballero (A Monster Calls)

 

SORRY TO BOTHER YOU**** Featuring a new and brilliant voice


TRENCHANT. FUNNY. BIZARRE

Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield, in what must be a break-out role for him), which is pronounced cash is green is a Black, easy-going down-on-his-heels slacker. He needs to get a job, partly to pay off his accumulated rents to his uncle (in whose garage he lives) and to justify the love of his partner (Tessa Thompson). His desperation is the catalyst for him to try to out for a job at a call-centre. This he does with a counterfeit trophy and a fabricated story as his resumés. The manager easily sees thru his BS. But, to the manager, this shows chutzpah.

And that’s all that’s needed: BS and fabrication.

But Cassius is lousy at the job…until he’s offered some timely advice from a grizzled ‘old timer’, (Danny Glover): “Speak in your White voice” he is told. And he discovers he’s superb at this mimicry of White speak. After all, it’s just another kind of counterfeiting. And so, to his cold-called listeners on the phone, the voice they hear is no longer that of an unsure Black (i.e “not to be trusted”) man, but that of a confident, preppy, believable White confidant. He may be selling merchandise, but his real success lies in offering his customers an ideal they can buy into…an ideal of stereotypical aspiration.

By changing identity, he changes his life: from impoverished loser to rich winner; from hesitancy to confidence. So it goes as you shape-shift from Black to White. This is broad, hammer-on-the-head satire (and so far, somewhat reminiscent of Spike Lee’s Blackkklansman). It’s wonderfully well done. Stanfield’s dead-pan, WTF demeanor is as pitch-perfect as his (cleverly dubbed-in) White voice.

The point is black and white clear: if a Black person is to get on in the White world (in this case, a future dystopian world), he’s got to remove as many traces of his Black identity as possible. (The writer has a field day here with pointed barbs at cross-overs, Will Smith and Denzel Washington). In a world that’s all about the money, White is the only way forward.

Maybe.

At what point however does the fake identity (which delivers the riches) begin to threaten the real identity? Is it possible to bridge the two worlds, not merely of White and Black, but of rich and poor; of managers and mere employees; and more acutely of the dishonest and the authentic?

There’s more to it than that. And almost as if the (newcomer) writer/director Boots Riley is imitating his apologetic cold caller, “Sorry to bother you…” there are deeper issues he must speak of. It’s really all about the money.

For even as Cassius is climbing the corporate ladder with his voice recognition con and an increasing self-centredness (The Whiter he identifies, the more estranged he becomes from his friends and his ecosystem), his partner and call-centre colleagues are fighting for the basics of a living wage, for greater income equality, for an end to the approaching apocalypse of slavery. The story suggests that there is a threat to identity even deeper than that of race. In this future world, an Amazon type fulfilment-centre seeks to institute the ultimate capitalist dream: unpaid labour exchanged for free board and lodge (i.e slavery).

This is no mere loss of identity, it’s a loss of humanity.

It is at his supreme moment of triumph, when in a glittering Wolf of Wall Street type party, complete with sex drugs, and rock ‘n roll, that Cassius realises just how little he matters, despite all the money he’s made. To the ruling class of gorgeous White women ‘cheering’ his success, he has no real identity. He’s nothing more than their stereotypical idea of the Black man: the performer with a penis like a horse and an intuitive knowledge of how to “bust a cap” and sing hip hop. “Nigga, nigga, nigga” he shouts (much to their delight).

And here, at the centre of the movie, with the realisation that to the White world, he is no more than Eldridge Cleaver’s “super-masculine menial”, the movie’s tone does an about turn. The story shifts from satire to surrealism.

I won’t give away what happens next, but the story becomes a dramatisation of the shift from the (cosy) belief that you have some control over your identity (and can simply create a fake one to get on in life) to the realisation that you’ve been suckered; that the only real empowerment comes perhaps from the overthrow of the whole damn status quo.

Arnie Hammer is the attractive master of all things, the dark status quo, the Jeff Besos of a post-racial, post-human future that is siren calling us all to a new slavery.

What starts with laughter ends with tears
It’s Christmas time. You’d better watch out

 

SORRY TO BOTHER YOU. Dir: Boots Riley. With: Lakeith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson (Creed II, Westworld), Jermaine Fowler, Danny Glover, Steven Yuan, Armie Hammer. Cinematographer: Doug Emmett

 

DISOBEDIENCE**** The Price for freedom


DISOBEDIENCE IS SET in the small orthodox Jewish community of Hendon in London (wonderfully realized by director/script-writer Sebastián Lelio who also directed A Fantastic Woman and production designer, Sarah Finlay). It is a tight-knit community, bound together by strict laws and protocols (sex is for Fridays). Ritual is all. The bewigged women all look pretty much the same, as do the black-hatted, bearded men. They look alike; they think alike. It is the only sanctioned way of life.

It is suffocating.

And yet, at the very beginning of the story, we meet the frail rabbinical elder, Rav Krushka (Anton Lesser), who preaches a sermon that seems almost radical. “Man,” he says, “hang(s) suspended between the clarity of the angels and the desires of the beasts…a being with free will…with the power to disobey”.

And then he dies. Struck down?

As the story unfolds, the theme of freedom (and the free will to disobey) is played out with all the nuances of its implications. Free will, the power to choose to obey or not, the story suggests, is a fundamental part of who we are. But freedom does not equate with happiness. To seek it requires daring and courage. Freedom is a burden. It is easier simply give in to the communal will, to be one of the angels or one of the beasts.

It is this death, the rabbi’s “departure”, that is the catalyst for the visit of his estranged, rebel daughter, Ronit (Rachel Weisz), a chain smoking photographer living in a Manhattan (another kind of “departure”), given, it seems, to occasional sex with anonymous persons. And not even on a Friday.

Her return is cause for some consternation in this strict, judgmental community. It is also cause for some excitement for recently married Esti (Rachel McAdams), the woman who is not free to love her, but whose love for her cannot be contained. This Sapphic passion is an unorthodox love in an orthodox world. Indeed, perhaps all love contains its own unorthodoxy.

The story follows the events leading up to the funeral, as the rekindled passions shape the destinies of the three protagonists, Esti, her enamorrata, Ronit and Esti’s despairing, angry, empathetic husband, Dovid (Alessandro Nivola) the heir apparent to the temple’s leadership. For all three, the choice is the same: accept the cosy comfort zone of community obeisance (The role of the woman as helpmeet and bearer of children is mapped out clearly) or take the leap into the uncertain future of individual choice.

All three actors are outstanding in this very literary, wordy, beautifully written script (adapted from the book by Naomi Alderman). The relationship between Ronit and Esti – their love and longing and lust – feels palpably real (though it beats me why directors and actors could work so hard to deliver believable worlds, only to crack the honed surface of verisimilitude with the coy artifice of people making love with all their clothes on). Rachel Weisz in particular shines as the wronged woman punished by the community; the image of the glamorous Bohemian living in exotic New York is really a lost soul, stoically living in exile.

It’s one thing for Bob Marley to urge us to “emancipate yourself from mental slavery”. But the reality is that the price you have to pay – of loneliness, ostracism, exile, perhaps death – comes very dear indeed.

 

DISOBEDIENCE. Dir: Sebastián Leilo. Writers: Sebastián Leilo and Rebecca Lenkiewicz (Ida). With: Rachel Weisz, Rachel McAdams (Spotlight), Alessandro Nivola (Selma, You Were Never Really Here). Cinematographer: Danny Cohen (Florence Foster Jenkins). Production Designer: Sarah Finlay (Juliet, Naked)