Just Mercy

As much as we may want to pretend otherwise, the justice system has two distinct tiers.  Those with money get an easier path than those without.  That disparity is never acceptable but is especially offensive in the criminal context, where poor people who find themselves in the system are likely to stay there whether or not they are guilty of the offences charged, because they lack the ability to pay for legal representation or to post bail.  Those disadvantages result in innocent poor people being locked up for extended periods of time, many of whom are on death row. justmercy

These effects are arguably a feature of the system rather than a bug, since these circumstances disproportionately affect black people in the southern United States (see Ava Duvernay’s 13th for more on that terrifying but logical conclusion).   Incidentally, the reason my criticisms are focused on the American justice system is simply because the U.S. is basically the only western civilization that still applies the death penalty.  

Walter “Johnny D” McMillan (Jamie Foxx) was one of those innocent poor black people waiting on death row in Alabama. Convicted of the murder of a woman he had never met, by a jury from which black people were excluded, based entirely on the false testimony of a convicted felon, Johnny D seems resigned to his fate. Which is understandable, as there is no point in hoping for merciful treatment from a justice system stacked against you. That changes when Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan), a young Harvard law school graduate arrives in Alabama to provide legal aid to the disadvantaged, takes up Johnny D’s case, and challenges the conviction despite constant opposition from the district attorney, the sheriff, and the legal system. Brie Larson is also in this movie, as Stevenson’s operations director, but it’s a bit role. Foxx and Jordan get most of the screen time and all the best scenes. The two of them are excellent and are worth the price of admission on their own.

Their performances helped me get through the depressing fact that this is a true story, and worse, a true story we have heard many times before. Just Mercy does a great job of shining a light on injustice but is also an entertaining courtroom battle in its own right, that more than holds its own against any fictional legal drama. I was particularly impressed that the drama was allowed to play out with a minimal amount of Hollywood glitz, so that the courtroom scenes were close to how they would have played out in real life. Clearly, the filmmakers believed the real story was compelling enough to stand on its own, and they were absolutely right.

The Golden Compass

I watched this back in 2007 because I adored the book(s) (by Philip Pullman) and was optimistic. Oh 2007, the days of wild optimism.

The movie is…not good. It’s not rotten, there are some attempts at goodness, especially from Nicole Kidman and the visual effects department. But it’s like someone put The Golden Compass through a strainer to sift out all the best bits and made a movie with the wrong bowl.

Yes, movie studios were desperate to recreate that Harry Potter magic, but Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy was always a little more cumbersome than its wizarding counterpart; Pullman’s work was not specifically meant for young audiences. But some intrepid readers found him anyway, and loved the way he combined physics, philosophy, and theology but made them accessible via a young protagonist. Those are not exactly movie-friendly themes, and the trilogy’s criticism of religion was of course controversial. When the film got released, christians boycotted it for its anti-religion reputation but secularists balked at this theme’s dilution (and some would say absence).

The film shows the adventures of Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards), an orphan living in a parallel universe where a dogmatic ruling power called the Magisterium opposes free inquiry and every person has their inner spirit manifested as an animal, which they call a daemon. Before settling into a single shape in adulthood, the deamons of young children tend to shape shift quite a lot. Which is not much use when children are being kidnapped by an unknown group called the Gobblers who are supported by the Magisterium. Lyra joins a tribe of seafarers on a trip to the far North, the land of the armoured polar bears, in search of the missing children.

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There’s more to it than that, a lot more to it. It’s not so bad when you’ve got the book in your hands. You can take a break when you need to think on things, or digest others. You can flip back a few pages, read with new insight and understanding. But movie audiences have to take what you’re given, and if a director foolishly tries to stuff too much detail into too thin a story, it’s not just overwhelming but it turns what should be a fun entertainment or a version of escapism into an exercise in fact sorting and memory retention.

There are some dazzling effects and I’m not going to lie: armoured polar bears are kinda the best. Which is why so many of us rooted so hard for the movie. But the movie was too self-important, too busy setting up the next in the series that it forgot to give us a satisfying experience in the present. Which, as you know, not only resulted in its poor performance at the box office, but it ground production on the next two to a complete and final halt. No one will reattempt this for another quarter century. Which is really too bad, because if you’ve read the book(s), you know there’s a compelling story in there, and it shouldn’t be this hard to tease it out.

The Muppet Movie (1979)

Is it fair to say that the best use of the Muppet Movie (1979) may be as palate cleanser?  We found it on Disney+ while in need of something easy, after slogging through The Platform.  Instead of three Care Bears seasons, as recommended by Dr. Jay, we opted for one dose of classic Muppets silliness. The medicine worked well enough; it just tasted a little stale.2004_WC_TheMuppets

The Muppet Movie (1979) tells the origin story of the Muppets, though Kermit the Frog readily admits at the outset that some liberties have been taken. Kermit is discovered singing in a swamp (The Rainbow Connection, naturally) by a big Hollywood agent (Dom DeLuise) who has rowed the wrong way.  Turns out, Hollywood is in dire need of frog talent. After a few seconds of deep thought, Kermit decides to move right along to the West Coast to try his luck at stardom, but Doc Hopper (Charles Durning), a local purveyor of frog legs, is set on having Kermit be the face of his restaurant chain, dead or alive. As he tries to stay one step ahead of Hopper, Kermit happens upon all your favourite Muppets, who join up with Kermit on his journey, and ultimately make it big enough in Hollywood to star in the very biopic you’re watching.

I am sure the long list of celebrity cameos was top-notch in 1979, as the Muppets have always excelled at drawing other stars into their orbit, and any movie that includes Bob Hope, Richard Pryor and Steve Martin is doing something right. But most of the faces were not familiar to me, and I know they were expected to be (I certainly recognized most of the names once the credits rolled). Admittedly, I am only a few years older than this film, so your mileage may vary, but the Muppets Movie (1979) felt dated for me because so many of the cameos went over my head.

Still, the Muppets have lots to offer on their own, sight gags, silly banter, and especially a great soundtrack that literally propels them on their journey (I dare you to find me a more aptly titled song than Movin’ Right Along). The Muppets Movie (1979) remains an entertaining kids’ movie, but it has lost some of its lustre with age.

The Invisible Man

Lots of movies have been rescheduled due to COVID-19’s impact on world box offices, but a few movies were released just as things got tricky and got short shrift releases. Movie studios are fighting back but they’re basically inventing their responses as we go so right now they’re experimenting with what people at home might tolerate. Disney released Frozen 2 early on its Disney+ platform, and Onward will soon follow, on April 3rd, which is a real coup for parents who are dealing with the challenges of having kids on their hands full-time.

Universal took 3 of their big titles – Emma, The Invisible Man, and The Hunt, each of which were performing as well as they could at theatres where attendance has been understandably low – and that was before they all closed down indefinitely. So each of these titles has been released for early rental, at a premium. They’re called Home Premieres and they rent for $20 for 48 hours. It’s certainly more than you’d normally pay to rent a movie but it’s quite reasonable compared to a night at the cinema – you can provide your own snacks, your own wine, you don’t need a babysitter, and as an extra bonus, you won’t put your health at risk from exposure to germs.

You’ve already seen our review for Emma, which we very much liked and very much thought was well worth the 20 bucks.

The Invisible Man, however, is a whole other thing, isn’t it? We all know I’m a chicken and there wasn’t a slightest chance of my seeing this in theatres. Sean and I stopped going to movies well before the theatres closed since I’m high risk for the virus, with both an underlying illness and immuno-suppressing medication, but let’s face it: the true reason is that I’m just too fragile for horror. And though I’ve made exceptions for exceptional films (A Quiet Place, The Witch, and Midsommar, for example), I felt comfortable not making an exception for this, though it was relatively well reviewed.

But now that it’s available for Home Premiere, it seemed like the perfect chance to step outside my comfort zone while in the privacy of my own bedroom.

Basically, Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss) goes to great lengths to leave her abusive boyfriend. She’s clearly terrified of him but he’s a respected scientist and inventor, and his money has gone a long way in insulating him from repercussions. He’s been controlling but with the help of her sister Emily (Harriet Dyer) and friend James (Aldis Hodge), she’s able to slip away – barely. He soon after takes his own life, but Cecilia isn’t convinced. She becomes haunted by a presence – she believes it to be her supposedly dead ex, Adrian, but that theory doesn’t hold a whole lot of water with anyone else. I mean, how do you prove that your ex is so vindictive he faked his own death to taunt you via some invisibility cloak? Try it, I dare you. It doesn’t go well for Cecilia. She’s mistaken for a raving lunatic, but Adrian’s invisible actions are getting increasingly violent and looking crazy is the least of her worries.

Director Leigh Whannell creates and sustains a painfully tense atmosphere from start to finish, constantly ratcheting up the stakes and guaranteeing our breathing is shallow at best.

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I had help getting through the movie: dogs, and caramel popcorn, and some eyebrow tutorials on Youtube. But I still screamed a few times and even upturned the popcorn bowl (which was mercifully lidded at the time). Like any good horror movie, the director knows that your own imagination will always be far worse than anything he can conjure, so he allows for lots of lingering, vaguely threatening shots containing worlds of possibility around every corner. And the score by  Benjamin Wallfisch informs your anxiety, feeds it, and capitalizes on it.

Mostly I got through the movie by telling myself it was basically a comic book movie and that this is exactly what they were warning us about in Civil War. At any time, some “hero”could turn villain on a dine just because his ego’s a little sore. Certainly Adrian incurs an awful lot of collateral damage in the name of revenge against the only person who’s ever left him. The suit he’s engineered is exactly the kind of tech that Iron Man might have, or Batman, and all that stands between them and villainy is a broken heart, which is alarming since the one hallmark of a so-called super hero besides their super powers is treating women like shit.

Anyway, The Invisible Man is a pretty good movie. It’s not just an exercise in jump scares, it has a wholly realized story and a character who has to reclaim her agency. Elisabeth Moss’s costar is invisible, so the whole thing rests on her very capable shoulders. She’s equally believable as both victim and conqueror. And though it wasn’t an easy watch for me, it’s survivable for even moderate wusses, which is saying something indeed.

The Platform

Guys.

GUYS.

Has anyone else watched this? Is anyone available to hold my hand and/or a paper bag as I desperately suck air in and out of it?

This was a DOOZIE.

It’s basically a vertical prison called The Pit, a high-rise building where each floor is a prison cell containing 2 prisoners, 2 beds, 1 toilet, and a giant hole in the floor. There are hundreds of floors. And for each day, for 2 minutes, a platform descends with a table laden with the best foods. Ostensibly there is enough to feed everyone but in reality, all of the food is gone by floor 50 and everyone else starves for a month at a time at the end of which, you and your cellie are randomly reassigned to another floor – maybe better, maybe not. You get gassed and you wake up either prepared to stuff yourself or condemned to do without. Does this bring out the best in people? Of course not.

The Platform is fascinating because whatever kind of world exists beyond the prison’s walls, we aren’t shown it, but I wouldn’t blame you for assuming these aren’t the best of times. The entire film is contained within just a few floors of the prison, with just a few characters to meet (and not get attached to, if you know what I mean).

It’s also a perfect metaphor for human nature, if not a flattering one. This is a movie of tough questions and extremely dark themes. It is not a pleasant watch. It is deeply, deeply disturbing. Deeply. And also gross. GROSS. Oh Mylanta is it ever gross.

So, to be clear: I suspect less than 3% of people will appreciate this movie in any sort of way. It’s a horror-sci-fi hybrid that will haunt you.

If you’d like to hear Sean and I come to a rather obvious conclusion about it, please consult Youtube immediately.

Emma.

Emma is 21, handsome, clever, and rich. She is her father’s last unmarried daughter and she fancies herself a successful matchmaker. It is the thing upon which she prides herself the most (and there is quite a bit of pride), but though she seeks the best matches for her nearest and dearest, she has no interest in or plans to marry herself.

Emma (Anya Taylor-Joy) currently has her sights set on  her good friend Harriet (Mia Goth), a young woman of questionable parentage and no wealth. Though Harriet already has a romantic interest in a farmer of little means, Emma persuades her to reject his advances in favour of a better (read: richer) match, Vicar Elton (Josh O’Connor).

Of course, Emma’s meddling could never be as straight-forward as that. George (Johnny Flynn) accuses her of vanity, her father (Bill Nighy) implores her loyalty, Miss Bates (Miranda Hart) pesters her continually, Jane (Amber Anderson) seems to best her at everything, and the sudden appearance of handsome, mysterious Frank (Callum Turner) has everyone in a twitter.

First, let me say I am fully on team Alexandra Byrne for costume design this year. The dresses, the jackets, the trousers, the hats – they all share a romantic, period feel, but they’re all elevated, better than real life, and believe me, if I thought for a second Byrne could live comfortably in my closet, I’d kidnap and hold her there in a heartbeat (note to Byrne, should she read this: please don’t take that as a threat, though it does share the same qualities as a certain felony – I am merely a great admirer with a tendency to over-dress).

Second, Bill Nighy. I mean: Bill Nighy. He lights up every scene he’s in, he snatches giggles like they’re his life force, he’s an absolute treasure and I simply could not get enough.

And of course, the script. I love how Eleanor Catton has adapted it from the Austen. Altough it is hard to improve upon a classic, Catton’s Emma. is a lot of fun (sorry if that’s confusing, the one-word title has a period at the end, apparently emphasizing that this is a “period piece”). Emma is young, obviously, and quite sheltered in her father’s home. In her naivete she reinforces a classist and of course sexist social construct and can’t see the error of her ways until it’s reversed. Austen’s comedy works because there’s quite a lot of tension, quite a few misunderstandings, and some very complicated love triangles.

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Anya Taylor-Joy is up to the task, though I couldn’t help wondering what it might have been had Florence Pugh stepped into the role. Besides Nighy, which is a given, the performances I enjoyed best were from supporting players Miranda Hart and Tanya Reynolds, who add a lot of life to film.

But even with the sumptuous gowns and the glittering brooches and the tasseled coaches, I wouldn’t want to live in this period where a woman’s only achievement is in marrying “above her station,” dead birds are offered by way of apology, and a twisted ankle is considered top-tier flirting.

In response to the closure of cinemas due to the COVID-19 corona virus, Emma. has been given a VOD release. You can rent the film for $20, which may sound hefty for a rental, but it’s less than you would pay to see it in theatres, and while this is still early days of terms of quarantine and chill, even Netflix’s deepest back-catalogue will exhaust itself at some point. And Emma. is a pretty great way to fill that void.

 

Blow The Man Down

It’s the day every woman dreams of since she’s a little girl: what dress you’ll wear, what flowers you’ll choose, the food you’ll serve, the heirloom hanky you’ll use to dab prettily at your eyes. Your mother’s funeral only comes once in a lifetime and you’ve got to get it right.

Sad but true: I’ll say any mean thing to get the laugh.

Anyway. For Mary Beth (Morgan Saylor) and Priscilla  (Sophie Lowe) Connolly it is indeed the day of their mother’s funeral. It feels like half the small village of Easter Cove in Maine shows up for it, paying tribute to a woman everyone seems to have loved. But it doesn’t exactly go seamlessly – clearly they don’t subscribe to Martha Stewart Funerals. The non-cheap flowers arrive late, there’s too much disgusting coleslaw, and oh yeah, they kill someone. Someone else. I mean, they never murdered their mother, she died of natural causes, more or less. I’m talking someone ELSE. A bad dude who we wouldn’t really feel too bad about killing except his death, and well, the concealment thereof, leads to the sisters uncovering some pretty shady stuff in their home town.

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Directors Bridget Savage Cole and Danielle Krudy delight in pulling up the respectable if threadbare rug to reveal not gleaming hard wood but black mould asbestos. Oh yes, there’s major rot to this picturesque little town, and behind every white picket fence is another secret being kept. Mary Beth and Priscilla have pulled a thread which threatens to unravel even the heaviest fisherman’s sweater.

This movie is oddly funny, in the blackest sense, establishing a real sense of atmosphere. Details are meted out like a sparse trail of breadcrumbs, each one a small but perfect moment, supported by a smart script and plenty of terrific performances.