Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (2018)

Directed by: David Yates Written by: J.K. Rowling

Fantastic_Beasts_-_The_Crimes_of_Grindelwald_PosterI recently found myself puzzling through a “moral” dilemma. As an aspiring critic, it troubles me that whether I praise films or not seems to be based on whether I enjoy them and not some higher, more refined criteria. I had this anxiety assuage a little when I watched Fantastic Beast: The Crimes of Grindelwald.

I undoubtedly enjoyed the film due to a combination of my identification with protagonist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), its use of familiar faces (ie Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law), and the way in which magic adds a playful element to action scenes, making them more enjoyable for this non-action-fan. Yet alongside this enjoyment I also felt dissatisfaction. I liked the process of watching the film, yet felt completely underwhelmed as it ended.

While giving away as little as possible, I must say that the ending of The Crimes of Grindelwald feels like an underwhelming return to where Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them left viewers off. Literally, this isn’t true. Some key facts about the characters change, and we go from knowing nothing to knowing the basics about Grindelwald. But facts changing does not a narrative make. In her first attempt at sequel writing, J.K. Rowling produced Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets  a tale in which protagonist Harry learns a new mythology, is exposed to bigotry, encounters both a new arch-villain and new anti-hero, and also gains a deeper understanding of the previously introduced characters Hagrid and Ginny. By contrast in The Crimes of Grindelwald protagonist Newt Scamander runs around as part of a middle-of-the-road mission, another major character also runs around trying to figure out his identity, yet another character faces a horribly rushed moral dilemma and Grindelwald gives a speech and shoots some flames from his wand.

Rather than simply expressing my disappointment with this film, I think it is worth considering the structural flaws that made it the way it is. One is that it has long been established there were to five Fantastic Beasts movies, a total that was perhaps pitched with commercial rather than narrative considerations in mind.  The first Fantastic Beasts seems to have been written in such a way that if things didn’t pan out, it would work as a standalone movie: it ends with two of its major characters in being written out. Rather than finding a clever way to respond to this drama (ie finding an emotionally compelling manner to write the characters back in) The Crimes of Grindelwald acts as if the write-outs never happened and rushes the characters back into the story.

Another key structural problem for The Grimes of Grindelwald is that unlike Rowling’s previous Potter-universe series, it is not set in the structured environment of a school. Harry Potter’s story is set up to develop at a nice pace as each book/school year introduces Harry and company as slightly more educated and ready to engage new wonders, and recklessly take on new terrors. As a story of adults The Crimes of Grindelwald gives its characters no time to learn, engage in entertaining but petty conflicts, or develop false theories about their world. Instead they are thrown right into action.

Speaking of developing false theories, that’s a motif that worked very well in the Harry Potter stories (you know questions like who opened the chamber of secrets? Who was Voldemort’s sidekick, etc?) that is attempted in, but falls flat in The Crimes of Grindelwald. This is partially, because, the false theory is not sold to us through the minds of determined, but not-all-knowing children, partially because the truth that counters the false theory isn’t set up in any interesting way, and partially because the theory is inconsequential to the film’s action.While this underwhelming false theory is not solely the product of this film not being set at Hogwart’s story, it certainly didn’t help Rowling in this case that she was writing about action-ready adults as opposed to inquiring children.

The Crimes of Grindelwald is not without its merits. While not as prominent as the magical creatures in the series’ first incarnation, the beasts in this one are indeed fantastic. And while the film’s mediocre title isn’t exactly a good fit for its plot (the film is not the series of vignettes on Grindelwald’s exploits the title suggests), Grindelwald nonetheless establishes himself as a subtly solid villain.

As a kid reading Harry Potter works I remember being excited when I first read mention of the dark wizard called Grindelwald, thinking “finally! a villain other than Voldemort for once.” I was subsequently disappointed, however, when I learned that Grindelwald, like Voldemort was a pure-blood-supremacist. So in other words, he was a different villain from Voldemort, but not really. The Crimes of Grindelwald, however, finds a nice balance between conflating and differentiating Voldemort and Grindelwald. Voldemort is a blatant pure-blood supremacist: a straight-forward Nazi analogue. He and his followers mince no words in expressing their contempt for muggles and muggle-born wizards. The suit-dawning Grindelwald (Johnny Depp), by contrast, bares more resemblance to Richard Spencer than Adolph Hitler, employing “separate-but-equal” rhetoric in place of outright supremacism. While from a political perspective I think it’s important to treat explicit and (barely)-non-explicit racist ideologies as one in the same, from a character development perspective the two ideologies play out differently, and Grindelwald indeed comes across as having a demeanor and brand of villainy unique from Voldemort’s.

I similarly found it enjoyable to see a young Dumbledore. Given that the character’s gentle-genius persona seems tied to his old age in the Harry Potter series, seeing him portrayed as more of a Remus Lupin figure is engaging, even if the difference is subtle. On the other hand, I feel the film failed to capitalize on the power of having Dumbledore as a character. One of the film’s key motifs is Dumbledore’s personal refusal to fight Grindelwald. For much of the film this seems a compelling source of moral tension rooted in love or perhaps a cautious pacifism. Alas, the film ends by offering another explanation for Dumbledore’s refusal to fight which is nowhere near as powerful.

The Crimes of Grindelwald is not dull: it’s as magical as it’s predecessors. But it taught me how it’s very possible to both enjoy and be deeply disappointed with a film. Harry Potter (and even the first Fantastic Beasts) stories always left me with favorite scenes, characters and lines. The Crimes of Grindelwald by contrast does little to make jaws drop, and little to sell its characters. As someone who will no doubt feel excited again when its sequel comes out, I can only hope this stories shortcomings are not predictive of what is to come and that Rowling can indeed work her magic again, even in the absence of the Hogwarts infrastructure.

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First Man (2018)

Directed by: Damien Chazelle Written by: Josh Singer

First_Man_(film)                 The way I see it there are two possible draws for First Man: one is that it’s the story of real-life, iconic space explorer Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling), the other is its director, 2016 Oscar winner Damien Chazelle. To me, the combination is an intriguing one, in large part because first man is not the type of story I would be drawn to were Chazelle not the director. A story of “man goes to space, man is hero!” doesn’t intrigue me. Chazelle’s last two films, however, have seen him create a low-key and realistic yet dystopian presentation of music education (Whiplash) and a dazzling diorama of the Hollywood-dream story (La La Land). If anyone could make an astronaut’s biopic an interesting piece of cinema, it’s Chazelle.

Now here I should plead my ignorance. While Chazelle wrote the two aforementioned films (as well as his enjoyable student debut Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench), I did not realize until the end credits that First Man was not in fact written by Chazelle, but by Josh Singer. I was previously familiar with Singer via 2017’s The Post, a film that bothered me, due to, amongst other things, it’s lack of subtle dialogue. The difference between First Man and The Post in that regard, is night and day. While First Man isn’t exactly subtle in its interpretation of Armstrong’s psychology, it allows this to come out through subtext and Ryan Gosling’s acting. The film’s actual dialogue is realistic rather than expository. Though not particularly memorable, Armstrong’s conversations with his wife Janet (Claire Foy) are surprisingly endearing due to their smoothness and low-key humor.

Singer’s script also gave Chazelle plenty of opportunities to include a diversity of backdrops, which aptly set moods. A scene-and-a-half at a pool helps illustrate the ordinariness of Armstrong’s civilian life, while a depiction of centrifuge training contrasts the pains of being an astronaut with Armstrong’s stoic toughness.

Yet despite its being a good-quality production,  First Man was nonetheless little more than a “man goes to space, man is hero” story. The showing I attended opened with a PSA in which Ryan Gosling commends the team behind the movie for all the realistic technology they provided. While I had no qualms with the PSA itself (a call for people to go to the movies) it foreshadowed the film’s problems. The idea of “sitting in a tin can far above the world” is engaging as an idea: but as a realistic visual it’s rather dull (dare I say Wes Anderson should have directed this film). As Armstrong and various other astronauts make it through space, there’s not much to see other than their bodies desperately manipulating around visually un-interesting, highly confined white spaces. In short, Armstrong’s mundane life on earth, ends up being far more interesting than his terrifying journeys through space.

This would not be a problem if Armstrong had much more to his life than his space travels: and there’s a good chance he did. Singer’s interpretation of Armstrong, however, is that he is someone rendered under-communicative by trauma. In isolation this is not a bad approach, and it produces the film’s best scene (in which Armstrong explains the risk of his mission to his sons), but it unfortunately means that the film has little choice but to fill up substantial times with space-travel footage.

On a related note, the film leaves a lot unstated. For example, we are not introduced to Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) until quite late in the film. In many ways, the film’s commitment to maintaining mystery is artistically effective: it makes what we do see of Armstrong’s personality all the more engaging. One thing that remains mysterious, however, is Armstrong’s motivation to go into space in the first place: an oddity given the film’s focus on how terrifying space travel is and was perceived to be. While I won’t call this emission a defect (every movie is not obliged to answer every question), it’s possible that its presence as a theme could have added life to the screenplay.

First Man is rife interesting details throughout its run time, particularly in its reinterpretation of Armstrong’s planting of the American flag (that’s how I’ll put it, I won’t say more). It’s a solid film that should be of interest to space and American history buffs, it just doesn’t do quite enough to transcend its subject matter.

 

mid90s (2018)

Written and directed by: Jonah Hill

Mid90s_(2018_movie_poster)                 When I think back nostalgically to my childhood (which was technically the late 90s and 2000s) I think of supersoakers, skateboarders and gameboys. That’s the nostalgia that mid90s celebrates. Beyond that, it’s hard to point to the titles significance. Perhaps (presumably inadvertently) it serves the function of separating the film fellow 2018 indie skating film Skate Kitchen in that its set in a pre-cellphone society. Perhaps it also speaks to the kind of film Hill wanted to make, one that’s aesthetic, rather than story focused.

                  The latter is probably the best explanation for the title. Despite it’s nostalgia-inducing hook, mid90s is far too dark a film to be seen as a film about the pleasures of a (barely) bygone era. Rather it’s a film that covers a short period of time in a character’s life in a fairly confined geographical area (it could easily have been called LA, but I guess that sounds slightly less original). The film begins brutally as we see 13-year-old protagonist Stevie (Sunny Suljic) being beaten by his brother Ian (Lucas Hedges). This seen, like mid90s as a whole, more aesthetic than it is narrative. Ian gets respectable amount of screentime, but we never really get to know how he came to be, or how Stevie deals with this problem.

                  mid90s has been described as a coming of age story, but given the traits I’ve described, such a descriptor feels inaccurate at best, and tragic at worse. It is not the story of Stevie finding himself, or independence or maturity: rather it is a story of a coping mechanism he uses in a world where such development seems hopeless. Stevie joins a group of teenage skaters: Ruben, Fuckshit, Fourth Grade and Ray (Gio Galicia, Olan Prenatt, Ryder McLaughlin and Na-kel Smith). While this development happens early in the film, it is essentially the extent of Stevie’s coming of age.

                  From there the movie’s highlights are memorable moments of characters being kind and characters being cruel: with the kindness and cruelty coming both from inside and outside of the skater crew. In one early scene, in typical 90s fashion (and who knows, maybe outside of my urban, progressive bubble in typical 2010s fashion too) one of the crew refers to Stevie’s politeness as “gay.” Though not the film’s most pleasant moment it stuck with me as about as good a representation of the genesis of toxic masculinity as one could produce. Luckily, there are well written moments of endearment to counter balance this one.

                  Because of its aesthetic focus, mid90s struggles to find an ending. While there is major drama near the end, it doesn’t stand out that much given the dramas that precede it. The end of mid90s, simply lacked writing: the writing wasn’t bad, there just wasn’t much. So unfortunately, I left the film without the sense of satisfaction I would have hoped for. In retrospect, however, it had a lot of nice touches along the way. The film’s story wasn’t always pleasant, but through and beyond its unpleasant moments it serves as a strong plea for and defence of all kinds of comraderies.

Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)

Note: The political nature of this review (and the fact that it’s about a biopic) required I break some of my normal no-spoilers rule (there are spoilers).

Directed by: Bryan Singer and Dexter Fletcher   Written by: Anthony McCarten

  Bohemian_Rhapsody_poster              Bohemian Rhapsody seems to be one of those works that’s loved by audiences and loathed by critics. In its early moment you can see why. We are introduced to Queen singer Freddie Mercury’s (Rami Malek) Indian-Parsi parents (Meneka Das and Ace Bhatti). They address him by his given name, Farrokh, which he promptly rejects. From here on Mercury’s parents are given sparse screen time, and whenever they are on the screen, they speak expositorily. It makes it appear as if the storytellers felt obliged to note the role of race and culture in Mercury’s life, without having to think about (or devote the screen time to examining) the more subtle ways such issues come up in real life.

These writing problems struck me right away, giving me the impression I would not enjoy Bohemian Rhapsody. I was wrong. While Mercury’s larger than life persona may lend to the film’s non-realism in the opening scene, it quickly becomes one of the film’s strengths. Mercury and bandmates Brian May (Gwilym Lee), John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello) and particularly Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy), quickly endear as a crew, in part due to their particularities (Taylor’s defence of his composition “I’m In Love With My Car” for instance), and in part do to their utter solidarity. While Bohemian Rhapsody goes on to be a film about much more, its title is truly well chosen. Its best scenes feature the bandmates putting the track together.

                  My issues with its screenplay aside, Bohemian Rhapsody gave me new hope about the potential of biopics. I’d come to the conclusion that such films are generally disappointments waiting to happen. Real people, even real people who make good art don’t necessarily have biographies that are themselves art-worthy. Bohemian Rhapsody’s creators were perhaps aware of this dilemma. They know there are fans out there that want to like a movie that celebrates (and reproduces great music) and felt they had one that was rife enough with drama to work. Therefore, the work they produced was the tale of an artist embellished with issues of racialized and bisexual identity.

I say embellished, because many felt Mercury’s sexuality (or at least a nuanced, accurate presentation of it) was not nearly as central to the film as it could have been. Mercury is not simply a martyred rock and roller, but an LGBT icon. The films perceived representation problems are numerous, but they include erasing Mercury’s bisexuality (presenting him as gay instead), not giving him romantic scenes with men, casting a clichéd “gay villain,” etc.

A thought I often find myself coming back to is that criticisms of representation in film can vary in their weight depending on who you assume a film’s audience is. When I left the theatre I was thoroughly surprised at the notion that it was seen as “bi-erasing,” since Mercury explicitly says he’s bisexual. While his partner Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton) tells him otherwise, unless audiences take her word as authoritative, there’s no reason to think the film itself is denying Mercury’s bisexuality. Then again, I knew about Mercury’s bisexuality going into the movie, and acknowledge it’s quite possible a less informed viewer would have perceived this scene differently.

Similarly, I found the suggestion that the film features a gay villain to be misplaced. The character who gets the label is soft-spoken and speaks of his own vulnerabilities. While his final moment in the film is far from flattering, he generally struck me as someone who genuinely cared for Mercury and wasn’t simply manipulative.

Finally, the film’s focus on Mary Austin over Mercury’s eventual partner Jim Hutton (Aaron McCusker) has been criticized as straight-washing. While I cannot deny that it serves that effect, the way the Austin relationship is depicted makes for an excellent dramatic touch. Mercury’s falls out with Austin while still feeling something akin to passionate love for her, thus making the challenges of monogamy and romantic love a central and compelling theme in the film. The plot also provides bittersweet context for one of Mercury’s lesser known, singer-songwriter-esque compositions.

What is undeniably painful about the film’s handling of LGBT issues, however, is also what is undeniably painful about its handling of race issues. Whenever the film wanted to have a message it dropped subtlety altogether and had other characters, including Mary Austin and Jim Hutton, essentially preach to Mercury: a dynamic resembling moralistic children’s TV shows. At best this is sloppy writing. At worst, it infantilizes Mercury compared to his (often) straight peers, minimizing the degree to which his struggles were the product of his living in a homo/biphobic society.

Last summer I responded to a representation-based critique of Detroit. In that case I felt the film had an unequivocally anti-racist, police-critical message, and found what its critics were saying essentially amounted to a call for a less intelligently constructed movie (in order to spoon feed viewers its political message). With Bohemian Rhapsody my feelings are slightly different. As with Detroit, I’m sceptical of the critique that says the film contributes to the stereotyping of gay and bisexual people. On the other hand, Bohemian Rhapsody is not an artfully nor politically astute script in the way that Detroit’s is. Therefore, even if Bohemian Rhapsody isn’t as problematic as some make it out to be, this is at least a case where its having  better LGBT (and racial) politics would also have made it a better movie.

One of the key themes of Bohemian Rhapsody was that Queen itself felt like a family. This is a reason that I think many, especially those of us who identify deeply with the culture of rock-and-roll, were able to see it as an inspirational film: it shows musicians we care for caring for each other. Of course, Mercury’s cultural meaning is far deeper to LGBT rock fans and those affected by HIV, than it will be for most in the general rock-fan population. This means that the representation-critiques matter, and should be heard out by screenwriters.

Watching “Mercury” sing “We Are the Champions” is a powerful moment when it follows one being guided through the “kicks in the face” of his life story. Suddenly, it’s no longer a sports novelty-song but a shared statement of defiance from one of rock’s great rebels. Whatever one thinks of the movie itself, at very least, it provides an exhilarating reminder of Freddy’s anthemic music.

Farenheit 11/9 (2018)

Written and Directed by: Michael Moore

Fahrenheit_11-9It’s hard to imagine there has ever been a US president more satirized than Donald Trump. His outlandish rhetoric has politicized many: as I heard a Montréal stand-up comedian say once, “I miss the time when I didn’t know who the US Press Secretary was.” In this age of constant-political-satire, it can be asked: is Michael Moore’s political voice still relevant? With Farenheit 11/9, Moore answers that question in the affirmative, even if it’s a bit of an uphill battle.

The mainstreaming of Trump criticisms has led to two overlapping problems. One is that much criticism of Trump originates not from his oppressiveness, so much as from his absurdity. The result is that jokes about Trump often focus on “scandalous” stories such as his alleged affair with Stormy Daniels and the role of Russia in US elections at the expense of the main issue: the already racist, warmongering, anti-secular, anti-poor Republican party is now fronted by a figure who gets votes by pushing his party’s policies to crude extremes. In Fahrenheit 11/9, Moore tries to address this problem by telling his own version of the Trump story, one that is more focused and principled in its political critique.

In his typical fashion, Moore begins his story with comedy, arguing that Gwen Stefani is to blame for the Trump presidency. He also gets in a good line tying Hillary Clinton’s loss to her failure to know who any of the rappers were that endorsed her. From there he tells a number of stories. He notes the mainstream media’s insistence on over-covering Trump’s presidential run, arguing that profit-driven television executives did not consider the moral consequences of this approach. He then ties this in to sexual misconduct noting a number of the media personalities who contributed to Trump’s dearth of airtime had histories of harassing behaviour. He thus savvily lays out the media’s role as a social power broker, while arguing that power is a mindset that can corrupt its hosts in multiple manners.

Where Moore really bulls the bait and switch, however, is in the film’s substantial middle. Here he covers subjects including Flint’s water crisis, a West Virginia teacher’s strike, the battle between the Democratic party’s new left (eg Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Richard Ojeda) and the party establishment, and the Parkland Gun Control movement. Moore is from Flint, and the Flint scenes are amongst the documentary’s starkest and most memorable. As Trump’s name fades into the documentary’s background, part of me couldn’t help but wonder if Moore really wanted to make a Flint documentary, but felt he had to tell a story about Trump instead so as to sell it.

As the documentary closes, Moore does try to tie things together. He returns to Trump in provocative fashion, arguing that there’s no innate reasons fascism can’t rise in America. Moore makes this point about as well as he can, though there’s something about Hitler comparisons that means they almost never work. Hitler is not just a historical figure, but a symbol that roughly equates to “worst possible politician.” Invoking Hitler symbolism thus always comes across as a blatant rhetorical short cut, no matter how valid the individual comparison may be.

Fahrenheit 11/9 covers a lot of material, making it unclear what it’s thesis is. Moore’s overall point, is a good one: Democratic mediocrity has disillusioned progressive and marginalized voters, creating space for a radical on the over end of the political spectrum to galvanize his base and take powers. Nonetheless, there are times where the film’s content does feel like a mishmash of Moore’s concerns rather than key parts of this argument. While the Parkland kids certainly deserve the attention of the big screen, there cause doesn’t seem to fit Moore’s thesis as neatly as he would want it to, given that guns are one of the few issues where Democrats do seem consistently willing to stand up to Republican ideologues.

Michael Moore’s personality remains engaging as ever. And while Fahrenheit 11/9 lacked a thesis, it was had no shortage of well-put together ideas. So in this day and age of constant satire, no Moore’s film is not quite something new: but it nonetheless sets a standard that political late night TV should aspire to.

 

A Star is Born (2018)

Directed by: Bradley Cooper Written by: Eric Roth, Cooper, and Will Fetters

Note: New Zealand has recently issued a content warning to go with this film. I will not name it in the interest of dramatic surprise, however, those who would benefit from such warnings should know to look into it.

A_Star_is_Born                 In my review of the 1937 film version of A Star is Born I commented on a trait that felt a tad too obvious: its datedness. Yet this quality seems like a perfect starting point for understanding how the film’s most recent remake came to be. In the original A Star is Born, protagonist Esther Blodgett dreams of being a Hollywood star, but despite her unmistakable determinedness, there seems to be no basis (ie acting experience) for that dream.

In its attempt to be modern, the latest of the version replaces Esther with Ally (Lady Gaga), who has no hopes of being famous but is very confident in her abilities as a singer and performer (she’s also a songwriter, though she’s less confident about that). While both Esther and Ally’s stars are born through their developing relationships with established stars Norman Maine and Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) respectively, the detail with which the films lay out these paths are very different. Esther takes the more marketable stage name of Vicky Lester, meets and then gets to star in a movie with Norman Maine and somehow becomes Hollywood’s next darling. Ally and Jackson, by contrast have a long conversation in which it becomes clear to Jackson that Ally is his artistic equal. This, along with his feelings for her, inspires him to promote her talents.

Therefore, in its first act, A Star is Born seems like a brilliantly conceived remake. It takes an appealing but simple and dated story, and updates it with realist dialogue and better gender politics. The spirit of the original movie is undoubtedly present, yet Cooper’s version feels like an original tale in its own right.

Unfortunately, as A Star is Born progresses, its commitment to being a remake holds it back a bit. From the get-go it focuses its story around Jackson and Ally, trying to stick to the framework of the story of Esther and Norman. Due to the film’s extended runtime, and the simplicity of the source material, the script ultimately feels over-extended.

An undeniable theme of the original film is emasculation as Norman’s pre-existing problem of alcoholism is exacerbated as he watches Esther succeed while his star fades. The over-extension of the 2018 film seems the result of not knowing how to present such a story in 2018. At times, the film considers emphasizing the other elements of Maine’s depression, partially through the introduction of a hard to remember (though well portrayed) supporting character in Jackson’s brother Bobby (Sam Elliot). A three dimensional portrayal of Maine’s sadness would require a script more like that of Manchester by the Sea, but unfortunately creating such a script would have undermined the degree to which it was indeed a remake of A Star is Born. Personally, I wish the writers had gone in that direction and done more to develop supporting characters and subplots (they had no lack of memorable personas with actors like Elliot and Dave Chapelle in the cast), but its easy to see why such a choice was avoided.

The film did take one interesting path to updating the emasculation subplot. In one scene Jackson and Ally get into a fight over her recording a moderately raunchy pop song. Maine’s anger here can both be said to be a sincere expression of concern that Ally is selling herself short, while also an example of unconscious sexism (modern pop singing being a woman-dominated genre). If this scene had come to define the movie before, the work could be said to have struck a nice balance between depicting a modern, egalitarian relationship while still employing the gendered motifs of the source material. Unfortunately, this scene was largely a standalone artefact, and in fairness to the writer, its hard to image how it could have been extended further.

As A Star is Born (2018) concludes, a version of the classic “I’m Mrs. Norman Maine” line is used. The line is undoubtedly a modernization of the original, but its not exactly feminist either. It also ends up being symptomatic of the ambitions and shortcomings of the whole movie. The 1937 version of A Star is Born is dated in a way that means it cannot compare to the best drama screenplays of this epoch, but it nonetheless holds up as a folk tale of sorts. The 2018 film, is a bit too subtle to be a charming fairy tale, but that unfortunately leaves it in a worst of both worlds camp: it’s too detailed to be a fable, and too simple to be a continually captivating script. On the other hand, Bradley Cooper does make a convincing singer-songwriter, while Lady Gaga is equally memorable in a role that clearly shows off her acting skills rather than simply allowing her to play a part. And both of course get to put in some solid vocal performances. A Star is Born has a lot of good pieces, it’s just a shame it didn’t have more songs, or more subplots, or more anything. I don’t mean to take a crack at Romeo and Juliet but sometimes tragic romance isn’t enough.

Matangi/Maya/M.I.A. (2018)

Directed by: Steve Loveridge

Poster_for_Matangi-Maya-MIA,_June_2018I should preface this by saying I don’t have a great knowledge of M.I.A’s music. Based on a very limited sample, the only one of her songs that’s really to my taste is “Paper Planes,” a track which, with mild crypticness, satirically plays with right-wing stereotypes about immigration. That said, I’m not sure whether my lack of knowledge of M.I.A.’s music was for the better or the worse when I saw this film. Her songs, while present in the movie, are not its guiding force and do not play a role in shaping the film’s trajectory (one might anticipate a documentary about a musician might build up to the release of their most recent defining song). As such, I caution music fans to be prepared for this disappointment.I know all too well the awkward feeling of realizing a concert is over (there are no more encores) and a musician has still left several of their no-doubter classics out of the set.

That disclaimer aside, there are at least two key reasons why M.I.A.’s life is particularly suitable for documentary-production: two key reasons why Matangi/Maya/Mia will likely be remembered as one of this year’s defining documentaries (amongst people who remember such things that is).

The first reason is the film’s Linklater-esque quality. M.I.A. has been documenting her life on a handheld camera since (at least) her early adulthood. This footage makes up a good portion of the documentary. While the film does not discuss M.I.A’s motives for making these clips, it comes across as if a version of this documentary was always in the works. M.I.A. regularly filmed her family members engaged in somewhat serious conversation with her, producing a number of documentary worthy interviews. The existence of this footage also gets at another of the film’s themes: that becoming a star involves a deep confidence and vision. Granted, the documentary shouldn’t get too much credit for this theme, since a big part of M.I.A.’s ascent to stardom comes from her befriending a successful musician and getting hired to produce her music videos (the film makes it unclear how this opportunity manifested itself).

The second reason why M.I.A’s life makes for a good a documentary, is that it provides a strong example of a (racialized woman) celebrity getting panned for expressing political opinions: the old “shut up and sing” trope. The film recalls how M.I.A. was criticized for accusing the Sri Lankan government of genocide, despite her wealth and speaking like “Mick Jagger.” While such critiques can at times be valid, the film shows how they were particularly problematic in M.I.A.’s case. The case against M.I.A.’s activism was manufactured (note a key a scene about truffle fries) without any regard for the substance of her arguments.

Another important incident in the film involves M.I.A. inspiring “public outrage” for flipping the bird on live TV. One would think such an incident would be innocuous, well into the age of South Park, etc.,etc., but the white male professional bowler that a news network invited on air to discuss the incident clearly felt otherwise. The highlighting of this part of M.I.A.’s experience is particularly pertinent in an age of social media bubbles. Having become quite used to my peers excitedly noting the “woke” behaviors of certain celebrities, watching Matangi/Maya/M.I.A. proved an important reminder for me of the state of popular consciousness.

In summation, Matangi/Maya/M.I.A, thrives because of its use of home-archival footage and its exploration of discourse surrounding celebrity activism. Aside from these two defining qualities, the film doesn’t offer much else. That’s not a damning critique: those two qualities are enough to make it an interest work . Nonetheless, there are questions the film leaves unanswered. M.I.A. reportedly had only limited involvement with the making of the film, and given the little bit I know about her, I can’t help but wonder whether she would have been happy with the film’s depiction of her politics, or whether it made her look too much like a single-issue activist. And I also wonder whether the film could have done more to analyze her music (or at very least play more of it). Regardless, I enjoyed this film despite having little previous knowledge of M.I.A.’s artistic output. I can only imagine that those more invested in her as an artist will be even more intrigued.