Thursday 22 February 2018

Critical Week: Going underground

Screenings are still a bit thin at the moment, for two main reasons: I've seen most of things already (thanks to festivals and awards screenings) or distributors either aren't screening their films (as with Fifty Shades Freed) or are refusing to let some journalists see them (as with Jennifer Lawrence's Red Sparrow). I wish I knew why.

Anyway, I did catch the bonkers archaeological adventure 7 Guardians of the Tomb, which stars Li Bingbing, Kellan Lutz, Kelsey Grammer and a lot of big spiders. It's stupid, but rather enjoyably so. And then there was Raoul Peck's gorgeous drama The Young Karl Marx, which traces the friendship between Marx and Engels during a turbulent ideological period. Beautifully written, directed and acted, it deserves to be widely seen, but I suspect political narrow-mindedness will limit its audience. And I also chased down two films nominated for the feature documentary Oscar...

Strong Island
dir Yance Ford; with Yance Ford, Barbara Dunmore Ford 17/US ****.
With this documentary, filmmaker Yance Ford tells an astonishingly personal story that layers in a range of pungent issues, questioning elements of American society in thoughtful, challenging ways. At the centre is a family's grief and anger over the shooting death of Ford's older brother William. And no one has ever explained to the family why no charges were filed against the known assailant. Ford traces the series of events, asking probing questions of family members, friends, witnesses and officials while quietly highlighting the much bigger issues involved, including the underlying racism in society and how it has had an impact on this family for generations. The film bristles with rage, but never turns into a rant, as Ford channels artistic and emotional expression into every sequence. He also boldly layers his own emerging sexuality into the narrative. Along the way, there are several shocking moments that hit us square between the eyes, and the final scenes are intensely moving. So the doc is not only resonant and involving, it's also urgent and important.

Abacus: Small Enough to Jail
dir Steve James; with Thomas Sung, Jill Sung 17/US ***.
The outrageous injustice woven into this story is enough to get the blood boiling within the first few minutes. So it's frustrating that ace director Steve James gets somewhat bogged down in his own documentation of the situation. That said, the film is beautifully shot and edited, and James leaves no stone unturned as he tells the story of Abacus, a savings and loan set up by the Sung family to serve New York's Chinese community. It's also the only bank that has ever been charged in connection to the 2008 financial crash, which was caused by huge monoliths dealing in illegal mortgages then pleading that they were too big to fail, so they took trillions in bail-out cash. Meanwhile, prosecutors targeted the Sung family, unnervingly proving that the system had no interest in justice, going after a small firm without cause simply because they were an easy target. But patriarch Thomas Sung fought back, and while the narrative of the case is gripping, the details about finance and the global system are more than a little dry, even with whizzy graphics and a superb musical score (by Joshue Abrams) to liven things up. But while the bigger picture is indeed important, it's this family's story that's darkly compelling.

This coming week I'll catch up with, among other things, Jason Bateman in Game Night, Agnes Jaoui in I Got Life, the Russian drama A Gentle Creature and the doc Westwood: Punk, Icon Activist. I also have one last Oscar nominee to catch up with before the ceremony next weekend: the animated feature The Breadwinner.

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