It’s the May round-up.
At the 2018 Coachella music festival, the main act is Beyonce, performing a show entitled “Homecoming”. With a large-scale accompaniment of dancers and musicians, along with some special guests, the show encompasses themes of growing up, female empowerment and black academia. This concert film showcases the entire performance, as well as some backstage vignettes with the artist herself.
There is a line in the recent hit comedy show The Good Place where Ted Dansen’s Michael outlines to Kirsten Bell’s Eleanor the nature of perfection in their percentage obsessed afterlife: “Any place or thing in the universe can be up to 104% perfect. That’s how we got Beyonce.” It’s a suitable bit of witty commentary on how the world has come to view Beyonce Knowles-Carter, from her Destiny’s Child days all the way up to the present day role as a sort of demi-goddess of music and style. Homecoming is being portrayed as one of her serious high-points, a music and dance spectacular: I thought it would be interesting to experience it as someone who basically knows Beyonce just for her hits, and would have little knowledge of concert films in general.
Homecoming is certainly an experience. It’s a vivid, colourful, exotic affair, with a running thread of a college marching band keeping it all together, along with the masterful Knowles-Carter herself, who can certainly count herself as one of those artists as powerful live and is she is in the studio. Beyonce moves through her famous numbers, and a few not so famous (those familiar with her just from the radio might be a bit shocked by “Sorry”, or some of the more explicit lyrics of “Formation”, which never got much airplay over here). There are intricately choreographed dancing sequences, bizarre skits and an utterly raucous crowd that appears to be treating the show as something more akin to a religious ceremony.
I suppose you can enjoy the whole thing just for the music and the energy, but there is a commentary to Homecoming as well of course. The first is how the show is an ode to black education, specifically to black sororities and fraternities in third-level schools. Beyonce places a very key emphasis on the importance, and even nobility, of seeking education for a race of people for whom such opportunities have been routinely denied or subverted. While you can argue the entire show is about race in someway, it is this that comes out strongest.
Secondly, the show is about Beyonce herself, and specifically about her return to music and the stage after her pregnancy, wherein she underwent a fairly gruelling fitness regimen to regain her former appearance, to the detriment of time with her family. This is mostly outlined in backstage segments featuring her, husband Jay-Z (also performing onstage) and baby Blue Ivy, and you really do get that sense of weary toil and effort, just to be able to get up on stage and perform this show. In other words, 104% effort. Recommended.
Grass Is Greener
For many, many years in the USA, one of the cornerstones of the so called “War on Drugs” has been the prohibition of marijuana. In this documentary, Fab 5 Freddy explores the history of the drug in America, the often racist manner in which laws prohibiting it have been prosecuted, and how even the legalisation of its use may yet be badly effected by an inrush of capitalist interests.
I can’t say that I have ever held any strong opinions on the status of cannabis, in this country or in others, aside from a general distaste for its smell. I myself have never used it, and can safely say that my friends who have used it reported no crippling side-effects (excepting on their wallets maybe). It seems like we may be on the road to the legalisation of the drug in Ireland, and I find myself having no serious objections.
To that extent Grass Is Greener is not strictly meant for me, being focused on a country where “weed” has been demonised by politicians and the media for a large amount of time, put on the same pedestal as heroin and crack in terms of perceived social evils. Within those confines, much of the documentary does feel like it must be a rather impotent exercise in preaching to the choir, offering little in terms of changing minds for those who may have the opposite opinion.
As a history of the drug in America, it’s interesting if a little flat. Weed has always been part-and-parcel with the African-American jazz scene, even if it took white people a while to cop-on to who the “Reefer-man” was in some lyrics. From there its use, especially by youth, seemed to take on hellish connotations, must vividly rendered in ridiculous propaganda pieces like Reefer Madness (the musical pisstake of which might be the weed-media I’m most knowledgeable on) before the war on drugs turned its use into a trespass that might be worth a life sentence in prison (provided you were, of course, not white).
It is in its depiction of this last part that Grass Is Greener manages to excel. In a fashion similar to last year’s Survivors Guide To Prison, Freddy outlines, through interviews with convicts and family members of the same, the terrible toil taken on some minorities who have wound up inside America’s utterly broken penal system on account of marijuana use, and it can’t be denied that there are some harrowing tales in here, that contribute to the ever-more solidified sense that the US still contains one of the most racist societies in the free world.
Freddy closes his documentary with some intriguing thoughts on how the tide of legalisation has changed the way the capitalist system views the drug: once something to be reviled, but now something that needs to be marketed and profit-driven. Those who, in some cases, made lots of money selling weed when it was illegal now find themselves pushed to the side by legitimate business-savvy types. There is a plea here for some kind of regulation to prevent a growing shutout of the smaller suppliers, but it seems to me to be a shout into a vacuum: the price of legalising “grass” is that it becomes mainstream, and thus open to market forces it wasn’t subject to before. You can’t put the worms back into the can. More thought provoking in its last half hour than when it started Grass Is Greener is an interesting look at the history, and current status, of marijuana. Recommended.
In 2013, Cory Barlog returned to SIE Sony Santa Monica with the task of re-invigorating the God Of War video game franchise, by radically changing both its setting and the depth of its bloodthirsty main character, Kratos. Over the course of an at times torturous multi-year development cycle Barlog must balance the needs of numerous teams and an increasingly difficult looking timetable, in order to make the game he really wants to make.
Playstation dropped this surprisingly lengthy project on Youtube the other week unexpectedly, and I wasn’t sure what to make of it. As recently as last year Youtube has proven to be fertile ground for feature-length documentaries about the video game industry, but this had great potential in my eyes, to be a propaganda puff-piece for an industry giant that is hardly going to paint it or its client studios in too bad a light.
Luckily, Raising Kratos is actually well-rounded, insofar as it aims to provide a complete glimpse of the hardships of making a “AAA” title. 2018’s God Of War had the unfortunate problem of needing to both be an innovative and rip-roaring piece of entertainment in its own right, but also carried the expectations of being, essentially, a soft-reboot of a beloved franchise that was ailing a bit. The fandom have serious expectations, the deadlines are tight and the industry is unforgiving of mess-ups.
Barlog wants to change Kratos from being an uber-angry violent warrior who just wants revenge on everyone, into a man trying to have a productive relationship with his son (while killing lots of things, it’s still a video game). It’s not hard to see the evolution of Kratos reflected in his makers, who have similarly gone from young video game design Mozart’s to parents in the same time it has taken Kratos to go from Grecian deity to the Norse pantheon. Trying to bring this altogether results in stress and anguish: the behind-the-scenes footage regularly shows the employees of Sony Sanata Monica in an overworked state, Kratos voice actor Christopher Judge is moved to tears by memories of the time he’s missed with his own kids and one interviewee can’t bring herself to talk about how the experience has negatively effected her personal life. Tempers fray as the countdown gets smaller, and Barlog never seems to be completely satisfied with the level of work going on around him.
So Raising Kratos becomes a testament to the hard work and sacrifice needed to create art then. It takes its time too, showcasing a lot of the journey to get to “Gold”: moving buildings, layoffs, play testing, motion capture (featuring, alongside Judge, Sunny Suljic of this year’s Mid90s) trailer releases. If Raising Kratos has a fault it is that it is too long really, with the viewer positively exhausted by the time the game is released and we get the vicarious joy of watching Barlog read the first reviews; some trimming would have been appropriate at points. Still, it’s good to be reminded of the process that goes into these kinds of games. Recommended.
The Wandering Earth
In the not-too-distant future, with the sun soon to expand and annihilate the solar system, the denizens of our planet initiate the “Wandering Earth” project, turning the globe into a massive colony ship propelled by hundreds of large scale engines built into the surface. But when the Earth’s route inadvertently sets it on a collision course with Jupiter, astronaut Peiqiang (Wu Jing), his son Qi (Qu Chuxiao) and father-in-law Zi’ang (Ng Man-tat) find themselves at the heart of a desperate rescue effort.
This film, based on a set of sci-fi stories by Liu Cixin, is apparently quite a big deal for the Chinese movie industry, their attempt to create a big-budget CGI spectacular that will conquer both the domestic box office and wow internationally. It follows in the wake of things like the Matt Damon-helmed The Great Wall in that regard, and can be considered just as inherently goofy and ridiculous. Without meaning to sound condescending, The Wandering Earth comes off as a poor imitation of the western world’s “Bayhem” (along with Gravity, Sunshine, Interstellar, Star Wars, Snowpiercer and 2001) style of film-making, with nonsensical plot, science and effects all smashing into each other.
This plot is something that is quite hard to wrap your head around. The idea that the Earth could be turned into a spaceship for two and a half thousands years, propelled by hundreds of giant rockets jutting out of the eastern hemisphere (being fuelled by what exactly?) with only a space station for directional assistance, is childishly stupid. My immediate thought was that I was watching something that would be better suited as an (obscure) anime or Saturday morning cartoon. To director Frant Gwo’s credit, he makes probably the correct choice in choosing not to focus too much on the premise, because if he did the entire affair would come screeching to a halt.
You can only really evaluate The Wandering Earth properly based on the quality of its action and CGI carnage, and in that regard is film has ambitions it was unable to reach. The CGI work runs the gauntlet from genuinely impressive to surprisingly sloppy, and I’m unsure if it was all down to the fact that I watched this on my TV. The elemental destruction goes for 2012 levels of over the top-ness, between cascading mountains of ice, meteor showers of surprisingly deadly precision and ignited planetary atmospheres (that don’t cook the planet alive for some reason). Very little of it makes sense, but I suppose that isn’t the point.
In classic disaster film style, The Wandering Earth attempts to frame its narrative around a human core, with the obligatory “family-in-peril” combined with all sorts of archetypes: the grizzled military veteran, the wacky foreigner, the cowardly scientist, the dad. All of them are threadbare in terms of presentation and depth, little more than living props for the director and production team to throw snowstorms at, or to drop down elevator shafts. Without that emotional core, The Wandering Earth is an empty shell of an experience, and doubly so when it’s raison d’etre, the computer generated carnage, is so disappointing in large stretches. If this is an effort to appeal to western audiences, just as well it was dumped in Netflix. Not recommended.
Rim Of The World
13-year-old introvert Alex (Jack Gore) reluctantly heads to the “Rim of the World” summer camp, where he soon becomes acquainted with Chinese runaway ZhenZhen (Miya Cech), bratty millionaire kid Dariush (Benjamin Flores Jr) and mysterious recent arrival Gabriel (Alessio Scalzotto). When an alien invasion suddenly begins, the group find themselves unexpectedly holding the key to Earth’s survival.
When this popped up on the Netflix queue I was probably one of many whose interest was piqued primarily because of the obvious association to be made with the streaming giant’s premier “Young teens face the supernatural” property Stranger Things (can’t wait for season three!). And it had McG directing, so it couldn’t be considered a throwaway project. Right? Wrong. Rim Of The World is trash from top to bottom, which is shocking enough considering the guy at the helm is a fairly well respected producer and has directed some decent big budget fare in his time.
Nothing about this works, starting with the cast. I’ve said before you need to pull your punches with child actors, so I place the blame on McG, who must have been sleepwalking on set to allow this to take place, with a central four who look like they were plucked off the street in terms of ability, and don’t really have a sense of what they need to accomplish. The characters are so non-existent it is difficult to evaluate any of them: timid Alex has no likability, Zhen is reduced to a level of near-muteness, Dariush is just obnoxious (in a bad way) and Gabriel is just sort of there too.
And it’s not like this can’t be done (like with Stranger Things!). It just hasn’t been done here. The four stumble through a series of unfortunate events that make me think this might have been originally pitched as a TV show, which includes repeated encounters with murderous alien monsters mixed in with some murderous escaped prisoners (the latter in scenes that resemble a Mad Max-esque landscape, which has taken hold around an hour after the alien arrives).
The adult nature of some of the movie (one guy gets an alien claw through the chest on-screen, swear words and sexual references abound) exposes the convenient excuse that this is a film for children. I don’t think it was designed as such, at least not primarily. But that would at least explain some of it that veers into very childish territory, such as sequences where Alex needs to learn how to ride a bike or a section inside a shopping mall that was very out of place. Breakfast Club style, everyone has problems and everyone is more alike than they realise, but unlike The Breakfast Club they don’t outline it in a way you might find genuinely interesting.
Rim Of The World wants to have its cake and eat it too: the end result is a tone deaf mess, that I don’t see appealing to anyone really. They obviously wanted to make a 90 minute version of Stranger Things, but missed out on the tone, performances and world building required. Not recommended.
(All images are copyright of Netflix and Youtube).