Movies and mes­sages; John C. Reilly on comic duos

In 2018, many film­mak­ers felt more free to speak more loudly and clearly about hot-but­ton is­sues im­pact­ing so­ci­ety in a va­ri­ety of sto­ry­telling pack­ages

Variety - - Contents - STORY BY NICK CLEMENT

film­mak­ers have been mak­ing mes­sage movies since the birth of the art form, as Hol­ly­wood has long em­braced the no­tion of ob­serv­ing pro­gres­sive so­cial change through mass en­ter­tain­ment. From some of the ear­li­est talkies to out­right pro­pa­ganda pieces, to the Stan­ley Kramer dra­mas of the ’50s and ’60s and the resur­gence at the stu­dio level in the ’80s and ’90s, sto­ry­tellers con­tinue to find ways to embed strong per­sonal and cul­tural state­ments within their mo­tion pic­tures. And while many artists will ar­gue that ev­ery film is a mes­sage movie, it’s clear that 2018 pro­duced a bunch of nar­ra­tives that spoke louder than oth­ers.

One of the most in­ci­sive and fierce was “Blindspot­ting,” a Sun­dance fa­vorite from di­rec­tor Car­los Lopez Estrada and the writ­ing/act­ing team of Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal. The provoca­tive nar­ra­tive piv­ots on best friends who have learned to nav­i­gate the rough streets of Oak­land, Calif., only to see gen­tri­fi­ca­tion up­end their neigh­bor­hood. Ev­ery­thing changes when Diggs’ char­ac­ter, who is three days shy of com­plet­ing pro­ba­tion, wit­nesses a white cop shoot­ing and killing an un­armed black man.

“Our guid­ing light was to make a movie that could en­ter­tain a main­stream au­di­ence but not ig­nore the present re­al­i­ties we all face,” says pro­ducer Keith Calder.

Noth­ing comes easy in the chal­leng­ing world that “Blindspot­ting” presents, with the sto­ry­tellers of­fer­ing up im­por­tant ques­tions con­cern­ing mul­ti­ple top­ics that have no sim-

ple an­swers. “It’s shock­ingly close to the film we wanted to make,” says Diggs. “Blindspot­ting” is one of those break­throughs that de­mands to be dis­cov­ered.

“We hope the film brings about some self-re­flec­tion for the viewer,” says Casal, who was first con­tacted by pro­ducer Jess Calder when he was a Youtube star.

“We de­vel­oped the film as a love let­ter to Oak­land,” says Calder. “This isn’t the time to be sub­tle. You need to scream to get your mes­sage heard.”

Al­fonso Cuaron flashed his au­teur mus­cles with “Roma,” which he wrote, di­rected, co-pro­duced, shot and edited. An in­ti­mate and per­sonal fam­ily drama, the pic­ture is a hop-scotch­ing cine­matic time cap­sule from a volatile point in Mex­i­can his­tory, fo­cus­ing on a fam­ily in 1970 and their ded­i­cated house­keeper, all of whom are caught up in var­i­ous stages of emo­tional crises.

“The film has mes­sages about di­ver­sity, so­cial in­equal­ity, eth­nic dis­crim­i­na­tion, as well as mes­sages about strong women and fam­ily, and how we’re all the same,” says pro­ducer Gabriela Ro­driguez. The film “rep­re­sents how frag­ile we are as hu­man be­ings, but also how re­silient we can be and how we can over­come ad­ver­sity.”

Ge­orge Till­man Jr.’s “The Hate U Give” force­fully ex­plores un­war­ranted and deadly ac­tion by the po­lice, a head­line-dom­i­nat­ing is­sue for decades. Based on Angie Thomas’ best-sell­ing novel and adapted by Au­drey Wells, who passed away a day be­fore the film opened last Oc­to­ber, the story ex­am­ines painfully harsh truths about the cur­rent African-amer­i­can ex­pe­ri­ence, and is the sort of movie that might serve as a po­tent mes­sage for cer­tain view­ers.

“I was in­ter­ested in telling a story through the eyes of a 16-year-old,” says Till­man Jr. He “didn’t want to get preachy with any­thing, but at the same time, the story needed to be authen­tic to the world we’re dis­cussing.”

“Sorry to Bother You,” the strik­ing de­but from rap­per-turned-film­maker Boots Ri­ley, is the mo­tion pic­ture as so­ci­etal-wreck­ing-ball, a work so brazen and alive with pos­si­bil­i­ties that it’s im­pos­si­ble not to be pro­voked into a vis­ceral re­sponse af­ter view­ing.

“This was a hard film to get made be­cause the struc­ture couldn’t be com­pared to any­thing else,” says Ri­ley.

Lakeith Stan­field’s char­ac­ter, an African-amer­i­can tele­mar­keter who learns that sales are eas­ier if he speaks in “his white voice,” gets mixed up in cor­po­rate greed and con­spir­acy, with satir­i­cally hal­lu­cino­genic re­sults. “No­body has just one view of the world at any given mo­ment, and that was a mes­sage I wanted to get across,” Ri­ley says.

One of the year’s big­gest block­busters, “Crazy Rich Asians” was the first stu­dio film with an all-asian cast since “The Joy Luck Club.” For fans of Kevin Kwan’s novel, the bigscreen adap­ta­tion from screen­writ­ers Adele Lim and Peter Chiarelli lived up to the hype, fea­tur­ing a clas­sic set-up with cul­tural dis­tinc­tion, al­low­ing for ob­ser­va­tions re­gard­ing class-sta­tus, wealth and mar­riage to boil up.

“The film is about the Asian-amer­i­can ex­pe­ri­ence, and we wanted to show love for fam­ily and how there’s al­ways con­cern for the fu­ture,” says Lim.

Co-stars Con­stance Wu and Henry Gold­ing be­came break-out stars, and look to chal­lenge the no­tion of ex­pected cast­ing de­ci­sions with up­com­ing projects.

“If you make a movie that many peo­ple en­joy, it’s eas­ier to get more films with a sim­i­lar mes­sage made,” Chiarelli says.

Com­edy vet­eran Peter Far­relly stepped out­side his com­fort zone with the crowd-pleas­ing drama “Green Book,” a true story that looks at the friend­ship be­tween a black mu­si­cian (Ma­her­shela Ali) and his Ital­ian-amer­i­can driver and pro­tec­tor (Viggo Mortensen), as they jour­neyed across the Deep South in 1962 on a mu­si­cal tour, learn­ing im­por­tant life les­sons from each other along the way.

“Ev­ery­one who worked on this film fol­lowed their hearts,” says Far­relly. “The mes­sage was so pure and it was an im­por­tant story that de­served to be told.”

“This is a time to be blunt, and not re­main quiet about our feel­ings,” says Spike Lee, whose “Blackkklans­man” is an equal parts in­cen­di­ary and hi­lar­i­ous ac­count of the first African-amer­i­can de­tec­tive in the Colorado Springs Po­lice Dept., and who helped to in­fil­trate a lo­cal chap­ter of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s.

It’s set over 40 years ago, and yet speaks di­rectly to our present so­ci­etal land­scape, find­ing the film­maker do­ing what he knows how to do best: Telling a hot-blooded story with multi-di­men­sional char­ac­ters while mak­ing ob­ser­vant com­ments about race re­la­tions. And then there’s the film’s blis­ter­ing fi­nal shot, fea­tur­ing a dis­tressed, up­side down Amer­i­can flag, drained of color.

“There was some ini­tial push­back about the end­ing,” says Lee. “But hate crimes are way up in Amer­ica and I felt it was im­por­tant to end the film on that note.”

“If Beale Street Could Talk” is “Moon­light” helmer Barry Jenk­ins’ bit­ter­sweet adap­ta­tion of James Bald­win’s cel­e­brated novel, con­cern­ing a po­ten­tially doomed ro­mance be­tween two young African-amer­i­cans liv­ing in rapidly chang­ing Har­lem dur­ing the early 1970s. It’s an ar­tis­ti­cally bold work that fur­ther un­der­scores the racial di­vide in Amer­ica, whether from decades pre­vi­ous or right now in the mo­ment, show­ing how race de­fines how peo­ple are viewed through­out so­ci­ety. Be­cause the nar­ra­tive piv­ots on an act of racism re­sult­ing in an in­no­cent man be­ing put into jail, the film car­ries even deeper mean­ing.

It’s also an ex­pe­ri­en­tial work, show­ing how hard life would have been for mid­dle-class African-amer­i­cans dur­ing that time pe­riod, as they at­tempted to find apart­ments, jobs, and gain fair treat­ment from law en­force­ment. Of­ten­times the var­i­ous char­ac­ters look di­rectly and con­fi­dently into the cam­era, seek­ing an­swers to ques­tions that will never be ex­plained, a sub­lime aes­thetic de­ci­sion that fully demon­strates Jenk­ins’ com­mand over his craft.

Fi­nal mes­sage: The in­dus­try has no short­age of pow­er­ful voices that look to tell in­sight­ful sto­ries.

LO­CAL IM­PACTIn "Blindspot­ting," Rafael Casal and Daveed Diggs wres­tle with racism and gen­tri­fi­ca­tion.

BOOKED Rus­sell Hornsby, Regina Hall, Amandla Sten­berg and Com­mon star in adap­ta­tion of "The Hate U Give," which deals with po­lice bru­tal­ity.

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