One Night in Miami

One Night in Miami

Maybe a few more nights would have changed the world

dir: Regina King

2021

My first film for 2021! Who knew that we were even ever going to make it this far? I was sure by now nuclear missiles would have been launched, or flying piranhas would have taken us out, but here we still are, somehow, as much of the world collectively sighs in relief.

This film is another seen recently that is pretty much a play confined to one location, which pretty much is defining the business model of the streaming services that seem to be happy giving people money to make movies based on plays but only if they’re cheap cheap cheap. I don’t mind, because it’s not like multiple locations would have improved what is already a pretty decent film, awesomely acted and tightly directed by a woman who’s had a great couple of years, being the Queen, Regina King.

As if she hadn’t already achieved great things as the lead in the limited Watchmen series as Sister Night, here she shepherds a mythical story about 4 African-American titans and a night they might have shared together.

I call it mythical because, let’s be honest, no-one has any idea what happened that night. That four men hung out and talked shit isn’t that unusual, but when the four men are Muhammed Ali, Malcolm X, Jim Brown and Sam Cooke, and the year is 1964, then it seems like something incredibly important.

The film starts with 4 little vignettes, four lead ups to show us where these men are at in their lives and where America is at this point in time, for those who somehow think racism started in 2016: Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), the most acclaimed football player of his day, visits some guy with massive eyebrows in his mansion, where they have a pleasant enough conversation, but the kicker at the end is that the guy, for all the respect he might have for Jim’s achievements, won’t ever allow him into his house, because…

Prototypical soul singer Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jnr), already pretty successful, gets to play the Copacabana club for the first time, to the absolute indifference of an entirely white crowd.

Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) boxes in England, taunting his bloodied opponent, showboating to a degree that even he should find embarrassing, and gets knocked out for his troubles.

Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir) nervously discusses his plans to leave the Nation of Islam with his nervous wife, and, needless to say, they’re pretty nervous about things.

Rating:

Sound of Metal

Sound of Metal

The Sound of Awesomeness, if you have ears to hear it

dir: Darius Marder

2020

This was a great film that I’d heard a lot about last year, but only just got to see. It’s on Amazon Prime, available for streaming, and I’m not going to pretend that I have a subscription to that as well as the other 4 thousand streaming services. I’m not made of bitcoin.

It’s even, and I’m not making this up, playing in Melbourne cinemas such as Nova in Carlton, the Lido in Hawthorn or the Westgarth in…I forget what that suburb is called. I don’t know who’s going to cinemas right now, but whoever they are, I salute you, you crazy bastards, as long as you’re not maskless anti-vaxxer morons, in which case fuck you and your dumb selfishness.

Ordinarily, in any given year where Daniel Day Lewis hasn’t made a movie, and Christian Bale or Mathew McConaghey haven’t starved themselves down to skeletons for a role, it would be hard to pick who gave the performance of the year. This isn’t necessarily the best movie I’ve seen in the last year (though it’s pretty close), but I reckon Riz Ahmed’s performance here as the main character Ruben is the best male performance I recall in 2020. And that’s saying something, because there were a lot of great performances last year, in films probably made before people realised what was going to happen to the world, or especially to the States, which has lost nearly half a million people to the virus thus far. When I look at all the films I saw in 2020, what most of them have in common is great performances mostly by women. For whatever reason 2020 was not the year of watching men do manly things.

No, Riz is the man for this performance. Give him the Oscar already, not that there’s going to be a ceremony this year (gods, I hope not, but who knows). Just send it to him in the mail, he can record a short message on Zoom thanking the Academy, and that will be it.

He plays Ruben, the drummer in a hardcore band, him and his girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke). The less said about the name of the band, being Blackgammon, the better. They are pretty noisy, and Ruben hits the skins pretty fucking hard. Based on the night we see, and the next morning, Ruben and Lou have a pretty tight schedule. They travel around a lot from gig to gig, always working, always trying to keep busy. Non-stop touring, something which they seem to have been doing for four years.

However. Ruben is starting to find it hard to hear anything. It first happens during a gig, but it keeps happening afterwards as well. He is scared and confused. Lou’s pretty confused as well.

This all starts happening fairly soon into the movie, so I don’t think it’s really that much of a spoiler to tell you, dear reader, that Ruben is losing his hearing, and it seems like it could be permanent.

Rating:

Promising Young Woman

Promising Young Woman

Hello, operator? I'd like to report a feminism.

dir: Emerald Fennell

2020

A young woman, very drunk, in a bar. Three work colleague jerks notice, the way pack predatory animals notice anyone falling behind from the herd. They see vulnerability, and opportunity. They don’t know her at all.

One steps forward, so gentlemanly. He offers to get her home. Then he suggests his place is just around the corner. Then he pours her a big fuming drink, and tries to rape her, essentially. He keeps telling her how pretty she is, how special.

What he doesn’t know, until she asks with a clear, steady voice “What do you think you’re doing?”, is that she’s not drunk at all.

This seems, especially since we see her walking away the next morning seemingly dripping with blood, to be a feminist revenge thriller about a woman fighting against the bullshit patriarchal system, and the opportunism of men, but it’s really about a woman fighting against the tide. The tide is grief, a vast ocean of it, brought about by the loss of her friend in college, being Nina.

The tide, which you can fight against all you want, but never stops coming in, is also the implacability of men’s selfishness, and the systems in place that defend their selfishness, protecting them from the consequences of their own actions, and punishing the women who seek justice.

Cassie (Carey Mulligan) knows all of that, but still needs to do something about it anyway. Since dropping out of medical school, she seems to have been frozen in place, like the décor in her parents’ house where she still lives, unable to move what the people around her think is “forwards”. They adjudge that what Cassie should want is marriage, a career, the 2.4 kids and an SUV. Let’s just say that doesn’t interest her. She desires societal change on two levels: on the broadest level she seeks to challenge and threaten the men who think they’re the “good” ones who nevertheless try to rape someone just because they’re drunk, and on the specific level, she needs to harm the people who hurt and let down Nina.

Cassie shows a level of disassociation, of emotional detachment staggering in anyone who’s not a contract killer or a CEO. She follows her path, does what she does, wreaks havoc (very correctly, in my opinion) on people who very much deserve it, but doesn’t seem to get much out of it beyond mild amusement. Also, and this works perhaps to show her as not being completely insane, the ‘revenge’ she mostly gets on people tends to seem far worse initially than it actually ends up being.

Rating:

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

Ma Rainey

It's a dance. It's not specifically her butt that they're talking about.
I swear it's a dance

dir: George C. Wolfe

2020

It’s not fair, I know, but this is the 11,780th time where I’m going to do a very annoying thing I often do, which is talk about movies other than the one being reviewed, and I have no shame about it. Well, shame enough to mention it, but not enough to do anything about it.

When I watched Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods last year, I thought, damn, Chadwick Boseman is great in this like he is in everything, but the film is a bit of a shitty chore to sit through.

And then, in the worst year of living memory for most of the world, Chadwick Boseman died, taking most of us other than Chadwick Boseman by surprise. He knew, though, that he was going out at 42.

Black Panther is dead. King T’Challa, of the great Afrofuturist country of Wakanda, is dead.

I felt like an absolute ungrateful goblin for saying anything bad ever about anything he was ever in, especially Da 5 Bloods, which I now have to pretend is a better film than it is in order to not look churlish.

And so, with an actor I absolutely adore having died, and having the opportunity to see his last ever performance, it puts me in just as much of a bind. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is less about Ma Rainey, despite the fact that she was a living and breathing person, nicknamed the Mother of the Blues, but most of the flick is about Levee, Boseman’s character, his hopes, dreams and demons. He certainly gets the majority of the dialogue. And he gets as much screen time as you would hope in this very wordy drama (based on the play by August Wilson).

Problem is, damn it, it’s based on a play.

Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) is something of a grotesque figure. I don’t just mean her appearance, which is a lot of work, a lot of body suit stuff, a lot of garish makeup, with a tremendous actress underneath all of it. She is kind of a prototypical diva before such was fashionable. Her records sell, at this time in 1927. The Great Migration has been happening since Reconstruction, and a lot of people, meaning African-Americans, have been moving north in pursuit of jobs.

And she is their queen, of entertainment, at least. Her records sell not only in the South, but in the big northern cities too, so she needs must travel to Chicago to record another album.

The length of the film mostly covers a day at the studio as all and sundry await Ma Rainey’s arrival. Her band consists of three old timers who know how to play how she wants and keep their heads down, a young upstart trumpet player recently joined with delusions of grandeur (that would be Levee, Chadwick’s character) and the two brothers who run the studio and sell the records.

This is an era where they pay you for your singing and playing to be recorded, and then you’re out the door. If the recording works out, Ma will make $25 dollars for her time, and for the theft of her voice and talent. I mean, I know the studios have been exploiting the talent for a century, but, honestly, did things ever really improve. And when African-American entrepreneurs opened their own studios and produced their own records, did they exploit the ‘talent’ any less. Were Suge Knight or Berry Gordy Jnr any kinder or gentler to any of the people they ruthlessly tormented on their rosters at Motown and Death Row Records respectively just because they happened to be African-American?

Rating:

Wonder Woman 1984

WW84

This is a pretty good image for a poster, though it would be
even better on the side of a Sandman panel van

dir: Patty Jenkins

2020

I have to admit, as in, I’m ashamed to admit that I’m a bit disappointed.

I feel like I should be more grateful that a) another Wonder Woman movie has been released, and b) that another Wonder Woman movie was released at the tail end of the worst year in living memory, in a way that it could be enjoyed without risking coronadeath for myself or my nearest and dearest.

I might be more forgiving down the track, with more viewings, but I kinda have to admit that it didn’t feel great a lot of the time, and by the end, especially because of the ending, I felt a bit embarrassed for the people involved.

There should be scope, and room for films like this to be goofy. There’s enough of the ultra seriousness out there such that we don’t need every flick to feel like the literal fate of the universe is in the hands of an impressive band of overwhelmed heroes of various origins and ethnicities, though still predominately white, to save us all at least by the end of the film, if not the end of the sequel. Shazam managed to be goofy, endearing and entertaining, which was to Zach Levi’s and the movie's credit. I’m not sure there’s as much scope for goofiness with this character, but they try, good lord do they try.

I think that they still get the character right, and Gal Gadot’s performance is still pretty great. I’m not sure about the plot, though.

There are three major strands to the plot, and only one of them works that well, at least for my money. Also, the plot depends on a magic stone that grants wishes, and such things remind us that we are watching something a bit cheap, in every sense of the word.

The one plotline that kinda works best is the one dealing with Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal). This flick has an enormous advantage, at least for me, in that I am already severely predisposed towards loving anything Pedro Pascal does. I knew nothing about the very existence of the man until he played Oberyn Martel in Game of Thrones, and he was so unfuckingbelievably great as that character that I’ve never forgiven George RR Martin or the makers of the show for what they did to the single greatest character the show ever had that wasn’t called Tyrion, Cersei, Brienne, Arya, Varys or Ser Davos, admittedly.

And then he proved, at least mostly with his voice, that he could be equally great playing a completely different character, being the Clint Eastwood character he plays in The Mandalorian. In Wonder Woman 1984, to give the film its full title, or one of its potential titles – I’m not really sure – he is incredible. But, and this is a big butt, and I cannot lie, the major issue is whether you can stomach the millionth version of something to do with the orange piece of shit soon to be ejected from the White House in the United States.

Rating:

Soul

Soul

Joe, you are rhythm, you are music, you are soul

dir: Peter Docter

2020

You don’t know how much of a relief this was. A good Pixar movie. Again. It’s been a while.

I did not love Onward, I guess because I’m not American, and the sight of grown people being obsessed with playing catch as the be and end all of parenting and fatherhood has never resonated with me the way I guess it resonates with Americans. And it was a very elaborate and colourful way to spend millions in the service of a story so simplistic and mundane that it should have been half an hour long, and delivered by a generic episode of Everybody Loves Raymond, or Two and a Half Men or something suitably banal. And in truth Soul is probably the Pixar flicked I’ve liked the most since Inside Out, which still holds up, but which was six long and lonely years ago.

At first it seemed surprising that anyone would devote Pixar / Disney levels of resources to telling a story with a middle-aged African American protagonist, this being the world we live in, but then I guess you remember that Pixar previously had an 80-year-old pensioner as the protagonist of Up. So they can basically do whatever the fuck they want. When work on this started as well, it would have been long before the coronavirus changed everything, but it is more than likely that it was finished with people working remotely or distanced at least, which I guess is less of a problem for an animated movie than one where crews and casts have to cluster together in a studio or on a set. And doubtless Disney never would have wanted to release this only on their streaming service, though I’m sure it’s playing in a bunch of cinemas where brave souls don’t fear the virus.

I wasn’t going to see this in a cinema. No way, no day. Too risky until enough of us have the vaccine in our sweaty, desperate clutches, and lord Satan knows when that will be. But I am happy to watch it streamed through that most diabolical of streaming services, being Disney +.

So even if Disney loses a bundle on this, I think Soul is a triumph, because it’s a very enjoyable and entertaining movie, its story isn’t completely familiar and overdone, even if there are elements recognisable from other Pixar flicks, but it’s also in the service of a pretty good message about Life, you know, that thing many of us take for granted because the reality of our daily existence can vary from excruciating to staggeringly mundane even when the plague apocalypse isn’t happening around us.

Rating:

Kajillionaire

Kajillionaire

I love when posters say nothing about a movie, but then
this movie is indescribable

dir: Miranda July

2020

I don’t get to feel surprise very often, but I’m glad to say that while rare it’s not impossible.

I liked Miranda July’s first film, being Me and You and Everyone We Know, didn’t at all like her 2nd film The Future, and remember little else other than one of the main characters fucking a couch, but this, her third flick, delighted me. Delighted me. No shit.

It's kind of hard to actually pinpoint why I found it so enjoyable, and why I had a goofy grin on my face for much of the film’s duration. There’s nothing in the description, or in any plot summary you might read, that would point to why either. But I did. You’re just going to have to come to terms with that.

Three low level grifters, two parents and their adult kid, grift, scam and skim their way around the less memorable parts of Los Angeles. They are certainly odd bods. The parents (Debra Winger and Richard Jenkins) have a certain paranoid energy, and the third member of their trio has her own goofy trajectory.

The first thing we see them do is conduct surveillance on a location, before the gawky daughter does some weird semi-acrobatic movements, before going into a post office, and opening a post office box with a key. She puts her arm through, and then tries to find anything, anything she can grasp, in the other PO boxes adjacent.

It’s the slimmest of slim pickings. Whatever she gets is split three ways between them, as is their wont in all their schemes, we are told later on. They only travel by bus, and when they return to the place where they live, they have to hide, or contort themselves to avoid being seen by the landlord, to whom they of course owe a lot of money.

The landlord runs a business called Bubbles Inc, where they presumably manufacture bubbles. These bubbles overflow over one of the walls into the dilapidated office that the three grifters call home. As a condition of their occupancy, they have to catch the bubbles that overflow the wall with buckets, and then wipe the wall down. To stop it from getting mouldy.

Despite their best contortionist efforts, the landlord sees them, and starts crying as he berates them for the outstanding rent. He is a man with no emotional filters, but that doesn’t predispose him towards letting them live in a toxic environment he leases out rent free. Oh no, that wouldn’t be right. They owe $1500, and need to deliver by Friday or they’re out.

They don’t seem too stressed about it, though. Their view of life, though their own lives seem to be dominated with the petty obsessions it seems to require, aspires to be a rejection of consumerism. A kajillionaire is someone out there, anyone, who aspires to have a job and possessions, and who does a different grift for a living, being the rat race the rest of us normals presumably adhere to.

Rating:

The New Mutants

New Mutants

Meet the New Mutants. Disturbingly undistinguished
from the old ones.

dir: Josh Boone

2020

A cursed movie…trying to come out in a deeply cursed year. Every flick that was meant to come out this year can claim to be cursed now, because of, you know, the floating death in the air thing, but this flick was cursed long before the virus raised its ugly head.

The New Mutants, really, didn’t stand a chance. In a normal year it would have been released in cinemas and then disappeared three weeks later, and accountants and jerks in marketing would have argued for a while as to what went wrong, and then everyone including the people in it would have forgotten about it and moved on with their lives.

It could be that audiences don’t care about mutants or X-Men or X-Men-related bullshit anymore, if they ever did, especially when there’s no Hugh Jackman with shiny claws and sideburns involved. It could also be that they’ve had enough of a crack at it, and they could leave this X-Men stuff alone for a decade or two before endlessly rebooting again and again.

When this was put together, they probably thought having Maisie Williams in it would be pretty great. She is, after all, pretty great. She singlehandedly saved Westeros / Game of Thrones, and created a moment of television history that will be remembered long after the dragons and the endless sexual violence are (hopefully) forgotten. And she was great throughout the show.

But this stupid year is the year of Anya Taylor-Joy, who has completely dominated streaming services and television, be it in perplexing chess dramas, in Jane Austen adaptations and virtually everything else in existence, including this standard mutant fare. She doesn’t have to do much other than turn up, so good luck for her.

This is, to be honest and fair, a fairly shitty, shoddy movie, with a bunch of people in their twenties playing teens and trying to get that YA energy, trying to reboot a franchise with new and therefore cheaper characters, and also, inexplicably, trying to make a horror flick with teen protagonists that makes no sense as horror or a teen flick or a new YA franchise.

It’s not all bad, though. Maisie Williams is great. It hardly matters what her character is called, or what she does, or why she has a Scottish accent, or why she’s being tormented by a Catholic-looking priest, which makes no sense if she’s Scottish. I’m just glad she’s here, in the same way I’m glad to see her in anything.

Rating:

Possessor

Possessor

How to succeed in business by trying really hard

dir: Brandon Cronenberg

2020

Possessor is a nasty, vicious horror movie replete with horrifying and disturbing imagery in the service of a plot that pulls none of the punches you expect would be a done deal in almost any other movie, made by anyone else with a different legacy.

It’s not a film that uses humour to dissipate or alleviate the tension, either. It’s pretty much committed to a singular vision of a terrifying world in which corporate assassins have mastered a technique whereby an assassin’s consciousness can be inserted into a particular person’s brain, allowing them to take out their target, with no-one any the wiser as to the actual ‘person’ pulling the trigger or inserting the knife, as the case may be.

Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough) is this company’s, called Trematon, star assassin. The first scene is of her “possessing” a woman called Holly (Gabrielle Graham) in order to kill a lawyer at a party. Killing lawyers to improve society has been a longstanding joke since at least Shakespeare’s day, but it’s unlikely he envisaged something as bloody as this. Tasya’s task is to shoot the guy and then herself, but she takes a physical relish in her work, and pleasurably luxuriates in the bloodbath that ensues to the point where the practical necessities don’t seem as necessary anymore.

She tries to shoot herself in the mouth, in an image that will reoccur throughout the film, but cannot bring herself to do so, but luckily, when the cops arrive, they tie up that loose end for her.

From there it cuts back to Tasya waking up out of some awful looking machine, throwing up, but coming back to herself. These possessions are not simple affairs, and they take a lot out of the possessor, and, obviously, everything out of the person taken over.

She has to debrief with the company’s handler, being a woman called Girder (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who asks her if she recognises a number of items, and the back story to those items.

Of significance is the story she tells about a pinned red butterfly, one she pinned as a child, that always makes her feel a bit guilty whenever she looks at it. You’d think with all the people she has likely killed, there are other things to feel bad about. It reoccurs towards the end, to an extremely chilling affect.

As alien as this performance is throughout, and as far nastier as the story gets, the character of Vos is disconcerting from beginning to end. How else would a person losing their sense of self AND carrying out horrific murders in other people’s bodies be?

Rating:

Ammonite

Ammonite

it's like Ingmar Bergman died for somebody's sins, but not mine

dir: Francis Lee

2020

Ammonite. It’s a fossil.

Why is this film called Ammonite? Because one of the characters was famous for the fossils she discovered, back when women in England weren’t allowed to vote, own stuff or count numbers out loud for fear of shriveling up all the gentlemen’s dicks with their fancy book learnin’.

Mary Anning found a bunch of sea monster fossils at a place called Lyme Regis, from the age of 11 onwards, and was quite adept and skilled when it came to finding, excavating and drawing them. She accumulated a lot of knowledge, but she couldn’t be allowed to join the Royal Society of Geologists or even call herself a science type person because, obviously no testicles means not scientist.

But she found and excavated what would be called ichthyosaurs, pteranadons and plesiosaurs and stacks of other fossils, including ammonites, those spiral shells so synonymous with limestone, and she was good at it. Few people start an entire branch of science, but she was surely one of the progenitors of modern paleontology (if that isn’t oxymoronic language, and I think it probably is). This is the rare instance where I knew something about the person a movie is about (this is not a biopic, not really), but, like most British figures from history, I knew about her because of an episode of Horrible Histories which I watched with my daughter years ago. I thought it was a pretty fascinating story about a pretty dauntless, accomplished person, who barely got credit in her lifetime for her work or achievements.

Ammonite is a story about Mary Anning and her relationship with the world, not so much about her achievements. The film conjectures that Mary’s experiences in life, being one of the only surviving children of a family of ten, where most died soon after birth, and living with the grimmest ghoul of a mother (Gemma Jones) in a place that looks utterly soul-draining, had an impact. She, herself, is fossil-like, stone cold, living only to please her desolate, dour mother and find more fossils for sale. It’s their only source of income, and, amazingly, fossils don’t go for much, because there isn’t much of a market.

As portrayed in the film, a dilettante, a prancing smug poser of a jerk called Roderick Murchison (James McArdle) walks into her shop and fawns over her and her discoveries. She, being Mary Anning (the always great Kate Winslet), listens to his prattle with unconcealed disinterest. She does like to make a sale, though.

Rating:

Hillbilly Elegy

Hillbilly Elegy

What an inspiring poster for such an inspiring and true story

dir: Ron Howard

2020

When a movie calls itself Hillbilly Elegy, I at least expect it to have some hillbillies in it. Some twangs of a banjo at least. There’s not much in this two-hour memoir about a kid growing up in the suburbs of Middletown, Ohio in the 90s that justifies such a title, but it hardly matters.

No hillbillies were harmed in the making of this moviefilm. Probably because they couldn’t find any, which is a shame.

J.D. Vance, through the success of his book of the same name as this movie, somehow became the voice of poor White America, most keenly during the last dire 4 years where he’d be trotted out on cable news and interview programs to explain why white poor people support political leaders who clearly despise them and do nothing to help them or anyone other than their own corporate interests. For whatever reason he was seen as offering some keen insight into the plight of the poor and disadvantaged, but only if they were white. It’s a heavy mantle to put on anyone’s shoulders, but it’s one he volunteered for and encouraged.

The purpose of the book wasn’t just to say ‘being poor sucks, and here is how I survived my family’, it was ‘being poor sucks, being a poor hillbilly sucks, and making bad choices means you’re fucked, but if you only make Good Choices and take Personal Responsibility for everything, then good things come to those who wait.” There was a sociological and political aspect to the book; a set of arguments that walk right up to the line of actually explaining something important (being the connection between the economic decline of these areas with jobs moving overseas, to vast unemployment, to the pipeline between legal opioid over-prescription and addiction). But he totally stuffs up the dismount.

There are important conversations to be had about people becoming disconnected from the community around them, having or at least feeling like they have limited agency in their lives, about the vast impact that casual decisions at corporate headquarters have over the lives of millions of people, and losing hope, giving in to despair. But you’re not going to hear anything new on the topic here.

Because all J.D. has are these bog standard conservative boilerplate arguments (pull yourself up from your bootstraps, work hard, be heteronormative, get married and have 2.4, pay the mortgage, be aspirational and consume, consume, consume) that ignore the fact that these “jobs” disappeared overseas a long time ago because businesses noticed they didn’t like paying people a living wage, and successive governments did what they could to destroy the union movement. Opposing unions and the minimum wage have been cornerstone conservative arguments for decades, and suppressing wages and eliminating secure jobs is what they do in practice, across the States. But you’re not going to hear this hack say anything about that.

Rating:

Tenet

Tenet

Backwards or forwards, it still runs out of steam

dir: Christopher Nolan

2020

The word Tenet is a palindrome. That’s the only reason people keep saying “tenet!” in this really mysterious way, and why it’s the title of the film. The word is a palindrome, and the film is a palindrome, meaning it’s the same backwards going forwards.

Like most of Nolan’s films, it’s incredibly intricate and bombastic, and it has serious people being serious as they go about their serious job of exposition. There are set pieces interspersed between people valiantly trying to explain whatever the fuck is going on to the protagonist.

The protagonist in this film is called, within the film, The Protagonist. I am not making this shit up. At one point he even says to someone “But I’m The Protagonist” with a tone that implies “Do you know who the fuck I am? How dare you bring me a lukewarm latte?”, only to be told, in a bit that made me smile, “You’re – A - protagonist”, implying there are more people getting to make choices in the story than just this guy. Yeah. This Guy. Over Here.

Honestly, I watched the movie carefully, listened to all the dialogue people said they couldn’t hear, mostly understood the premise, at least the main threat, which is the end of the world etc etc, but as to what was actually going on at some points, I honestly had no fucking idea. As in, okay I accept that I understand that some people were moving backwards in time, as others went forwards, and others went backwards for a while before going forwards again, but what that meant at a lot of moments, especially in some of the action sequences towards the end, means I’ve got no fucking idea what was actually happening. Not the “why” of it, not even the “how”, but mostly the “What?”

But it looked impressive, and the soundtrack and the propulsive editing had me excited and revved up for most of the film’s length. And it is a long arse film, make no mistake. It’s 2 hours and 40 minutes you’d otherwise have spent pickling stuff from your garden, dreading the coming of the virus or counting the ways in which you should have done things differently twenty years ago. Speaking of the virus, man, Christopher Nolan can’t catch a break. Of all the people that have suffered in 2020, surely the one to suffer most is the chap whose studio, being Warner Brothers, decided to release a film just as the epidemic was poised to infect so many millions. Imagine trying to entice people into the ideal environment from which they could catch this fucking plague from some random stranger: Come one come all to the latest IMAX extravaganza! Complimentary death for you or someone close to you with each ticket sold! Maybe you’ll even get a handjob from that guy in Marketing or that lady from Auditing who’s just depressed enough to go on a date with you!

Either way, what a hard sell. Going to the movies was becoming hard even before what happened this year happened. Risking infection just to watch Nolan basically jerk himself off to his own greatest hits makes even less sense this year than it ever did before.

I’m sure whatever money they lost through making this very expensive looking movie, and marketing a film they couldn’t force people to go and see even at gunpoint, they’ll make up in tax breaks or, I dunno, donations to Trump’s reelection campaign or something. I’m sure Nolan will get more work down the track. He can’t be hurting for beer money, surely. He’s probably made enough money by now to buy Cornwall, and I don’t mean some nice house down in Cornwall. Those Batman flicks alone probably earned most of the UK’s GDP for those years, but of course that was before Brexit. Now he’ll be lucky to make thruppence ha’penny for his next gig.

Our protagonist might have a name you don’t recognise. He’s a pretty cool customer. The glare in his eye could be genetic. He doesn’t look that much like his dad, but he sure as shit sounds like him. John David Washington has the unenviable career of someone genetically related to, I shit you not, Denzel Washington. Holy shit. Like, how courageous do you have to be to chose to be an actor when your dad is one of the greatest and most famous actors the States has ever produced? People give Clint Eastwood’s kids crap for daring to be in movies, but imagine if Denzel was your goddamned dad! Honestly, I wouldn’t be able to say line one in anything ever if I felt like people were constantly going to compare me to a titan, a colossus, a goddamn Thanos of actoring like Denzel.

Rating:

Borat Subsequent Moviefilm

Borat Subsequent Moviefilm

I wish we lived in a world where this wasn't necessary. But it is.

dir: Jason Woliner

2020

It’s getting increasingly hard to know what to call these films with Sacha Baron Cohen playing strange characters trying to trick people into showing how awful they are. They’re not docos, mockumentary is not a real word, they’re not entirely fictional, except for the people who don’t know they’re on camera for the purposes of making a Borat movie, and they are, at least for me, excruciating to watch because of my ever-decreasing threshold for cringe.

I literally had to stop watching this flick 30 or 40 times. Admittedly, that doesn’t mean much when you’re streaming something: it’s not like I had to get up dozens of times to press ‘Stop’ on some outmoded VHS player without a remote control, or eject the tape and put it back in its plastic box. I just had to click the Pause icon. But I did it so many times, over so many days. Can I even really say that I’ve watched the movie, or would it be more accurate to say I watched a disconnected series of images to do with this movie, until I heard or saw something so disturbing I had to stop dozens of times over the course of a week? So my knowledge of what actually happens in this flick is spotty, to say the least.

The gist of it isn’t really beyond me, because it’s not that complicated. It sounds complicated, if you took the trouble to list the stuff that they pretend is the plot: Borat was imprisoned in Kazakhstan for bringing shame to the fatherland, and is released in order to give a monkey to Trump, or Michael Pence or any other random person, in order to make his country great again. The original flick came out in 2006, so it’s comforting to see, when Borat returns to his home, which if I recall was originally filmed somewhere in Romania, nothing has changed or improved in nearly two decades. If it’s not the same, awful place, then excellent work by the location scouts finding somewhere just as dismal from a few centuries ago to briefly film in. I wonder if they gave cigarettes or chocolate bars to the local children in payment?

Much to Borat’s horror, he discovers that he has a daughter, called Tutar (Maria Bakalova), who somehow lives in more squalor than the people around her. Through comedy and misadventure, she ends up in the States with Borat as he tries to implement his plan of giving something of value to the highest ranking monsters of the current administration.

Now, along with all the horrific racist and anti-Semitic stuff Borat is renowned for, and the ability he has to find terrible people who happily say horrible things on (hidden or obvious) camera, the ultimate story with Tutar is the gradual realisation, on both their parts, that she is not sub-human, and that she is as entitled to live and breath and walk around and drive and do all sorts of things just like everybody else. There is a manual of misinformation and medical mendacity that both read from like it’s gospel, and in truth it’s only marginally more repressive and misogynist than the actual gospels.

Rating:

The Outpost

The Outpost

I swear, honestly, the film is way better than what
this poster would seem to imply, which is that it's
a movie about soccer hooligans angry about a bad
call by the referees and their washing machine
being blown up by a rival team supporter. Grrr!

dir: Rod Lurie

2020

War is hell, war is dumb, but it’s really exciting to watch on television. Less enjoyable in person, one imagines.

The Outpost tries really hard to capture the experience of a number of soldiers in Afghanistan in 2009. It is very much based on a true story. The true story is this: at the height of their wisdom, the powers that be within the US hierarchy decided that there should be an outpost near the border with Pakistan whose purpose would be both to project power and encourage feelings of goodwill within the local Afghani community. So, look tough but also be friendly and hand out bribes whenever it seems like an opportune time. Goodwill among the locals would mean they’re less inclined to support or enable the Taliban, which is a win for everyone, except the Taliban, of course

With that intention, an outpost is set up, in probably the most exposed and vulnerable place in all of Afghanistan, so that the US’s commitment to peace in the region cannot be doubted. I mean, if you set up your camp in a place where anyone with a rifle or even a rock could potentially kill your guys from up on high, and you wouldn’t even see where the jerks were attacking you from, it shows how hardcore you are as a military and a nation. Probably.

I mean, tactically it looks insane, but maybe strategically? Who fucking knows? It is made to look insane to us, as viewers, as it is explained to the new soldiers rolling in, who look up at the mountains surrounding the post, wondering how such a terrible and isolated location was chosen, but it must have made sense to someone, at some point. No one in the flick takes credit for it, like, some white-glove wearing evil Colonel swirling a glass of brandy and smoking a Cuban cigar from the safety of his quarters back in the States, but someone somewhere thought it was a good idea.

These grunts, of course, aren’t there to reason why, theirs is just to do and die. And they will, in large numbers. Along the way, they’ll mock each other, question each other’s sexuality on a constant basis, describe each other as smelling like a “bag of dicks” and generally do a lot of idiotic things in between getting attacked by the faceless and ruthless enemy, who doesn’t want them there, for some reason.

Rating:

Antebellum

Antebellum

These butterflies have a lot to answer for, not least of
which is their abject racism.

dir: Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz

2020

Antebellum means ‘before the war’ in Latin, and it could mean before any war, but because Americans are Americans, antebellum is generally used to mean “before the Civil War”, like, for the losing side, meaning “weren’t things great before the Civil War?”

They weren’t, not at all, for too many, but for some people the struggle never ends. In this movie, we watch as a bunch of awful people imprison, torture and kill African-Americans, with the intention of proving their supremacy over them, based on skin colour alone.

But, you know, based on actual behaviour and lack of humanity, how is this superior to anything or anyone?

Janelle Monáe plays the lead character, and is in pretty much every scene. She carries the entire weight and freight of the film, for good and for ill. It’s a lot to carry.

She’s better known as a singer and crazily talented creator, but she’s put in some solid performances over the last few years, and she does well here with a very difficult role. A role that one wishes she didn’t have to take.

In the first 40 minutes of the film, we see life, brutal life, on a plantation. A woman is brutalised, and then killed. Southern gentlemen in the uniform of the Confederacy are the ones brutalising the slaves. A woman (Monáe) is told to respond to the name given her, and refuses, and is branded, with the initials BD.

For forty minutes this keeps up. There aren’t many details that give the game away. One of the slaves had a nose ring, a septum piercing. The slaves are made to pick cotton, at gunpoint, and then the cotton is burned. No-one gives the game away through speaking, but it should be pretty fucking obvious to anyone, no matter how little they know about the film, that this is not actually the South before or during the Civil War.

Of course the sounds of war persist in the distance, but we are told that the South is winning, and the cowardly North will soon be vanquished, so these awful people will get to continue their awful ways presumably for ever and ever.

Rating:

The Devil All The Time

The Devil All the Time

Sorry to disappoint you, but the Devil doesn't put in an
appearance. I think he refused to share screen time with
such an obvious hack like Robert Pattinson.

dir: Antonio Campos

2020

The Devil All the Time has a brutal story. It’s almost as if Nick Cave’s Murder Ballads album came to life in the form of a Netflix original movie. It’s mostly set in or around a place called Knockemstiff, Ohio, and mostly confines itself to the miserable lives of a number of people who live and wander around Ohio and West Virginia. And the place actually exists! Hopefully this laundry list of tragedy and awful luck didn’t happen to too many people the author knew, but you never know.

I have no knowledge of what life is actually like in those states, but, fucking hell, this is not a movie that’s going to inspire a lot of tourism. The author of the book this film is based on, being Donald Ray Pollock, also helps out by reading his own words in voiceover, telling us more about these sorry sons of bitches than we probably ever wanted to know, and even, in a moment that I’m ashamed to admit made me laugh out loud, calls one of the worst of them “the sick fuck”, with all the disgust he can muster, in case we had any doubts how he feels about his own creations.

Like God himself, Pollock knows what it is to become sick of one’s own creations, and devises often the cruellest ways for them to depart this mortal coil, only the most ironic of methods for his and our amusement. Underlying everything is a feeling of hopelessness, of everything being corrupt, that the good can’t last long in the face of evil, but that it’s really not God’s fault. Oh no.

Many characters have a deeply distorted idea of their Christian faith, one which they feel compels them to do a bunch of horrible stuff to themselves or each other, but the fault doesn’t seem to be with the faith itself, but in their twisted and selfish delusions. It is all well and good to decry the abuses of the clergy or the hypocrisy of the faithful doing evil and pretending it to be God’s will, but we are never really confused when a person does a horrible thing here: that ain’t Jesus telling you to murder a dog or stab your wife in the neck; that’s all on you, buddy.

There is a vast number of characters, and interlacing stories, but they manage to get pared down significantly. The story mostly starts just after World War II as a soldier (Bill Skarsgard, yep, one of Stellan Skarsgard’s hundreds of talented children) returns to his pokey Ohio town, but not before he meets the love of his life (Hayley Bennett) in a diner during the return journey. He sees her beauty and kindness to a disabled homeless chap, and is convinced his life can go no other way.

He carries with him not only the experiences of the war, but the specific experience of having seen a man crucified and skinned alive. The Christian cross has taken on a much darker significance for him. Plus, his character’s name is Willard, and nothing good ever comes of people being called that.

Rating:

Mulan

Mulan

She can enrol in the army in my place any time

dir: Niki Caro

2020

I am not embarrassed to admit that I have sat through and enjoyed the Disney animated movie Mulan a couple of times, in the same way that I’ve watched most of their cheesy products over the years, both with and without my daughter. But now that she’s too old for me to use her as an excuse when I want to watch something, the choice to watch a new version of this tale has to be a more conscious one.

Everything is so freighted and problematic these days. By watching Mulan, and enjoying the pretty visuals and the costumes and the performances, and tearing up a few times, am I supporting the genocide of the Uighur people by the one party totalitarian government of China? Well, probably, I don’t know. I’ve been watching Hong Kong and Chinese films for decades, and I’ve long known that now the government has to approve every script before it goes into production, and virtually every Chinese film, even ones made by Disney, have to toe the party line.

And, yes, the party line is a cruel, inhuman and brutal one. I don’t really have a justification beyond that. I have to hope that, at least from the perspective of the person playing the lead character, and the person directing, being Kiwi director Niki Caro, most famous for Whale Rider all those years ago, their intent with this film, with its predominantly Chinese-American cast (with some major exceptions, being legends like Gong Li, Jet Li and Donnie Yen), is to side-step the political stuff and to tell the ‘classic proto-feminist story of a girl who fights great pretending to be a boy in order to save her dear old dad, the emperor and all of China.

That it is all told within the context of a story that glorifies empires / totalitarian states, and emperors that rule by Divine Right, and obedience to patriarchal structures and such, well, as my daughter handily points out, this is Disney after all. What were we expecting?

This mostly sticks to the script set out by the ‘original’ animated version, doesn’t update it in any way, but wants to use the look and the tropes of wuxia epics to deliver something that looks like one thing but appeals to both a mass Chinese audience as well as a mass American audience.

When you try to make two different people happy, who have two completely different agendas, and you do it in the most ham-fisted and timid way, you’re not going to leave anyone happy.

Of the many names of people who ‘worked’ on the screenplay (the greater the number of names, the shittier the end product, quite often), there wasn’t an even vaguely Asian-sounding surname amongst them, let alone a Chinese or Chinese-American one. Sure, there are Chinese actors, but they are awkwardly singing to an American tune. Thankfully there is no singing in this flick, if that metaphor used in the previous sentence gave you the impression this was going to be a new Chinese Cats inflicted upon the world.

Rating:

The Burnt Orange Heresy

The Burnt Orange Heresy

Look at these serious people being all serious. This must
be seriously serious.

dir: Giuseppe Capotondi

2020

It’s… There’s… Hmmm.

I enjoyed most of this flick, and then it flies off the rails in a way that makes it overall less satisfying? I try to make the first sentence in a review punchy and eye catching, but it’s a bit of a catastrophe, this time. It’s hard to pin point exactly where things go wrong – actually, no, it’s not hard at all. There’s an exact moment where the audience has to say out loud “what bullshit”.

The Burnt Orange Heresy wants to be a good film. There’s a good film lurking under the surface. It certainly wants to be and look classy. It starts with a jerk (Claes Bang) practicing a speech that he’ll be delivering to a group of wealthy middle aged middle class American tourists, but in Milan, somewhere. There’s no suggestion that the main character is Italian. I mean, the main character’s name I’m guessing is Spanish, the lead actor is Danish, his love interest is played by an Australian, and it’s got Mick Fucking Jagger in it and Donald Sutherland. Who else could you possibly need?

The opening is incredibly successful. James delivers a speech to these tourists, upon which he takes them on an incredible journey, of not giving a fuck about something, about giving an incredible fuck about something, and then giving them a pointed lesson in both the power of an art critic and how you shouldn’t believe everything they say. It is an incredible opening scene, a perfect distillation of stating your film’s thesis (art critics are bad and desperate people), setting up the themes for the film, and within the span of exactly 8 minutes, you’ve gone from the opening image, had an entire marathon of emotional rollercoaster rides, been chastised for falling for it, then he’s face down giving a woman head back in his apartment, all in record time.

You have to appreciate such ruthless and effective efficiency. The rest of the flick isn’t paced so crackingly, but that’s okay.

Rating:

I'm Thinking of Ending Things

I'm Thinking of Ending Things

About the only thing I liked in this flick was the wallpaper

dir: Charlie Kaufman

2020

I think I used to prefer it when Charlie Kaufman wrote amazing screenplays and other people directed his movies. It’s not a controversial thing to say. I haven’t enjoyed any of the films he’s made as director. I tried getting through Synecdoche, NY, but never managed it, and thus never reviewed it. Anomalisa, the one with the puppets, left me pretty cold.

And I’m Thinking of Ending Things is his latest offering, and another flick that does very little for me. It’s not entirely from the fevered brain that brought us Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or Adaptation previously, because it’s based on what I feel must also be a very tedious book by Iain Reid. I will never read the book to find out if I am wrong (apologies to Mr Reid, who I’m sure poured his Canadian heart and soul into his novel).

When this glorious waste of 2 hours and 15 or so minutes starts, a character is sitting in a car pondering in voice over whether she should end the relationship she’s currently in, with the guy, Jake (Jesse Plemons) who happens to be driving the car. They are driving to the farm he grew up on in order to have dinner with his parents.

Wherever they usually live, this is far away, and it’s snowing, heavily. They engage mostly in tedious talk in the car. I cannot emphasise it enough: whenever they’re in the car, their talk is profoundly tedious. They are in the car for most of the film. At one point, she, being Lucy (Jessie Buckley), is goaded into reciting a poem she just wrote, and she does, and it’s about the bleakest thing you’ve ever heard. Jake thinks it’s wonderful, of course. Lucy is such a good poet.

But she also wants to get back tonight in order to start work on her essay about how the rabies virus attaches itself to the ganglia of an infected person. But she’s also a painter. And she also studies gerontology, and quantum physics, and her name changes a lot. People try to call her, and sometimes it’s her, apparently, trying to call herself.

Rating:

Tesla

Tesla

In movies like this, the moustache does most of the work

dir: Michael Almereyda

2020

This film… It’s genuinely taking the piss.

A flick about Nikola Tesla, that has a narrator wearing period costume talking about how many hits you get when you google Tesla or Thomas Edison, that has a scene where an actor playing Edison whips out a smartphone. People rollerskate for some reason, and Ethan Hawke, using what passes for his Serbian / Tesla accent, sings a karaoke version of Tears for Fears’ Everybody Wants to Rule the World to pad out the last minutes of the flick and get it up to the agreed upon running time of 100 or so minutes.

For some reason.

Is it funny? It’s funny in that it is deliberately odd, without actually being humorous. It treats its subject with abject seriousness, but the screenplay, I’m telling you, is as deep as the Wikipedia entry that it used to generate itself, like something the less responsible parts of the internet could spontaneously erupt forth with. It gives us a potted history of some of the stuff he did, some of the places he went and people he met, his rivalry with Edison, which wasn’t really a contest of equals, but more of one guy who dominated everything and another guy that didn’t like him much.

And a moustache, and a hairstyle. I’m starting to think that this is about as much as we can expect from biopics these days. It has the qualities and the feel of a high school play put on about a famous person, down to images projected onto screens to set the scene, leading to the memorable image of Nikola Tesla trying to feed an apple to the projected image of a horse. I use ‘memorable’ in the sense that, yes, this is what they spent their time doing, and ours, too.

In watching this, it made me have a greater appreciation for the other biopic I saw recently about a different scientific pioneer, being the Marie Curie biopic Radioactive. That, I dunno, at least made more of a case for itself and for Curie. I criticised the flick at the time because I thought it was a bit unnecessary to amp up the almost Asperger’s like tics and project them onto the actor just to give her something interesting / irritating to do that fits neatly into the stereotypes of scientists throughout the ages. This flick projects almost nothing onto Tesla, and makes him out to be a boring, broody and misunderstood emo kid from the 90s who people should have appreciated more, because reasons.

He is so boring that he can’t even supply any interest in his own story, which has to be narrated by someone else, who was, at least at some stage, more interested in Tesla than Tesla himself was. It is left to Anne Morgan (Eve Hewson) to carry the heavy burden of convincing us why we should keep watching.

Rating:

She Dies Tomorrow

She Dies Tomorrow

Amy doesn't seem like she's at peace with whatever's going on

dir: Amy Seimetz

2020

One of the stranger flicks to come out this year, in what is turning out to be the strangest year in living memory, She Dies Tomorrow almost seems prescient in its story about someone infecting everyone she comes in contact with over the course of a day/night.

No, none of them are wearing masks, though this is the one instance in which I don’t think masks would have helped. A young woman called Amy (Kate Lyn Shiel) seems to be dealing with the aftermath of a breakup, and also with moving in to a new house, which is its own ordeal. She will burst into tears every now and then, and compulsively play part of Mozart’s Requiem on her turntable, lie on the floor, rub her face on the wall.

She really does own a lot of vinyl for someone so young, but we don’t get to check out the rest of her collection because she keeps playing the same piece from the Requiem. Shame.

Eventually she speaks to a friend on the phone, and everything she says makes the other friend not want to come over that much, because she has a birthday party she doesn’t want to go to, so she reverts to drinking alcohol and using a leaf blower in the middle of the night. I guess we have the impression that she’s not coping well with whatever it is that she’s not coping well with. Or she’s just doing random pointless things because…

Rating:

Color Out of Space

Color Out of Space

Nice reality you have there. Be a shame if something bad
happened to it.

dir: Richard Stanley

2019

Color Out of Space is a title that probably doesn’t make a lot of sense. It doesn’t matter. The film itself is flat out fucking bonkers, so it’s perfectly appropriate to the title.

It’s based on a HP Lovecraft short story, with the fuller title of The Colour Out of Space, which is just as meaningless, but the importance of it is that whatever it is that is about to happen is otherworldly. As in, people will see things they should not see, which will leave them forever changed.

A witchy girl (Madeleine Arthur) conducts some kind of ceremony near a lake, and she is interrupted by a surveying hydrologist called Ward (Eliot Knight) who is, surveying something, presumably, other than the witchy girl and her witchy ways. He seems to be pretty familiar with magic ceremonies, and he wears a college t-shirt from, I’m guessing, the Miskatonic University, a common element in Lovecraft’s stuff, and plenty of other horror / fantasy stuff that’s been ripping off Lovecraft for nearly a century. He’s not really a protagonist in all of this, though he is a witness to it: cosmic weirdness is the main character. A family, one to which the witch belongs are the scenery upon which the colour, presumably from out of space, will wreak havoc.

I have pretty much avoided anything with Nicolas Cage in it for many years. As far as I know the last good performance he put in was in Adaptation. Since then I think he lost a lot of his money when some accountant / financial manager / astrologer ripped him off, so instead of being okay in a few good movies every now and then, he went to making as many terrible or pointless movies as possible in order to get some wealthiness back into his life. Again, it’s just what I heard.

Cage gives as awful a performance as we now expect from him, but it’s not inappropriate to the material. If anything, it makes what happens in the movie almost easier to handle. In a different kind of adaptation of this kind of story, we’d be introduced to a family that we came to care about, then they would be put under threat, and we would hope that they somehow find a way to survive.

This is not that kind of story. We are introduced to the family, their dog Sam and their alpacas, then a succession of terrible things happen to them, and then it ends, ominously implying that it will happen again to someone else. That kind of horror flick is usually hard to take.

I didn’t find it hard to take here. What happens to this family after a meteorite slams into the earth outside their house can be taken literally, can be taken figuratively, can be looked at as a commentary on environmental degradation, or people’s anxiety about clean water supply.

Rating:

Radioactive

Radioactive

Look at this, this thing I'm holding. How cool am I?

dir: Marjane Satrapi

2020

Radioactive, huh? You were waiting for a biopic of one of the most famous scientists of the last couple of centuries, like maybe to show kids in school, or, these days, tell kids to download themselves and watch in the privacy of their own bedrooms / juvenile delinquency cells.

You thought maybe Rosamund Pike, brilliant British actor, would make a decent go of the role (no pressure). After all, if she could play the real protagonist of Gone Girl, she could probably do all right with the Mother of Uranium Dragons, you thought.

But then you might not have realised that the way the script was going to be written, or the direction she’d be given, encouraged her to perform the character like every cliché of the mad scientist that I thought we gave up on when the Back to the Future films ended. I don’t actually have a good sense or picture in my head of what Madam Curie was actually like as a person, from either this movie (which I hope is either wrong or an exaggeration) or from the vast tranche of materials available about her life and her incredible achievements.

I just really wish that the flick hadn’t pursued the course of: brilliant female scientist probably somewhere on the spectrum meets male scientist who really “gets” her, then all her affectations and Tourette’s-like behavior fly out the window, because all she really needed was the love of a good man to settle her down. Sure, she’s brilliant at a time when society frowns at women being anything, including brilliant, but nevertheless she persisted and changed science / the world / had to be accepted despite her astonishing manner.

It would be just as annoying, and it is just as annoying, when they do the same with the genders reversed.

I also don’t know what the relationship between Marie and Pierre (here played by Sam Wiley) was like in real life, but I can console or comfort myself with the idea that much of what they do here together is pretty good, as in I eventually accepted that it was a believable (somehow) portrait of what these two brilliant people might have been like together. The most surprising part of the film is that after they choose to get married, in a flick which was mostly comprised of people pouring stuff into beakers or mortar and pestling rocks containing radioactive materials, and Marie usually squawking out her thoughts and what she imagines the other person is thinking, rather than waiting to hear them actually speak, was a quiet interlude in the country. Out of nowhere, in a film that thus far has been about Marie’s anger at not being taken seriously because of her gender, and dismissing everything anyone says or might say, in this bit out of nowhere, they ride bikes, swim in a lake, and lie on a blanket, naked, chatting amiably.

It's not a sex scene per se, but it will do. These are both young attractive people playing older than they are, so I guess they have to remind us they’re not just fusty old looking serious people from the olden days, they also like to laugh and fuck too.

Rating:

VFW

VFW

VFW, better known as Valiant Fighters Wassailing

dir: John Begos

2020

Damn, I guess I felt like watching some 80s trash, and I found the perfect neon and blood-drenched delivery device, so, really, I have nothing to complain about.

Except it’s not actually violent action trash from the 80s; it’s a recent flick mimicking and set in the 80s and with the complete disregard for decency, physics, budgets and believability that typifies that era’s highs and lows.

VFW is ridiculously violent, but in a cheap-rubber-mask-filled-with-fake-blood-exploding kind of way. This looks exceedingly cheap and seedy, but that is not a negative, necessarily. Of course people in reviews and comments keep referring to John Carpenter’s legendary Assault on Precinct 13, not only for the heroes under siege storyline, but the exceedingly Carpenter-esque soundtrack, which is all synthesizer keyboards whenever it’s not metal guitar chords all over the place.

Our assembled heroes are, mostly, Veterans of Foreign Wars, hence the acronymic title. That would make this place where most of the heads explode the equivalent of the Returned Servicemen Leagues, or RSLs that we have here in Australia, which are places mostly old people go for cheap buffet food and booze. In our RSLs the most that happens is a little annoyance when they force you at gunpoint to sign into the guest register, if you’re not a member. Very few heads explode, though there’s probably a fair bit of food poisoning, which is no less awful than mass murder, sometimes.

But the VFW this film is concerned with, seems to be located in the worst part of some alternate history America in the 80s where a drug called hype turns users into violent lunatic zombies, and members of gangs wear lots of leather with spikes coming out of them from wacky angles. Presumably, in all realities and timelines, leather is always the textile of choice of cool people, gangs, drug dealers and their lackeys for ever more.

Rating:

The Farewell

The Farewell

It's a mystery as to why Grandma looks so happy, and no-one else does

dir: Lulu Wang

2019

The Farewell is such a modest film, such a mostly quiet film that I find it quite amazing that it exists at all. And I’m glad it does. Even more so, for me, the strange premise is one that I probably wouldn’t have been curious about, had I not actually listened to the director telling the story on This American Life about five years ago.

I have listened to thousands of podcasts over the years, whether from This American Life or bunches of other people. I remember very little of any of them, but the story Ms Wang told stayed with me all these years. Not because there was anything that dramatic that occurred within it, or horrible, or shocking. But there was something about how unique the story seemed to be to this family, it never left my consciousness.

So: a Chinese-American woman called Billi (Awkwafina) lives in New York. She has a beloved grandma (Zhao Shuzen) that she and everyone naturally calls Nai Nai. This is the second film in as many weeks where one of the main characters was a Nai Nai that I watched. It’s a growing demographic / genre: films about Chinese Grandmas! No, not like that you goddamned perverts!

This one, though, is a much nicer Nai Nai than the other one who falls afoul of the triads for selfish reasons in Lucky Grandma. This Nai Nai faces some serious health issues. Not only that, she faces the trials and tribulations of living in a culture that supports lying to individuals for the supposed good of the collective. If that isn’t a comment on the docility required for living under communist one-party rule, I don’t know what is.

When Billi, after arguing with her parents, finds out that beloved Nai Nai has cancer, that’s a horrible shock. The even bigger shock she has to be confronted with is that none of the family, including the woman’s sons or grandkids, or own sister, will tell her what’s going on.

I cannot emphasise this enough, but apparently this is a true story, and it happens on the regular in China, and it happened to this director’s grandma, and her whole family was complicit in this elaborate charade, which only gets more elaborate as it goes on. See, they have this belief that when someone is of a certain age, telling them the truth about their health conditions could kill them, the shock of it. So instead of telling them that they’re terminal, you tell them they’re fine, the doctors go along with it, and you lie about their treatments, and then you wait for the inevitable, I guess?

Rating:

How to Build a Girl

How to Build a Girl

Well, you start with gin, cornmeal, velvet, chocolate,
adamantium and rosewater, and work from there

dir: Coky Giedroyc

2019

How to Build a Girl is another entry into the one woman industry that is Caitlin Moran. We previously had a fictionalised foray into her teenage years in the brilliant but short lived series Raised by Wolves, but here we get another go at seeing some of the formative years of a clever and somehow optimistic young writer who gets seduced by the dark side of music criticism.

Moran’s big success book-wise was the publication of How to Build a Woman, which was part memoir, part collection of various columns she’d written over the years ranging from her experiences as a teen writer for weekly music newspaper Melody Maker, her experiences growing up and her family life, and broader issues she’s faced in life and that women face in general. It was a tremendous book, funny, trenchant and illuminating, and fiercely feminist. Specifically, there’s a chapter in the book dedicated to convincing people to reclaim the term, which a lot of people, including women, tend to shy away from because of the negative connotations the media has appended to it, essentially accepting the distorted interpretation of their enemies of its meaning and purpose.

For me, as an added element, the thing is, the era in which she was writing at Melody Maker, and the era in which Melody Maker and NME, or the New Musical Express were the two titans that dominated British music press in the late 80s early 90s, is not just an era I’m informed about through media as an interesting time, kinda like how watching Almost Famous about a teenage boy writing for Rolling Stone in the early 70s represented Cameron Crowe’s experiences. I wasn’t there. It didn’t speak to me on that level.

No, the big difference for me is that I used to obsessively buy both Melody Maker and NME in that era, despite the fact that I definitely didn’t live in Britain at any stage of my life back then, and, looking at the place now, not for the foreseeable future.

Rating:

Greyhound

Greyhound

Dads doing Dad things, in the Daddest ways possible

dir: Aaron Schneider

2020

Tom Hanks is not just a dad to four kids, he is America’s Dad. It is a role superior even to Pope or President: he supersedes them in the White American Anglo-Saxon Protestant patriarchal hierarchy. In his role as America’s Dad, he created this gift to the Dads of the world, and gifted it to streaming service Apple TV+, during these troubling times where a lot of Dads are in quarantine and have run out of DIY projects in their respective sheds. This will keep them occupied for 90 or so minutes, so they won’t need to pause it too often for loo breaks.

In a different era the intent would have been to create something that everyone, in the so called Western world, would be able to give a copy of to their Dads for Father’s Day, after taking their dads to the cinema for the first time in decades, several months prior to the home release. But that world is gone. In some ways it’s even further away than World War II itself, because back in the 1940s, people were still able to go to the cinemas at least, even as the Nazis’ bombs were falling from the skies.

The world that exists now still has a surplus of Dads whose only subject of interest is that War, because they can speak of it comfortably (unless they’re from a German background), with enough distance, to celebrate the heroism of the men involved and men in general, those bonds of brotherhood unsullied by the presence of pesky women. Men being men, camaraderie, bonding, sexual prowess mockery, feats of strength, general dick measuring, casual racism, all that kind of stuff.

Greyhound fits snuggly within all those needs, so it’s going to be catnip for the right Dads. Almost any of the actual men who would have been in the navy back then are most likely either dead, being killed by their respective countries’ negligent responses to the coronavirus especially with regards to aged care facilities, or are having a nap right now, shh, let them rest, don’t wake them, they’re just going to ask for more painkillers.

Tom Hanks himself wrote the screenplay, and plays the main character, as the commander of a destroyer protecting a fleet of ships carrying war supplies to England. He is an older gentleman, commanding for the first time, and it’s 1942, so there’s plenty more war to come after these events. Unlike the other war film America’s Dad is best known for, being Saving Private Ryan, the intention with this flick is to keep the focus very narrow, and not to pontificate about the bigger picture of the whole world at war, just one guy on one ship, and his crew, trying to do a job. Hanks’s character already has the in-built personality or character of Tom Hanks. They call him Commander Ernest Krause, but no-one’s really fooled, it’s just Tom Hanks in another Dad role. We accept it, everyone else accepts it; it could even be what we need right now.

Rating:

Harriet

Harriet

Coming to free the downtrodden in a town near you

dir: Kasi Lemmons

2019

I had heard the name of Harriet Tubman many times in the past, but never really had known her achievements in life, even as I could see she was venerated in death, with good reason. This film here called Harriet, which you can safely assume is about her, tries to summarise an extraordinary life in under two hours, and, I’ve got to say, she did a lot.

Cynthia Erivo plays the title character, and she plays the role really well. Harriet is pretty much depicted as a combination of Joan of Arc (a warrior chosen by God to liberate her people) and Moses (chosen by God to set her people free). She has epileptic fits / visions that show her the future, and warn her of danger. She is convinced God is guiding her. A more skeptical acquaintance notes in his journal “potential brain damage” when he hears her tale of wonder and liberation.

And what a tale it is. Living on a slaver’s farm in Maryland in the 1850s or so, so before the Civil War, her position is precarious. For some reason, her owners fail to treat her with the respect and dignity she and all her family deserve but never get, seeing as by law they are considered to be livestock. Her cruel owner is replaced, through death, by an even crueler owner, being the son, Gideon Brodess (Jon Alwyn), complete with sadistic eyes and an endless capacity for torment. I don’t care that he didn’t exist. Slavery required structures, laws and a whole lot of awful people to continue as long as it did. Sometimes you need to embody those ideas and horrors in the person of a Southern dandy who is anything but a gentleman, just so the audience can remember what the ethos of white supremacy looks like in person.

She escapes north, travelling to Philadelphia where she has relative safety. But that is not enough for this sterling woman. She cannot rest, or God won’t let her rest, until she saves as many of her family members as she can. So the journey back and forth, back into hostile territory, perilous as it is, is one she makes countless times in order to save almost everyone she knows.

Though she is remarkable in and of herself, this endeavor required the help of others, so we are introduced to the rudiments of the so-called Underground Railroad, the network of abolitionists, freed former slaves and opportunists who would ferry countless souls to safety up north.

As the film makes clear though, for many of these slaveholders, the loss of their slaves represents a cruel blow upon their finances, and the viability of their business enterprises. The slaves themselves are assets worth so many hundreds of dollars, and their labour, which can’t be replaced by working people, because that’s just not how we do things down here in the South, means these good white people could end up destitute. We can’t have that. They band together to, I dunno, randomly kill Black people, threaten each other, vow to capture and execute Moses, who they don’t realise is actually a woman, and a former slave at that. They convince themselves that this liberator of slaves would have to be a white man in blackface, because surely no former slaves, let alone women, could organise such an enterprise.

Rating:

Amulet

Amulet

Look at these intense faces. A comedy this is definitely not

dir: Romola Garai

2020

Another week, another horror flick set in a decaying house with some demented woman upstairs slowly dying and trying to take everyone else down with her.

Amulet could not be more different from the other film I’m referring to, being the Australian flick Relic which came out a week or two ago. Amulet is far darker, but also far less harrowing somehow than the other flick. Both were directed by women, not to lump films into categories just because of the gender of the directors involved, but I can say that at least in this instance, they are directors trying to do more than just jump scares and surprise kills.

And while Relic might have been about intergenerational legacies and the steady process of deletion that dementia brings in the aged, the narrowing of a labyrinth people find themselves trapped in looking after the elderly, Amulet is some strange amalgam of guilt, revenge, physical manifestations of evil, and some monstrous feminine energy seeking retribution. I think? I could have it all completely wrong, because the thing I was thinking the most towards the end was “what the fuck is going on, like, seriously?”

Tomaz (Alec Secareanu) is clearly a very troubled chap. We see scenes of him clean shaven, meaning the past, and bearded, meaning the present. In the past, he was a soldier, in a forest, a suspiciously symmetrical forest. Something bad must have happened during The War, but we won’t find out until way later in the film. Also, we never find out which war, which, I guess, doesn’t matter. All wars are bad, and bad things tend to happen in them. But the bad thing that Tomaz does has nothing to do with the war.

In the bearded present, Tomaz seems to be leading a fairly hardscrabble existence in London, living in a squat with fellow refugees, but one detail of his existence seems to be unique to him: each night as he lays himself down to sleep, he tapes his hands together for some reason, and has to cut himself free in the mornings.

Rating:

Lucky Grandma

Lucky Grandma

She deserves every penny, you ageist bastards

dir: Sasie Sealy

2020

This movie, Lucky Grandma, is a pretty strange movie, in some very minor ways. It is strange in its relative simplicity. It might have a fair bit going on under the surface, or behind the actions of the main character, but it’s all played relatively straight. It’s mostly a very quiet film, which, with everything that’s going on at the moment, actually came as a bit of a relief while I was watching it.

The modesty of the movie’s ambitions don’t detract from its enjoyment, but neither does it make the experience an overly compelling one. It’s a hard movie to recommend, but not because it does anything wrong, or doesn’t succeed at what it tries to do.

The Grandma of the title, (Tsai Chin) is recently widowed. She is a Chinese woman living in New York’s Chinatown, which is a city within a city. She is almost exclusively referred to as Grandma, or Nai Nai, even by people who aren’t related to her. She is a tough old bird, who chainsmokes endlessly (though I have to admit, I found it amusing and worrying that they got her to smoke, when the actress clearly either doesn’t smoke now or have never been a smoker). I don’t know if the character is meant to be in her 80s, but the legendary actress playing Nai Nai certainly is, being 86.

Being an old Chinese woman, and not a wealthy one, she wastes time and money consulting a fortune teller / clairvoyant / luck consultant, who consults the I Ching, who draws out pieces of calligraphy paper and generally assures Nai Nai that her luck will soon turn around, and the 28th of October will be an especially lucky day for her.

I don’t want to appear racially insensitive, or insulting towards anyone’s culture or traditions, but I have a sneaking suspicion that Chinese forms of fortune telling are about as worthy or accurate as any of the other forms of fortune telling available around the world: ie. they’re all total bullshit. We’re not meant to think that there’s any reason why Nai Nai should be any luckier than anyone else on that auspicious day.

She believes it, though, and takes out of the bank the very little money she has left since her husband died. There’s a bus tour from their community to some casino 3 hours away, and she presses her luck there, convinced the universe owes her one.

Part of the delusion is believing that the number 8 is her talisman, so all her bets on all the games are on eight. And the wins start piling up, the money multiplies, and she seems vindicated. See her expression of contempt for the other players who view her behavior with incredulity and concern.

She blows smoke at their worries, mocks their judge-y expressions.

Rating:

Pages

Subscribe to fresh movie reviews for a socially distanced yet pre-apocalyptic world RSS