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.

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 slowing 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:

Ready or Not

Ready or Not

Pretty great poster independent of the film, also misleading.
She doesn't hunt elephants, she's hunting rich bastards.

dirs.: Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillet

2019

Ready or Not isn’t deep, or profound, it’s not particularly scary or horrific or dramatically credible or in any way sensible. It’s a grotesque and macabre comedy masquerading as horror, with a sliver of class warfare at play, and it was exactly what I needed to see on a slow, cold, Thursday night.

Thursday nights are when I allow myself to have a modicum of medicinal alcohol, but not too much, because there’s work the next day, after five days of abstaining. No, please, hold your applause, I’m a humble wretch just like the rest of you, please, cease plans for the parade in my honour. My point is that on these particular Thursday nights, I’ll invariable enjoy a tipple, and invariably watch a somewhat trashy movie but be far more forgiving than, let’s say, a Sunday night. Sunday nights are for punishing Eastern European epics that make you wish the Black Plague had wiped out all life centuries ago, mostly because you have to work the next day, partly because you might be hungover from Saturday’s wretched excesses.

No, last night was the perfect time to watch this. A brave young woman (Samara Weaving) with very distinctive eyebrows is about to marry into a mega wealthy family. Not just comfortable, or rich, more like Queen of Versailles-levels of excess and Olympian remove from the concerns of general humanity. She has no idea what she’s getting in to. And nor should we, even as the film opens with a bunch of people in masks killing a guy in front of some kids.

Thirty years later is this massive wedding / undertaking, and the ominous promise that there is a game that is to be played at midnight. This is very unrealistic, unless extremely rich people are genuinely as different from the rest of humanity as they are depicted here. No-one except the staff are sober at midnight after a wedding, and usually the bride and groom have other matters to discuss in the sanctity of their marital boudoir.

This family, the Le Domases, have a central origin story to their wealth. Like Balzac said, behind every great fortune is a crime, but in this family’s case, there is a belief, or a pact, if you will, with some weird guy called Le Bail, in that the family occasionally has to sacrifice people in order to stay alive and mega-wealthy.

Sure, it seems absurd written down like that, but when you hear billionaires in our present reality urging people back to work in coronavirus times in order to safeguard their profits, and to hell with the lives of the impoverished scum, you realise “well, it’s not really that different from how capitalism works anyway.”

Rating:

Relic

Relic

Three generations of successful women, together, united

dir: Natalie Erika James

2020

The horror…of watching a loved one succumb to dementia and impending death…

For many of us, this is not why we watch entertainment, in fact it’s the exact opposite impulse. Yet here we are.

It’s impossible to separate our fear of death and the mortality of the people around us from the wellspring of fears that horror movies prey upon. Relic crafts together what looks like a haunted house story, but, really, come on. It’s not. It’s about something far less supernatural and far more likely for us all to experience, being the decline of the elders in our families.

Kay (Emily Mortimer, putting on a pretty solid Aussie accent) receives a welfare check call from the cops, saying that her mum Edna (the great Robyn Nevin) hasn’t been seen around the last couple of days, and isn’t answering the door. So Kay and her daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) drive to somewhere in rural Victoria to find out if she’s okay.

But before that we watched a naked Edna, presumably, standing stunned in the lounge room, as water overflows the bath, cascades down the stairs and spreads everywhere, both beneath Edna’s feet, and towards someone else that seems to be standing in the room near her.

When Sam and Kay get to the house, they cannot find her. There are post it-notes around, saying mundane things like “take pills” or “shut the door”, maybe indicating that Edna’s having memory problems. Otherwise there’s nothing too much out of the ordinary. That is to say, nothing visually seems that much out of place, but the sound design, and the ominous, claustrophobic atmosphere never let up, never let us think anything will ever be too normal.

And then Edna is back, never explaining where she’s been or why, and not feeling the need to justify herself. Kay expresses both relief, bafflement and frustration, but Sam is just glad to have her back safe. There are tentative stabs at potentially returning to some form of normality. A doctor’s visit makes it seem like Edna hasn’t totally lost her marbles. When Sam offers to move in and look after her, Edna at first seems to welcome the company. She hands over one of her treasured rings, saying it no longer fits her, so Sam should have it.

Rating:

The Old Guard

The Old Guard

They're not that old, this is blatant false advertising

dir: Gina Prince-Bythewood

2020

The Old Guard. It was okay.

If only I was able to restrict myself to a few words, think of all the electrons and storage space I could save. But, when you’re an introvert, the temptation is to never if ever say anything, so if I go with that unhelpful impulse, nary a review would ever get written.

And what a tremendous shame that would be.

Old Guard may be based on a comic book by Greg Rucka and Leandro Fernandez, but it’s entirely within the action franchise wheelhouse we all seem to be comfortable with where an unkillable badass kills a whole bunch of people wearing masks and helmets in sometimes inventive ways. John Wick didn’t invent violent action cinema, but it crystalised something, since which every gun action flick draws from the same well.

But it’s not as if Charlize Theron is any slouch in the killfest stakes anyway. She has more than established her action bona fides with Fury Road, and even more so with Atomic Blonde. At this stage seeing her in a film where she doesn’t artfully kill dozens of people seems unnatural.

She is the leader of a group of special people. They are special because they don’t die, or are very hard to kill, until they die or are killed. Andromache of Scythia, as she is known to the scholars, goes by Andy (Theron) these days. She never says outright how old she is, but it’s implied she is many thousands of years old. She doesn’t drink blood or Dior perfume in order to stay ageless, she can’t fly or turn into a turnip – she and her peeps mostly just don’t die when someone tries to kill them. Alternately, they do die, but it doesn’t usually take.

Until it does. For immortals, they mostly mope about wondering what the point of immortality is, though it seems like they did some stuff in the past. The film’s point seems to be if you were an immortal who couldn’t die in combat, naturally, if you met a few others like you, you would devote your life to fighting people where it would usually take an army to do it. But Andy is tired of doing this, after having done it for literal centuries, and not seeing the world be any the better for it.

The chaps who follow her are mostly in the same boat, except one of them, Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), is even more depressed than she is. The two other chaps, Joey and Nicky (Marwan Kenzari and Luca Marinelli) may have immortality, but they also love each other, so they don’t feel as alone and pointless as the other two.

The initial set-up, as unpromising as it is, almost looks like the “one last job” bullshit that a lot of movies start with, but isn’t quite.

A CIA jerk called Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) tells them there’s a school full of kids that’s been kidnapped in South Sudan, and only Andy and her crew of special soldiers can save them. Save me, Andromache of Scythia, you’re my only hope. The shocking thing is, the job isn’t what it seems, the crew are all killed in an ambush, and even if it’s only a quarter of an hour into the film, you’d be forgiven for thinking the story could just end there.

Rating:

I'm No Longer Here

I'm No Longer Here

Dance the dance of your forefathers, people

(Ya no estoy aqui)

dir: Fernando Frías de la Parra

2020

It’s an… interesting film. I don’t know whether the intention was for it to screen in cinemas ever, but it ended up on Netflix fairly early in its life, and so I felt compelled to watch it.

What intrigued me about it simply from the perspective of the images used to advertise it, is that I had no idea what it was about based on the images they promoted it with, being images of the main character Ulises (Juan Daniel Garcia Treviña) and nothing else. The thing is, though, that he has such a distinctive look, such an arresting appearance and manner, that you’d be forgiven making certain assumptions, which, if they were anything like mine, would be totally off the mark.

What I mean is, even if you watched the trailer for this film, you wouldn’t guess it was about aching loneliness.

Ulises, at the beginning of the film, is fleeing from where he lives, in Monterrey, Mexico. And then he’s in Queens, New York. So the film follows two parallel lines, being the lead up to why he fled from Mexico, and then his experiences in the States. It’s not complicated keeping them apart, because you know what’s going to happen in one time line versus the other, but you might not get the “why” of it.

Rating:

Palm Springs

Palm Springs

Would you trust either of these jerks with your existential crisis?

dir: Max Barbacaw

2020

So, basically, we’ve seen enough variations on Groundhog Day, or enough variations have been done that it’s become a genre unto itself, fit for movies and tv shows, in any form. Person or persons get trapped in a loop and have to figure a way out of it.

The original movie had a guy be perplexed by his circumstances, fight against it by lashing out, try every form of suicide and crime, but eventually come to terms with it and become a better person, who then, when released from the loop, decides he’s going to stay in the place he was trapped in.

Some see it as a Buddhist story about reincarnation, some see it as a different philosophical or religious tradition pointing to a similar outcome, but ultimately it’s a story about a person getting multiple chances to get “it” right, however “it” is defined, and being set free, whatever that entails.

Palm Springs has the guy trapped already when we start; he’s been trapped for a long time, so long in fact that he doesn’t really give much of a shit about anything. It’s kind of the antithesis of what character work Groundhog Day tried to establish: instead of someone coming to realise what’s important in life from multiple goes around, he comes to believe that this perpetual November 9th at a wedding reception at Palm Springs means nothing means anything. Life is meaningless when you’re trapped in an unending loop. You learn nothing new, you do everything possible, but you don’t get better or worse, just bored.

It’s a pretty grim message. Nyles (Andy Samberg) does the same stuff Phil Connors does in Groundhog Day, as in he gets to know everything about everyone, and has sex with almost everyone, male or female, but it only brings him to a lower state of being, not transcendence. It doesn’t make him awful, it just makes him not care about stuff, or anything, other than drinking as much beer as he can.

Into this mix drops another person, being Sara (Cristin Milioti), who Nyles pretends to be chatting charmingly with for the first time, but you just know, based on the fact that he’s been here a long while, that they’ve probably hooked up before. But just before they hook up for the first time, someone appears out of nowhere, trying to kill Nyles, forcing him to crawl into a mysterious cave with a glowing light in it, that he keeps begging Sarah not to go into…

Rating:

Hamilton

Hamilton

He's pointing at where the price of the tickets for this
show are going to go, post-pandemic, if it ever goddamn
goes away

dir: Thomas Kail

2020

This is what we’re reduced to, in lockdown. Watching anything. Watching a recording of a play. Honest to god, a musical play.

Life has contracted thus. I’m making it sound like I was forced at gunpoint to watch this 2 hour and 40 minutes musical, but truth is no-one forced me to watch it. I was always Hamilton-curious, considering how there was a time a few years ago where every single American program or podcast you listened to that had nothing to do with the actual musical would be raving about it and Lin-Manuel Miranda endlessly, much to the mystification of people outside of that bubble.

And a couple of weeks ago I was watching the 7.30 Report, where musical tragic Leigh Sales interviewed the man Lin-Manuel himself about the upcoming release of this here thingie on Disney+, where neither Leigh nor a special guest kid video hook-in superfan could hide their joy when they heard this was being released 4th July, both fangirling out in the most absurdly joyous ways. Lin-Manuel must be used to people going gaga when they speak to him, so he took it with charm and grace.

So. A lot of us knew this was coming, and weren’t exactly sure why we should care. The majesty, the wonderfulness, the overarching importance of the Founding Fathers, as they are called, of those United States don’t really matter to anyone outside of the States. As one of the Founders that was lesser known, at least less than men like Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, it become incumbent upon Lin-Manuel to correct this gap in everyone’s knowledge.

To an Aussie audience, well, we’d be forgiven for not giving much of a damn about any of this. Musicals, too, I would argue, aren’t as much in the DNA of Aussies as they are in the American genome. Sure, we don’t mind a movie with a few lipsynched disco era or ABBA-adjacent songs, but we’re not that huge on the whole palaver. We don’t have multiple stage musicals about the founding of our great nation, because, let’s be honest, it’s not going to be a pretty story. But even worse, and even more humiliating is that, unlike the proud and feisty Americans, we never managed to cast off the colonial yoke of the Empire. We are, and our indigenous brothers and sisters, still under it.

Americans can forge a prouder path forward, ignoring all that pesky genocide and slavery, looking past all the unsavoury bits, in order to be able to construct something they can all mostly be proud of. The hardscrabble life of a young, scrappy and hungry man, just like the nation itself, who goes on to help fight off the British and forge a union of states like no other in human history. He inspires others to do their darndest to create a better form of government than most others were ever capable of, with an eye to the political and legal structures of the past, but with ideas about completely new ways of running things that would form what is often referred to as the American Experiment.

This kind of shit, let’s be honest, does not sound very interesting or entertaining. Anyone who’s heard any of the songs from the musical, though, or the various lines now quoted as scripture by those in the know, whether they’re mocking or saying them seriously, knows that where the joy is, is not in what the musical is about, but how it’s about it.

Rating:

Eurovision Song Contest - The Story of Fire Saga

Fire Saga

Her hair is still better than yours, Lars, live with it

dir: David Dobkin

2020

Eurovision Song Contest – The Story of Fire Saga is not about either the song contest or about Fire Saga. We have been misinformed. Lied to. Fake news etc.

It’s really just about the singular talent that is Will Ferrell. He has made a career of playing a particular kind of man-child lunatic (as opposed to the very different man-child lunatics played by Adam Sandler or Zach Galifianakis or Seth Rogen or probably fifty other guys you can think of), which only achieves more poignancy / hilarity as he ages. There’s Peter Pan, an ageless sprite who never wants to grow up, and then there’s Will Ferrell, a very much aging sprite who never wants to not play a lunatic with a dream.

In this film his dream is winning the Eurovision Song Contest, to the exclusion of anything and everything else. Somehow, or somewhy, this story is set in Iceland, a small island nation that is famous for a lot of things that have nothing to do with Will Ferrell or the Eurovision Song Contest. As a child his character of Lars Erickssong is entranced by watching ABBA winning the contest with Waterloo, and, sad about his mother’s recent death, he vows to honour her and, um, himself by squandering his entire life in the pursuit of winning the contest.

Because, reasons. Over forty years later, he’s still trying, but at least he has a luxuriant wig and a great film clip for his song Volcano Man, which was so great, and so very much more like a clip by Empire of the Sun rather than an entrant in Eurovision, but then the rug is pulled out from beneath our feet when we see that the clip is only in Lars’ imagination, as he bangs away on a keyboard in his dad’s garage.

Rating:

The Personal History of David Copperfield

David Copperfield

Score extra points if you thought it was about the magician, instead.

dir: Armando Iannucci

2020

It’s not the first time the great Armando Iannucci has made a film set in a bygone era – The Death of Stalin was very much a period piece – but this is more meat and potatoes costumes, top hats and bustles kind of stuff. There haven’t been an abundance of adaptations of David Copperfield, at least not recently, not like bloody Great Expectations which has more versions than Spider-Man. This is a fairly radical retelling of the story, only because it’s such a long book, and lots of it is probably dull.

Iannucci and his actors here commit to making this as upbeat and propulsive as possible, which isn’t that radical, but when you consider that most adaptations of Dickens’ work is usually so painstakingly put together for BBC Quality Television Series that paint itself tears itself from walls in the vicinity of televisions that play them, just to end their misery, maybe it’s a blessed relief.

The production also goes out of its way to cast actors of different backgrounds from the ones one would expect for such a telling, since it’s usually a Whites Only kind of affair in Dickens’ stuff. Especially the lead, being played by Dev Patel, with charm and energy turned up to 11, but plenty of other roles too. It’s refreshing, in a way, because while it might seem anachronistic to tell a story set in the 1800s with so many people from diverse backgrounds, it doesn’t at all change the fact that a) Britain is one of the most ridiculously, multiculturally diverse places on the planet because of its legacy of colonialism no matter what fuckwits like Boris Johnson or Nigel Farage would prefer and b) Dickens’ work has always been about class warfare and the threat of poverty, and people desperately trying to rise above their station in life.

Let’s not sugarcoat anything, though: It’s doubtful Dickens himself would have approved of this movie, considering how racist the fucker was.

But we don’t need to cancel him or his very enjoyable books; we can enhance them for our storytelling purposes in ways that reflect contemporary Britain, as well as acknowledging the perils of the past.

Rating:

In My Blood it Runs

In My Blood it Runs

Good luck in this hard world, Dujuan, to you and your family

dir: Maya Newell

2020

This documentary, called In My Blood it Runs, is a timely film, because its story has been relevant for at least, oh, the last couple of hundred years or so. The problems Dujuan and his family face are the problems all First Nations people face, but the film focuses of course on this one boy in order to represent the larger issues at play. If we can appreciate the world that he lives in, maybe we can grasp the significant obstacles placed before him and the people he shares a connection with.

And in case a theoretical reader of such a review is already getting an outrage boner muttering under their breath “As if First Nations / Indigenous people have any fucking problems, we give them EVERYTHING and they set fire to it and steal our hard earned jobs and then don’t work because they’re fucking lazy” etc etc bullshit, even though this person would in theory benefit most from such an intimate portrayal in such a doco, they are the least likely to appreciate it.

It requires empathy, and the ability to appreciate the humanity of people you reflexively might not like, and yet don’t understand why you can’t, therefore you spend your life maligning them in public, online, in Parliament or as columnists, for shits, giggles and clicks, all the while telling yourself “they’re the problem, they’re the reason why I don’t like ‘em, nothing wrong with ME”.

Don’t go changing. Not as if you’re capable, anyway.

What runs in the main subject’s blood? His ancestors, his history, the trauma of colonisation, the deep persisting wound of the Stolen Generation, the expectations of his family and people, but also, the healing power that he keeps being told he inherited from his grandfather. Now, I am more cynical than most, and more unfair than many, but this isn’t the place to debate the pros and cons of whether he genuinely possesses the power to heal people or not. It’s not like he’s telling people to use his powers at a cost of $299.99 per hour, instead of any other form of medicine, or that he can cure the coronavirus with colloidal silver and a laying on of hands. There’s something simpler and more complex at the same time.

Rating:

Da 5 Bloods

Da 5 Bloods

War is hell, but at least the good guys got paid, right?

dir: Spike Lee

2020

It’s what the world needed right now: A film about four African-American Vietnam veterans returning to the scene of the crime, like, 50 years later, in order to honour their fallen comrade Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman), but really they’re there to get some gold they buried back in the day.

Not, just, like a little bit of gold, but a whole shitload of CIA gold, which is the worst kind.

The men are old but not completely broken down. Paul (Delroy Lindo) wears a MAGA hat and is generally paranoid, aggressive and annoying. Otis (Clarke Peters) is calm and charming, and somehow has a pony tail. Melvin (Isaiah Whitlock Jnr) is like a cuddly teddy bear who can draw out saying “Shiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiit” longer than anyone else in human history. Eddie (Norm Lewis) is just there. I have no opinion about Eddie.

1 of the so called 5 Bloods is clearly missing, and clearly died all those years ago, his life and his death having cast a pall over these men’s lives. They are getting together again presumably for the first time in a long time, in a city that had another name when they fought in the country. They fought in a country that didn’t really want them there, sent by a country at the time that clearly didn’t want them home either. It sent as many as it could to fight and die in a pointless war, and was brutalising the ones back home who were fighting for the civil rights of their brothers and sisters.

Rating:

True History of the Kelly Gang

True History of the Kelly Gang

The absolute bollocks story of some people at some time

dir: Justin Kurzel

2020

I had, at first, thought this might be a decent reappraisal of the Ned Kelly legend fit for the whole family to enjoy. Of course the opening minutes of the film, dealing as they do with a young Ned (as a kid played by Orlando Schwerdt) watching his mother blow a trooper (Charlie Hunnam), and all such thoughts rapidly evaporated.

Nah, even I’m not that dumb. It would not be an exaggeration to say that I was actually excited about seeing this flick. There’s two main reasons for that. I still remember the review I wrote of the Gregor Jordan-directed, Heath Ledger-starring Ned Kelly from a while back.

I remember it so well, because I hated it so much. I don’t think “hate” is too strong a word to describe it. My feelings were less than charitable. It didn’t work for me on any level, I thought every single soul in it was horribly miscast, and I thought the pretentious yet deadeningly dumb script were just too much.

And then years later Heath Ledger died, and I remember feeling extremely guilty about my review, as if I had somehow contributed to his death. I’m not…wait a second, I’m not saying it’s either true or that I actually believed it – stop looking at me like that – I’m just saying that it felt like that. That version of Ned Kelly’s story, good or bad as it was, was what it was. I seem to recall it was based on a book, being Our Sunshine by Robert Drewe, which I remember because a friend of mine gave me a different Robert Drewe book as a present, being The Drowner, which he published straight after.

Well, this version which, remember, I was looking forward to seeing, like, actively looking forward to seeing, is also based on a book, being Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang, which again is a fictionalized account based on the style and perspective of the Jerilderie Letter. A letter which Ned is said to have dictated to his good friend Joe Byrne, copies of which still exist, but I don’t know if it’s actually what they say it is, but something was written down by someone at a time and place, so…

In those days they called it a letter, but these days it would be called a manifesto, and nothing good happens when someone puts out a manifesto. Invariably it’s followed by a killing spree. In the letter Ned rails against the predations of the troopers and their persecution of his family specifically and the Irish more generally.

Carey’s book follows that logic through and elaborates on the themes of the letter, but magnify his self-justifications for his criminal actions in a way that almost justifies the rise of the legend of Ned Kelly as some strange Australian folk hero, to the point where so many bogans have tattoos of either Ned himself in his armour, or his alleged last words “such is life.”

Rating:

The King of Staten Island

The King of Staten Island

"and as he surveyed all before him, he wept, for there were no
worlds left to conquer"

dir: Judd Apatow

2020

These films, from Judd Apatow, about men (almost exclusively men, except for Trainwreck, where the emotionally immature main character was a woman), very immature men, straining to grow over the course of the movie in order to be better people and be worthy of some other character’s love, are right up my alley. Sure, it indicates that Apatow never really wants to do anything that different from what he’s done before, but who are we to complain in these difficult times?

I mean, the value of entertainment cannot be understated given what's going on in the world at the moment. Thank Christ, the Buddha and maybe Satan as well that all these productions were waiting in the wings, waiting for a docile and compliant and famished audience to hoover down, like so many Twisties from a Party Size bag.

Unlike the other flicks, one could argue, this time telling this kind of tale, they are using a doozy of a story, and a doozy of an actor to play the main character. Pete Davidson is notorious for a lot of stuff that has nothing to do with movies or Saturday Night Live, and more to do with his mental health struggles and unapologetic drug use. At least here it is in the service of telling a story that’s not too dissimilar to his actual life.

It's a backhanded way of saying that though the characters in his other flicks, that aren’t the ones about how growing older and having families suck (Funny People, This is 40), might have had issues and hang ups, but not like this guy. He’s always on drugs and is clearly suicidal, and makes terrible choices that any person can see are terrible.

The film starts with Scott (Davidson) driving a car, deciding he doesn’t care if he lives or dies, nearly having a serious accident, but at the last second swerving out of the way because there’s already a car wreck on the road. He hits a couple of cars, yells sorry, but doesn’t really do anything about it.

The main characterisation of Scott is that there is the fundamental absence in his life, being that of his father, which has contributed to his fuckedupedness. It sounds pretty simplistic, doesn’t it? Like, that one thing surely doesn’t explain or excuse the countless terrible things he does here.

Rating:

We Summon the Darkness

We Summon the Darkness

The title, though entirely inaccurate, feels like it should
have an exclamation mark or two, and at least one umlaut

dir: Marc Meyers

2020

Set in Indiana in the 1980s, you would be forgiven for thinking that they’re jumping onto some kind of Stranger Things bandwagon with this satanic panic horror flick We Summon the Darkness, what with the promotional poster and all.

It sounds so nasty and metal-y, doesn’t it? Like some bad people are going to do bad things at a metal gig in order to, um, summon the, uh, darkness?

It’s not as convoluted as it might seem. No actual darkness was summoned, harmed or pursued by the makers or participants of this movie. Some bad stuff happens, as in, people are killed (not really, I mean they pretend to kill people, this being a ‘horror’ movie and not reality television after all), but it has less to do with His Satanic Majesty, who thought it would be better to rule in hell than serve in heaven or at a fancy ice cream place, and more to do with three crazy kids who think it would be cool to kill a bunch of other kids and make it look like people are doing Satan’s bidding all over the place.

We watch as three girls get ready for and drive to a gig somewhere in Indiana. It could be some bar, or a barn, or a haystack for all I know. It reminded me of travelling out to suburbs like Croydon to watch gigs at The Hull, which was kind of like travelling back through time to Indiana. The rural sectors of Indiana are not ones I profess to know anything about. To be sure it just looks like a bunch of kids having fun. On the way to the gig, which is of a metal band called Soldiers of Satan or Satanic Pride or Merciful Pancakes or something suitably metal sounding, someone throws a milkshake at their car, which Isn’t Very Insurance-y. Alexis has to clean the windshield. It’s very inconsiderate. It could almost make you want to kill the people that did it, but not quite. And Val, who I’ll get to, has to pee all the time.

The gig is…funny. But to these kids it’s the real deal, I guess, and they’re super into it, kinda. Alexis (Alexandra Daddario) doesn’t know much about these bands of the day that the other ‘kids’ are talking about, like the minutiae of Sabbath and Metallica and Megadeth, and fakes her way through these conversation. If you were ever in a group of friends who were way into music, there was always someone like that in the group. Of course, you could have been that person in the group, that pretended to know all the connections, and to have gone to gigs you couldn’t possibly have gone to, and gotten back stage with whoever.

Rating:

Beanpole

Dylda

She's a bad mother...hush your mouth, I'm talking about my
lady Beanpole! You're damn right.

(Дылда)

dir: Kantemir Balagov

2019

Beanpole is a fairly amazing movie, of which I knew nothing before watching, and of which I could not predict anything as it was happening. A lot of contemporary Russian war movies tend to be fairly nationalistic, so this has nothing to do with that idea. It’s actually about a complex relationship between two female survivors of World War II. It’s not about beans, or poles, or poles with beans on them, or tall people in general. It’s about one tall girl, like a Russian Brienne of Tarth, just taller and more fragile.

Set in Leningrad just after the end of the war, Beanpole refers to the tall protagonist, so tall that she looms over almost everyone else, male or female, on the street, on the tram or at the hospital where she works. She has an actual name, being Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko), but more often than not she’s referred to by her “affectionate” nickname. She hunches over a lot, and her eyes are already haunted. She survived the siege of Leningrad, so she must have seen some shit.

She not only survived the war, but fought in the anti-aircraft division, where she received a head wound, which occasionally results in her having a kind of seizure. Not like narcolepsy, where she would collapse, limp like a marionette with cut strings; she freezes in place, unseeing, unhearing, rigidly insensate until it passes.

The hospital where she works looks to be mostly for the soldiers wounded in the war, many of whom are missing limbs or worse. Many seemingly have no hope of recovering, but aren’t going to immediately die of anything either). The head doctor, who looks suspiciously like a Russian version of Jeremy Irons (Andrey Bykov), pulls her aside at one point and pointedly tells her he needs her help with something.

It’s not what you think it is; it’s far worse.

So, not only does she have a harsh job, a worrying condition, and the kind of Soviet impoverished life of starvation we would come to expect from the “winners” of the great war against the Germans, she also comes home to a little boy, Pashka (Timofey Glazkov), who must have been born during the war. Can you imagine anything more terrifying? It puts the children born during this strange pandemic / apocalypse of 2020 seem like blessed lucky angels in comparison.

Rating:

Shirley

Shirley

She looks like she would be fun at parties

dir: Josephine Decker

2020

I only previously knew a tiny amount about Shirley Jackson, and all of that was solely about her short story The Lottery, which encompassed an idea, or a version of American society so powerful that it’s been ripped off or echoed in countless novels and movies as diverse as The Purge through Hunger Games through anything that critiques the mentality of American group psychology and its perpetual need for scapegoats.

I didn’t know much about her life, so that wasn’t what pulled my attention towards seeing this. Admittedly it was the fact that Elizabeth Moss was playing the main role. As far as I’m concerned that’s reason enough to watch any movie.

Having watched this I now feel like I know even less about her, because surely this can’t be a definitive portrayal. It felt like watching an assortment of affectations, a bunch of clichés about writers, and an opaque story about how domesticity robs women of more than their time and effort that could better be applied in other areas.

Shirley (Moss) is struggling with her latest novel, which will go on to be Hangsaman. But when the flick starts off she’s struggling with the fact that she’s not even the main character in her own movie, named after her and all. The ‘real’ main character would seem to be Rose (Odessa Young), the new bride of an ambitious young English professor (Logan Lerman), who feels the need to suck up to the old jerk who runs the English department at Bennington, Vermont. So, Stanley (Michael Stuhlbarg) wants to “help” out his wife’s writing by pretty much using Rosie as an unpaid servant, dangling the prospect of tenure for her husband, while having no intention of actually helping them out long term.

It doesn’t help that the flick is awkwardly and irritatingly filmed. Odd, obtrusively angled shots, repellent in their way, sometimes alternating between being too close to the subjects or off to the side to make everything feel off kilter. I’m sure it worked as intended.

The writer is housebound, agoraphobic, alcoholic and cannot stand people. She loves her appalling husband despite the fact that the old goat who is extremely full of himself keeps rubbing up against every female he can. What they make of Shirley’s various mental health issues the film reduces to Shirley’s resentments and insecurities arising from her husband’s numerous infidelities.

But that’s surely not going to happen to the young couple, surely? Rosie and Fred still have sex daily, all throughout her pregnancy too, so of course Fred isn’t going to follow in Stanley’s footsteps just to impress him, is he?

Is he fuck…

Stanley is a piece of work, but not much of an impressive one. He embodies all the worst qualities of an academic that one can imagine of the era, and though I have no doubt he was that much of a piece of shit, he’s not a particularly interesting piece of shit. His casual cruelty towards the young couple or his selfishness towards his wife under the guise of “looking after” her rings true but hollow as well.

Rating:

The Vast of Night

The Vast of Night

I think her awesome glasses are the third main character

dir: Andrew Patterson

2020

The Vast of Night is such a tiny, modest and strange little film, that you almost want to hold it in your hands like a hatchling that’s fallen out of its nest to protect it, and it’s like not much else that I’ve ever seen, at least not lately.

It’s set in the late 50s, and everyone’s talking in that gee golly gosh way that apparently they spoke after the war, and dressing like they’re all going to a sock hop or the drug store for a malt shake. But the movie is also bookended with strange television credits as if this is a lost episode of some Twilight Zone-like early television program called Paradox Theatre. Everyone smokes, including teenagers, but I guess that was just the style at the time. The town in which all of this happens is so tiny that the local high school basketball game consumes virtually the whole town. Everyone bar a couple of stragglers are at the pokey school stadium in anticipation of the game.

It’s not even a final or anything. It’s just a game, and these hicks have literally nothing better to do. There were a lot, and I mean a lot of Salvation Army and vintage stores raided to get the ugly ancient clothing necessary to clothe all these extras. None of it looks like fancy hipster costuming, not by a long shot. It’s all just quietly ugly, era appropriate clothing.

And that’s where the movie production’s entire budget possibly went. That and buying one drone with a camera, and probably a Go-Pro, and that’s about it. Just because this is an Amazon Original doesn’t mean Jeff Bezos, he of the costliest divorce settlement in human history, ponied up the cash for this flick. They made it on the scent remaining from the fumes exuded from an oily rag that was set on fire which wafted across to a third rag. But they do an incredible, flat out incredible job pulling something so small and strangely perfect, in its own way, which manages to be familiar but not formulaic in any way.

After all, this flick has a continuous at least ten minute scene where one of the protagonists (Sierra McCormick) does nothing but connect calls at one of those old timey switchboards, and yet the scene remains utterly riveting.

Rating:

The Lovebirds

The Lovebirds

Two attractive people, out for a fun night. What could go right?

dir: Michael Showalter

2020

I like me some Netflix romantic comedies. Honestly, the best, or should that be “best” Netflix produced or Netflix exclusive (this one more so because the plague interrupted its intended cinematic release) flicks that come out tend to be of the romantic comedy persuasion. Stakes are so low, budgets don’t need to be that high, it’s mostly (if we’re lucky) two or more charming people being charming for 90 or so minutes until it ends with a joke and a kiss and the implication that there’s a happily ever for at least the next few years after ending

The Lovebirds isn’t threatening to break any new ground. It’s not too dissimilar to a bunch of other flicks that has a bored or estranged couple go on a night of adventure that rekindles their love for each other and life in general. Date Night with Tina Fey and Steve Carrell, and the more recent Game Night with Justin Bateman were examples of this, and not only united by having “Night” in their titles.

The exotic twist, at least from an American perspective, is that the leads are an African-American and a Pakistani-American, in a flick that plays out exactly the same way as those kinds of flicks where two people who don’t like each other eventually do after adventures ensue.

But, c’mon. Kumail Nanjiani is generally pretty funny in everything he’s in and Issa Rae is glorious (best known for her tv series Insecure) in everything she does, so surely forcing them together towards a path that threatens mutually assured destruction is a recipe for success?

Well, kinda. They are individually great. I don’t know that I bought them as a couple, but that isn’t the only criteria. I never bought Harry and Sally as a couple in that classic whose name escapes me about when they meet each other, because Billy Crystal (ew) with Meg Ryan (ah) shouldn’t work in this or any other parallel universe, but that was part of the fun.

This doesn’t have those same obstacles, but it does have its own unique obstacles. When the flick starts we’re seeing these people after their first night together, so, The Day After, which is kinda sweet and kinda awkward, and we see them fumble towards some kind of happy amazement. They really go all out to convince us that these people are amazed / fuckstruck by each other after one night. All this happens just over the opening credits.

Then it cuts to four years later, where they are sick to fucking death of each other.

I guess to some people four years would seem like a lot, and to others it seems awfully brief. All we can see with this couple is that either tedium has accumulated over the years, or maybe that they weren’t really compatible in the first place. The man in the couple, Jibran, seems persnickety, fussy and whiny. Leilani (Issa Rae) seems exasperated with his persnickety fussiness and irritated by his constant criticisms and corrections, like he’s so fucking great. They’re about to go to some dinner party, but they’re fighting about a) their relationship or their individual perceived limitations (or each others), b) reality television in general, and whether they’d be a couple with a chance on The Amazing Race and c), whether Jibran is a shitty documentary maker, or whether Leilani’s co-workers are shitty.

Really, they’re fighting like people who have no affection left for each other. In the middle of driving to a dinner party, they ask each other if maybe they should separate. And they both agree.

That’s when, as is without doubt the most perfect moment, Jibran hits a guy on his bike with their car.

At first you’re thinking “wait, are they fucking with the conventions of a romantic comedy by making us somehow still care about a couple who commits a hit-and-run but doesn’t seem too fazed by it?” but when a cop forces his way in to their car and urges them to pursue the escaping guy on the bike, you might feel relieved for a second.

Rating:

Onward

Onward

No, not Onwards, backwards. Upwards, not forwards, and always
twirling twirling towards freedom

dir: Dan Scanlon

2020

I’ll be the first to admit my own potential to devolve into repetitive hackery. In this instance, what I mean is, sure, there are probably plenty of times where I rely on stock standard phrases and repeat myself in reviews. In some instances, you could probably change the name of the movie being reviewed, and insert any random other movie title into the body of the review or the title, and it would be indistinguishable from another review. It’s perhaps the result of laziness, or of forgetfulness, but either way if a reader started reading an old review, and it started sounding like a lot of other reviews, you’d have good reason to be miffed, Dear Reader. You wouldn’t be getting value for money.

That whole paragraph was purest preamble. The thing I’m going to repeat here is the thing (admittedly lazy) I seem to be finding myself saying whenever a new Pixar flick comes out, which is “Do you remember when you used to care that a new Pixar flick was coming out?” Like, it used to be an event, of sorts. It was something to look forward to.

Of course you can just as easily say the same about the overabundance of Marvel movies, or Star Wars movies, or James Bond movies, or anything else that we’ve been programmed to see every couple of years as the next instalment of a production line that will never seemingly stop producing instalments.

That question is one I posed out loud to my family about half an hour into watching this, it wasn’t just something I whispered into a guinea pig’s ear hoping for answers. The two responses I got back were “Eh” and “It’s Disney, what do you expect?” Both responses are probably right. It’s unreasonable for me to expect something that isn’t sustainable.

The ratio of mediocre to great flicks to come out of the brains and computers at Pixar is ever growing. The exceptional flicks are still exceptional, but they are getting lonelier. The ranks of the shitty ones just keep expanding.

Onward is staggeringly mediocre. It’s, like, embarrassing stuff, actively painful stuff with little if anything to say about anything. It’s so probably amazing from a technical perspective, but it has the heart and soul of an insurance ad. It’s so seeped in banality, and the laziest forms of sentiment that it did not elicit even the tiniest amount of emotion from me, and I’m the sort of soft touch that tears up at insurance commercials.

Rating:

The Nightingale

The Nightingale

She doesn't look happy. Maybe some more revenge will do the trick

dir: Jennifer Kent

2019

Some films are almost too brutal. I thought Jennifer Kent’s first film The Babadook was too disturbing, too discomforting, but then I didn’t reckon with Jennifer Kent making a film set in 1800s Van Diemen’s Land, or Tasmania as we know it now.

There have been a few films set on that hallowed isle from an age ago, and they all tend to be beyond horrible in their depictions of what colonialism does to people. A film of the same name as what it used to be called focused on the actions of Alexander Pearce and a bunch of other convicts, only one of which survived. Cinematically, those days don’t get a good rap at all, by acknowledgement, for two main reasons: the brutality of the penal colonies, like Port Arthur and Macquarie Harbour, and the complete extermination of the indigenous population.

The Nightingale is set in the middle of all this frontier / manifest destiny bullshit. Colonisation has been going on for over 30 years, and the brutality of the Brits towards convicts and former convicts is only slightly less horrible than their brutality towards the indigenous. Whole families, whole tribes have already been murdered with the open approval of the authorities, because they want it to happen, only quicker. But in this flick, “white” lives are pretty much as worthless in an environment where anyone with a gun or a knife can do whatever the fuck they want as long as they’re not aboriginal.

And especially if they’re not a young Irish woman, recently transported, recently released but kept in legal limbo by an awful, sadistic monster who also happens to be a lieutenant in the British army, being Lieut. Hawkins (Sam Claflin). Sam Claflin has played a smug piece of shit in a whole bunch of movies, including the Hunger Games ones, and I’m sure every other film he’s ever done and every film he’s ever in, in the future (if they ever make films again during these virus-dominated times), and here they use his smarmiest features to play just one of the most horrible people I’ve ever seen on screen. He plays such an appalling character here that I’m amazed he signed up for this voluntarily without wondering what it would do for his future employability. I wouldn’t hire him to paint a fence let alone play some decent person ever again.

It’s a role devoid of humanity, or anything other than an overwhelming belief in one’s own superiority to all.

Look, I would generally not talk about a story in such a way, because it’s beyond spoiling plots or story beats and such, but this is a brutal and sadistic film that, in the first half hour, has the same character of Clare raped multiple times, her baby and husband murdered in front of her (and us, as viewers), and people need to know this kind of stuff because I’m certain there’s a bunch of people who would consider themselves mature, thoughtful fans of broad ranges of cinematic experiences who would read what I’ve just written and say “fuck that for a game of soldiers, I’m not going to watch shit like that.”

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Vivarium

Vivarium

It's like something unpleasant, only not enjoyable either

dir: Lorcan Finnegan

2020

Vivarium is an unpleasant and disturbing movie with little point that I could discern. I’m not sure if it was intended as satire, or a cautionary tale, but in the end, it really didn’t feel like it justified its own existence.

It’s not painful to watch or actively stupid. Neither is it offputting or horrific enough to have that going for it. It feels like a Black Mirror episode which forgot to have a vicious punchline that illuminates just how terrible people are. All it illuminates is that if there was some mysterious creature that looked vaguely human but wasn’t, that could kidnap people and put them somewhere they couldn’t escape from, it would be bad.

If it’s point is that something like what happens to the two protagonists here would be terrible to endure, well, derr fred, no doubt. Most stories usually need something more than that. Chopping my toe off with an axe would be bad, but I don’t think I should get to make a film about it (though Zuckerberg / Eisenberg is welcome to play my big toe any time).

A young couple (Imogen Poots and everyone’s favourite Zuckerberg Jesse Eisenberg) are looking for a place to live. She’s a primary teacher, he’s a, I dunno, groundskeeper Willy or something. It’s not clear where they are, but it’s not going to matter anyway. They wander into a storefront that we assume was a real estate agent or something. A really creepy looking guy called Martin promises them that the place they’re looking for is in a planned community called Yonder.

When they travel to Yonder, they find a place of thousands of identical houses. There is no one else around. Martin shows them No. 9, and literally disappears. Gemma and Tom try to drive away and keep turning up at 9. Whatever they do, they can’t leave.

The next night Tom burns the house down. The house reappears, and a box, also. There is a baby in the box. On the box is printed “Raise the child and you shall be released”.

O-kay. So they’re trapped in suburbia, with a child they don’t want, and for invisible reasons they can’t leave.

Does that even qualify as satire?

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Uncut Gems

Uncut Gems

Maybe the uncut gems are inside of us, or maybe it's just
a literal title. About some gems. That aren't cut

dir: the Safdie Brothers

2019

Sometimes, you watch a film, about a character, and all you can really say about them is “what a piece of shit.”

Howard Ratner, the character Adam Sandler plays here, is an absolute piece of shit. There’s not a single way around it. I don’t care if Sandler was nominated for awards for playing this character, even more I don’t care that people were saying this is finally the time that Sandler will be taken seriously as an actor (which they said every time he did a ‘serious’ role over the last twenty years). The character he plays here is an unremitting, utterly relentless piece of shit.

The way you can sometimes hide a cascade of character flaws like that, which in total result in an absolute piece of shit, is by having worse people around them. In Uncut Gems, there’s no-one who’s more of a piece of shit, so there’s that going for Howie – he’s top of the pile.

This film is an exhausting, unstoppable, anxiety-inducing downhill slalom, by two people who currently have the monopoly on this kind of hyper-caffeinated cinema, being Benny and Joshua Safdie. Good Times, their earlier flick with Robert Pattinson in the lead, was pretty much the same kind of experience with even scuzzier and more desperate people. But this…

My gods, Howard. Spending time with him is exhausting, he’s an exhausting person. In your life, if you’ve lived long enough and met enough people, you have met people like this, people who are themselves a simultaneous slow-motion and lightning fast car crash that is only ever ongoing. As long as they are awake, they are whirling around bouncing off of everyone and everything in their orbit. It can make for fun times and excruciating times, sometimes at the same time.

Howard owes money to bunches of people, but especially his psychotic looking brother-in-law Arno (Eric Bogosian). He keeps making more bets in order to get himself out of a hole, but each action he takes digs him in deeper. He has a diamond wholesale business, but he has a friend, Demany (Lakeith Stanfield, who has to be in everything at the moment) who brings in rappers and ball players to buy their cheesy bling from Howard. So, at any given moment, Howard is spinning plates badly to keep himself above water and to continually put himself in more danger as well. He doesn’t feel alive if he isn’t risking everything and potentially failing.

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Jojo Rabbit

Jojo Rabbit

Genocidal fun for the whole family

dir: Taika Waititi

2019

I know that there are a lot of people for whom stories and movies like this are too much, that it’s disrespectful to those who were persecuted and murdered by the Nazis, that it minimises the sheer enormity of what happened. Similar criticisms were aimed at Roberto Benigni for making Life is Beautiful; a comedy about a Jewish father trying to playfully shield his son from the fact that they’re in a concentration camp.

How did they get away with that one? I also remember people bleating similar crap about the book and the film of The Book Thief, which also was seen as not treating the Holocaust with enough reverence, or centring the narrative on non-Jewish characters at the expense of the worst affected by the genocide.

And here, in Jojo Rabbit, a ten-year-old boy has Hitler as his best, imaginary friend, and wants to do nothing more than make his Fuhrer proud by killing Jews.

If I walked into the offices of Fox Searchlight, and said any of the above, I’d probably not only get arrested, I’d get the shit kicked out of me in alley somewhere for good measure.

But I’m not Taika Waititi, so when he says it, people listen and take him seriously, and they think “this might work” and not “Security, get this bum out of here.”

Taika has been making his absurdist masterpieces for a while now, so I would hope that he and the people he works with have a good enough idea of how to balance the various elements one needs to in order to make something like this work. This isn’t, on the surface, that complicated a story – young boy indoctrinated by Nazi propaganda hates the Jews, but slowly learns to not hate at least one of them. We often see these kinds of stories with adult characters, and it’s a redemption story in those contexts. But Jojo, or Johannes (Roman Griffin Davis) as he’s more commonly known, isn’t looking at redemption, he’s a kid who believes vile Nazi propaganda because he doesn’t know any better, and he doesn’t realise how close Germany is to losing the war. His path, since he’s only ten, is to realise some of the stuff he thought was true, isn’t.

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