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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

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.

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Bohemian Rhapsody

Bohemian Rhapsody

That can't be good for your back, Freddie, ease up

dir: Bryan Singer

2018

I did not expect to enjoy this film as much as I did, but I certainly did. It could have been because it was my birthday and I was in an emotionally fragile state (what with the feeling of impending doom that accompanies every birthday now that I’ve lived to a ‘ripe’ old age), or it could have been because of the prosecco Aperol cocktail I was drinking in the cinema like I was some kind of royal / celebrity / shameful alcoholic. And let me just point out that the most estimable Westgarth cinema has a bar – this was not something I smuggled in my pocket / a thermos /within the bladder of a wine cask.

No, it was professionally made, and quite delightful, and maybe the perfect drink to get me in the mood for a dramatic retelling of the history, or at least part of the history of Queen, that legendary band from the 1970s / 80s. Finding someone to embody the mercurial and one of a kind Freddie Mercury could not have been easy, but at least they had at least one extremely thin and extremely odd looking person who could fit the bill. The only other thing I’ve seen Rami Malek in is Mr Robot, in which he’s superb, of course, but this could not have been an easy performance for him or for anyone else to do or endure.

It’s the teeth, you see. Forced to wear a set of prosthetic teeth that would put a mule to shame, and trying to act and talk and sing could not have been easy for this good chap, but he gives it his darndest. I thought at some points that the false teeth were distracting for him and for the people around him, but just think how Freddie must have felt for having to deal with all those teeth for reals when he was still alive. That couldn’t have been easy, and, when I recall watching a documentary about him about a year ago, he was constantly adjusting his mouth and compensating for his extra teeth anyway, so the actor doing it as well is just Pure Method acting of the kind and level that probably made Daniel Day Lewis punch someone in the face for not giving him the role.

I don’t need to be told that elements of the film aren’t right. I don’t expect biopics of pop / rock stars to be documentaries. I expect documentaries to be fascinating and accurate, and I expect fictional retellings of people’s lives to be entertaining or at least diverting. What Bohemian Rhapsody gave me is an intense appreciation of a) what a keen actor Rami Malek is to put so much work into this portrayal b) what an amazing talented man Freddie was and c) how amazing it is that in their day Queen were the biggest band in the whole freaking world. It is nothing short of bizarre considering the disparate elements that went together to make this band happen.

And the world that accepted them with open arms and wallets! To this day Queen still remain one of the bestselling bands of all time, and for the life of me I still have no idea how or why, except of course when you see Queen and Freddie perform, and here, where you see Rami Malek and the other actors replicate it with such fervency, with such awe-inspiring passion that it really confuses reality with memory.

Rating:

The Walk

The Walk

Sometimes you just really need to have a good lie down

dir: Robert Zemeckis

2015

The Walk. The Walk? What a supremely banal title!

How can you spend millions upon millions on a movie and give it such a simplistic title, eh?

Well, maybe, just maybe, Robert Zemeckis is more concerned with bringing a bizarre moment in New York history to life more so than whether there’s any actual interest in the potential audience for such an extravaganza based on a snazzy name.

This isn’t to be confused with another recent flick called The Walk which was about a completely different subject, that being the Camino pilgrimage across Spain that the faithful and the stupid take part in every year. That one was directed by Emilio Estevez and starred his father Martin Sheen. Charlie Sheen was… otherwise occupied.

This is about an altogether different kind of walk, and is unavoidably based on a true story. The reason I say “has to be” is not just because it is, but because there is absolutely no other way such a story could have been told had it not been true. It’s too bizarre otherwise.

The reason is, other than being about this allegedly famous “walk” between the twin towers of the World Trade Centre, something which Americans are understandably a bit touchy about, the fact that those towers are no longer there means this flick is about more than just the walk itself.

Rating:

The Theory of Everything

The Theory of Everything

You never know where your life is going to end up, or when
your horn dog of a husband is going to leave you for a redhead

dir: James Marsh

2014

I personally think it was brave of the people involved to dare attempt this. Making a biopic about Professor Stephen Hawking is a very daunting proposition.

For most of his adult life he’s been ravaged physically by a degenerative motor neuron disease. His achievements advancing our various understandings of the nature of the universe are staggering. He’s certainly one of the most brilliant minds to ever appear on this planet, in human history at least. There was this amazing hedgehog once…

As I kept that frame in mind, that this was about the Professor, it meant that I found the flick itself quite disappointing. It wasn’t until I realised what must have been quite obvious to other viewers, as it was obvious to my partner, who enjoyed the film far more than I did: it’s not about the Prof. It’s about his wife Jane.

Viewed from that perspective, that it’s a biopic about Stephen Hawking’s wife instead, it starts to make far more sense. It doesn’t make it that much more enjoyable for me, or a better flick, in my opinion, but its shortcomings transform from bugs to features instead.

And yet when you find out that the words “based on the autobiography by Jane Hawking” don’t actually mean that the screenplay matches the events in the memoir, you wonder whether you should just accept that it’s a touching drama about a woman whose husband might have been famous for something and has special health care needs.

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