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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.

Rating:

Atlantics

Atlantique

Who ever thought dancing in a disco could be so sad...

(French title: Atlantique)

dir: Mati Diop

2019

Atlantics is a slow, strange, moody piece; a supernatural slice-of-life covering a few days in the life of a Senegalese girl called Ada (Mame Bineta Sane), living her best life. But before we get to her, we watch a bunch of young Senegalese chaps working at a building site, working for a long time.

A real long time. And at the end of their shift, the guys are like “where is our pay from the last three months?” and no satisfying answers are offered. The tower they are working on looks like something for the Avengers, as their new Senegalese headquarters, maybe, and yet these workers live in tiny homes made of breeze blocks with no windows, and haven’t gotten paid for months. One of them, Souleiman (Ibrahima Traoré) yells that he’s in so much debt with not getting paid by their bastard boss, that he avoids going home until it’s dark, so he doesn’t get chased by creditors.

Souleiman rides home in the back of a truck with his mates, and though we don’t know it yet, they have hatched a plan. He visits his girlfriend Ada, and they try to get it on but are interrupted, and she tells him to cool his boots, as they will be meeting again later that night.

When she sees some of her girlfriends, they taunt her about a few things, but she has friends from different walks of life, it appears, and not all of them are trash. She has a religious friend Mariama (Mariama Gassama), always wearing the hijab, who scolds her for her wicked ways and reminds her that God is testing her with temptation, since she’s meant to be marrying some jerk called Omar in a number of days, and not swanning about with the far more handsome and likable Souleiman.

Her other friends, who Mariama doesn’t like, routinely give her the kind of bad advice that good friends who don’t care if you fuck up all the time would give. They’re materialist and selfish, but they’re not wrong. Like Ada, many of them have boyfriends or brothers who worked at the construction site with Souleiman.

But, that same night, when Ada goes to their local bar on the beach, looking out as it does across the Atlantic Ocean (Senegal is a West African country), all of the girls are there, but neither Souleiman nor any of the other guys are present. They have, apparently, commandeered a boat and decided to sail to Spain, to Europe and towards the promise of a better life.

Rating:

Queen & Slim

Queen and Slim

Two films he's been in, both times outshone by Amazons, and
he's okay with that. I like that a lot.

dir: Melina Matsoukas

2019

Queen & Slim aims high. How do you encompass all of America’s issues with race, crime, justice, relationships in the Tinder age and parental difficulties in a two-hour film?

Well, you select two very attractive people and you make them the face of contemporary African-American Man and African-American Woman, then you put them through the ringer, and see if sexy results ensue.

Except…I dunno, I find it weird that neither of the leads is actually American. Both Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith as the Queen and Slim of the title, grew up in Britain, with Ugandan parent’s in Daniel’s case and Jamaican in Jodie’s case. It kind of implies no-one else in America could have filled the roles, and I can think of at least four, maybe five people.

I guess it’s not really that relevant a point. Having grown up in Britain, on a council estate, there’s no doubt Daniel knows a lot about casual racism and the institutional variety, and Jodie has lived in LA for over a decade after doing uni in Pennsylvania, which is the most racist of the Northern states, as everyone knows (I’m just kidding even though I know it’s not funny in the slightest). Plus Daniel stared in Jordan Peel’s flick Get Out and in Black Panther as one of T’Challa’s friends from childhood, so I think he’s earned his place at the table.

Speaking of Black Panther, they couldn’t even resist making a Black Panther reference, though at least they didn’t say Wakanda Forever at any point. That would have broken the fragile tension keeping this contemporary story current and believable. There’s nothing funny about what’s they’re living through, though there is a bit of humour to leaven the dread.

A lot of the flick seems to be about the tensions surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement, since the precipitating event involves a police officer. It expands out broadly to encompass issues to do with the justice system’s inherent biases against African-Americans, but also tries to capitalise on the status of the protagonists as proud counterculture symbols, which is a bit problematic. They become symbols to others, which obscures that they are people, with hopes and aspirations, as opposed to hollow Bonnie & Clyde surrogates, which is less than human.

It’s also about the growing relationship between the protagonists, who are unnamed for the majority of the flick. And because most scenes between them involve just the two of them, and that they’re mostly on what in any other context would be considered a road trip, they are getting to know each other as we’re getting to know them as well.

Rating:

Marriage Story

Marriage Story

They don't really like each other. None of them. Especially the kid

dir: Noah Baumbach

2019

I know. I KNOW. You don’t have to tell me how insufferable some of Noah Baumbach’s work is, or his ability to get actors to play the most insufferable versions of themselves imaginable. I sat through Greenberg, which starred someone who looked a lot like Ben Stiller, but couldn’t have been, because surely that actor was murdered, and Ben Stiller has been in stacks of films since then. But I don’t blame Ben Stiller’s doppelganger, you have to aim your praise / blame at Noah Baumbach for that.

For all the archness of much of the dialogue in his flicks, or the preciousness, there are times when it all clicks together. This is, at least for me, one of those times when the parts, pieces and performances cohere so well. It will stagger no one to find out that Marriage Story is really all about the seemingly amicable divorce between two people who don’t hate each other yet. They have a kid between them, so they are doing their best to be there for him and to act like it’s not all his fault (it totally is). And while it’s far more relevant to look at Baumbach trying to gently tell a story as common as any other experience in the States (apart from owning a gun and wanting to get the coronavirus, nothing seems more American than having at least one divorce under your belt), it’s personal for a lot of these people.

I’m also pretty sure he’s filtering the story through a 70s filmic lens, since there’s a lot that brings to mind Kramer versus Kramer and maybe Irreconcilable Differences, and a fair few others. On the other hand, it’s unfair to say he’s just referencing those kinds of films when virtually everyone involved in this production knows about divorce.

Noah Baumbach’s first movie The Squid and the Whale was all about the impact that divorce had on a bunch of pretentious and precocious kids, which itself was based on Baumbach’s life growing up. But more recently of course there’s the fact that he was married to Jennifer Jason Lee for crying out loud, and they got divorced. Scarlett Johansson’s on her third marriage I think, and Adam Driver’s parents got divorced. We could almost call it a universal experience.

Even those of us lucky enough to have avoided the formal and legal experience of divorce have experienced relationships falling apart, which is an actual universal human experience because how else would we truly know we are alive until we just fucking want to die from heartbreak?

That’s when we’ve TRULY lived, eh?

On the surface this is meant to be an amicable divorce. In fact, when the film starts, deceptively, we are hearing Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and Charlie (Adam Driver) testify as to each other’s best qualities.

The rug is firmly pulled out from under our feet when it’s revealed that it’s a trick: these statements are being read in front of a marriage counselor who Nicole does not take kindly to. Clearly, for a multitude of reasons we aren’t privy to as yet, this relationship is not for saving.

Rating:

Parasite

Parasite

I musn't be remembering the film properly, because I don't
remember the bit where rich people stole everyone's eyes.
Sounds like something they'd do, though.

(기생충 Gisaengchung)

dir: Bong Joon-ho

2019

The thing about parasites is… how many are too many, and what should I do to get rid of them, lickety split?

Nah, but Parasite, the latest flick from the deranged and brilliant mind that brought us Okja, Snowpiercer, Mother, The Host and Memories of Murder, all of which are remarkably solid films, all of which are fairly unique, is probably the most outwardly conventional of all his films.

Not only that, but it won the Palme D’Or this year at Cannes! Can you imagine caring about such a thing? Surely if something wins the Palme D’Or it means it’s a pretty great film, if not the greatest film of all time, or at least that year thus far? I mean, look at all the other great Palme D’Or winners, like Pulp Fiction, Barton Fink, The Piano and Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.

I didn’t make up that last one. On the list of winners there are a lot of Ken Loach and Mike Leigh films, and films from many nations, with no obvious bias towards the films of any region. Mostly, they have nothing in common, though one could be tempted to imply that the jury likes flicks where class is addressed, or plays a part thematically, or is indeed called The Class, which won the Palme D’Or in 2008.

Parasite, the South Korean director’s latest flick, is pretty much about class, but it’s also about the struggles of a family of grifters, and their travails. The least charitable application of the title would be to say that what this family does is become a parasite burrowing its way into the body of another, wealthier family. When we meet our grifters, they’re living in a basement, fighting to find the right spot in which to use someone else’s wi-fi connection in order to connect for some data. Calling the place a hovel would be an insult to squalor.

But they’re tough, and resourceful, as are most petty crims who need to survive on their wits. The father, Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho, who is not only in most of the Bong Joon-ho or Park chan-wook movies I’ve seen, but also in the majority of all South Korean flicks I’ve ever seen) is a fairly quiet, fairly optimistic chap. He supports all his kids in all their attempts to grift. He seems like such a likable guy. The mum, Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin) is a former athlete, and gives the least amount of fucks of any in the family (being exactly zero), often threatening to bite the hand that feeds or actively biting it especially when it’s not in their interest. Then there’s the gentle and retiring son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik), and the daughter, Ki-jung (Park So-dam), with some serious Photoshop skills that she puts to work in service of the plan.

Rating:

Her Smell

Her Smell

She's not winking at you, she just has glass in her eye

dir: Alex Ross Perry

2019

Jesus fucking Christ.

I don’t usually blaspheme, but jeez-us fucking holy hell, this is a hard film to sit through.

At least the first parts of it. I mean, it never really gets that comfortable, but also, there’s this false dawn where you think the movie will chill out and be something you can watch without taking a Valium, but you’d be wrong.

I can’t say that I know that much about this director, Alex Perry Ross, but I can say that I know enough to know that his films are hard to watch. This film, or many parts of it, feel like being trapped on a bus that is way overcrowded with awful, overlapping atonal soundtracks and random people screaming abuse at you in between feeling you up. And it never seems to get to its destination, and there’s no button to press to make it stop.

Becky Something (Elisabeth Moss) and her band Something She are playing a song, a cover of Another Girl, Another Planet, and they do an okay job. I mean, it’s not their song, it’s from 1978 and The Only Ones, but they’re doing okay. I get the feeling their meant to be some kind of band like Babes in Toyland, Hole, 7 Year Bitch, maybe Bikini Kill-ish, who knows, but certainly of the early 1990s variety, and yet it’s never really borne out by the music.

Rating:

Unicorn Store

Unicorn Store

You can relax now, job well done

dir: Brie Larson

2019

It’s a bit of a strange anomaly of a flick. It’s a so-called Netflix Original, but all that means is that when it played the film festival circuit, Netflix bought the rights to screen in when no-one else wanted to.

Perhaps they thought audiences would clamour to see it after Captain Marvel became a massive hit. But how could they have known? I mean, Larson did win an Academy award for her role in Room, but she was hardly a household name before this year. Maybe it was to build a creative relationship with her ongoing, as this is her directorial debut.

It’s unlikely that they saw it and thought “People will punch their grandmothers in the face in order to be the first to stream this goddamn movie!”

Oh, it’s quite odd. I like odd, there’s no doubt, and this is plenty odd. This is the kind of odd that I actually value Netflix for. It is the kind of thing I see or seek out of curiosity that I otherwise would never have even heard of, and I would probably only watch it on a streaming service.

I am not going to explain any further. It is what it is. It is, I hope, the flick that Brie Larson wanted it to be, the exact flick she wanted it to be. It is strange, it doesn’t follow predictable story beats, it seems to exist in our reality, and it seems to be making some points about art, about creativity and about creative people being in tension with commercial interests or profit motives, and how easily people are crushed in that altercation / dynamic.

But it’s also about a young woman who is finally going to get the unicorn she’s craved all her life, as any girl would.

I watched this with my daughter, and at one point she turned to me and asked, “So, do you think the unicorn is meant to be, like, a metaphor for something, or real?”

Rating:

The Mule

The Mule

Old men don't think the law should apply to them, and
maybe they're right

dir: Clint Eastwood

2018

This is like the eleventy millionth Eastwood flick that he’s directed, and, who knows, he could have at least another 100 in him. Of course, however many more films Eastwood is going to make and star in these days, they’re not going to be that different. He’s going to play a character who’s an old guy, who is a Korean War veteran, who’s irascible and vitriolic about the youth of today, perhaps estranged from his family, but, no matter what he did, he loves them and he’s sorry.

His family, whether daughters or granddaughters or ex-wives, are all exasperated by him and stuff he did or didn’t do decades ago, but eventually, because they don’t really have much of a choice, forgive him for his transgressions.

How do I know this is the plot of this and future films of his? Because. Just because. It’s an educated guess. It’s also a safe bet.

Every flick is the same because Eastwood is the same man. Whether he’s playing the lead of a fictional story or a true story that isn’t about him per se, but which easily be warped into his kind of story.

But, and I’m ashamed of myself a bit for what I’m about to write, that’s why we love him.

Not every flick that Eastwood makes is as good as the good ones, and many of them completely lose their way, or start and finish terrible. But when they work, when we get where he’s coming from and forgive him for his awful racial and sexist attitudes (or don’t) that often bleed through into his characters, we’re really forgiving many of the older men in our lives, some of whom we already love, some maybe we don’t, but at the very least we somehow (ill-advisedly) cut him a break because, well, we sense the end is probably near anyway, so why fight anymore?

Rating:

Green Book

Green Book

Green Book Green Book with two Stars. Twinkly Racist Driving Cars.

dir: Peter Farrelly

2018

Yes the fact that this got nominated for things at the thingie ceremony in late Feb / early March is the only reason I saw this. Otherwise I probably would have skipped it, not that I’m against touching stories where a low-rent mob palooka and a prissy African-American pianist reach across the racial divide and make America a better place by doing so.

I would have skipped it because on paper, in ads, conceptually and aesthetically, it did not appeal to me on any level, despite starring two actors that I adore. Viggo Mortensen is a tremendous man and a wonderful actor, and I’ve loved him in almost everything I’ve ever seen him in. And Mahershala Ali has been magnificent on tv, in movies and, like, probably even when he walks down the street or just out the front door to get his newspaper, very convincing, totally believable. Mahershala has charisma and presence to burn 99% of the time, so the stage is set for a feel-good movie you could take your grandmother too, that could just as easily have had Ebony & Ivory playing in it, that would also win heaps of awards from the less than discerning voters of the Academy, thank you, thank you, this is such an honour, I’d like to thank the Academy, and my agent etc etc…

That this is based on a couple of people who existed in human history does not make it a documentary, and a lot of critics point to discrepancies between what Doc Shirley’s surviving family say about their time together, and what Tony Vallelonga’s family say happened, as if either of the two sets of gold-diggers / reality deniers would really know. Even better, several times in the film Tony takes pride in announcing to the world that he’s famous for his well-earned nickname ‘Lip’ because of his propensity and alacrity with bullshitting people at any and all times.

Plus, not to be too rude, but who the fuck is Don Shirley anyway, and why should we care? I mean, he’s no Freddie Mercury / Jackson Maine / Lady Gaga, is he.

So perhaps the most accurate rendering of what this film is about, is that this movie is based on a story Frank ‘Tony Lip’ Vallelonga told anyone who would listen about the time he drove a famous pianist around. Is that so complicated?

Well, it’s complicated by the time in which this happened, and the myriad of levels that people feel the need to argue and discount people’s stories these days (I guess it was always thus and always thus shall be). Some critics have dismissed the film saying a) it’s all bullshit, b), it’s a white saviour narrative, c) the road trip did happen, but not like this, d) bloody Hollywood pushing its agendas on us.

Rating:

The Handmaiden

The Handmaiden

That's such...an accurate interpretation of how trapped the female
protagonists are. My compliments to the poster designer. Very creepy

(아가씨 Ah-ga-ssi)

dir: Park Chan-wook

2017

Goodness gracious me what nasty heroic stuff is delivered to my disbelieving eyeballs by this amazing film.

I shouldn’t really be surprised, should I? This South Korean director has been making stunning, lurid, incredibly violent films for decades, all of which I think I’ve seen, from Joint Security Area to the Vengeance trilogy to his American forays into creepy family dynamics (the little seen Stoker) and end of the world – late stage capitalism allegories (Snowpiercer).

The Handmaiden is no less perplexing / shocking / surprising, even if it technically qualifies as a period piece, and a very weird period piece at that. Lifted from the pages of a novel set in Victorian times (Fingersmith by Sarah Waters), the plot is very similar, but the outcome is vastly different. The setting in this flick is probably a bit hard to wrap one’s head around if you’re not Korean or don’t know much about World War II, but it’s not like it matters that much. It’s set during the occupation of Korea by the Japanese, which means these Korean characters are acting awfully Japanese a lot of the time.

It being a time of war, naturally the people that get by the ‘best’ are the grifters, the con artists, the black marketeers, thieves and forgers. Among them rises a jerk who styles himself a Count no less (Ha Jung-woo), with plans to make off with a rich Japanese woman’s fortune. To help him out he convinces another con artist, Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri), to pretend to be a maid, and to wheedle her way into the heiress’s house and heart. Then, once the jerk marries Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee), it’s off to the insane asylum with her, while he absconds with all the money.

The icy Lady Hideko lives with her uncle, who, this might come as something of a complete shock, is a terrible, terrible person. Just how terrible a person he is unfolds over the course of the movie, but at the very least we get the clear impression that he has creepy designs on his niece, not the least of which is the threat that he intends to marry her at some point.

Sook-hee, despite being a player herself, whose plan it is to get a percentage of that inheritance money, plays the naif fairly well in the domain of her aristocratic betters. She’s all wide-eyed and perplexed by all the mysteries of the stately manor and the enigmatically cool Hideko, but we’re not meant to forget that she’s planning a fate worse than death for the lady.

Rating:

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