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Drama

The Climb

Climb

Biking in your 40s and beyond should be a criminal offence

dir: Michael Angelo Covino

2020

The Climb is about friendship.

It’s not about the friends we make along the way in this crazy journey we call life. It’s about the friends we drag with us, or drag us back, stopping us from growing or changing for a multitude of reasons throughout our lives.

I mean, this is not Sisters of the Travelling Pants. This is The Climb, and it is about two adult male friends who’ve known each other since childhood, Mike and Kyle. ‘Mike’ is also the director. Kyle Marvin plays Kyle. They clearly made the film together. Do you see where I’m going with this?

I don’t know if they’re actual lifelong frenemies in real life, but surely they’re bringing something to this too.

I hesitate to call it a comedy, because comedy, as a genre, implies laughter, chuckling, giggling and so forth. It’s funny, but there aren’t jokes. The whole film is immensely funny, in that it’s suffused with irony, and very cleverly done. But it’s not immediately apparent, it’s not showy, really, though it’s very well crafted.

And though I’ve said it’s not showy, that’s a lie, because there’s a section which is one long shot without edits which is incredibly well done, and would have been a nightmare to coordinate and get right, and both the filming and the way it’s put together are phenomenal for a film made with such a tiny budget.

Rating:

Music

Musique

Music brings the party people together

dir: Sia Furler

2021

I have to admit, I’m a fan of disaster cinema. I’m not talking about disaster movies per se, though those can be entertaining as well. I mean movies that come out that capture the imagination of the critics or the public because of, not in spite of, the fact that they are branded absolutely screaming apocalyptic dumpster fires right from the get go.

The people who greenlit this at Warner Brothers in order to keep Sia happy are probably happy that they haven’t been arrested yet, that the opprobrium has dissipated somewhat, and that Music has been pretty much forgotten about, about a month after its expectant mother, Sia, brought it forth into an uncaring and unsuspecting world.

Depending on which articles you read about it, Music was either the worst movie ever made to do with a character living with autism, or the worst movie ever conceived independent of whether autism is accurately or fairly depicted. That it was just a supremely wrong-headed project from conception to realisation is probably unfair to say out loud.

But while more complex questions come to mind, the far simpler one that perhaps captures the essence of the problem from the start is this one: what the fuck were they thinking?

Could no one say to Sia that this was a bad idea? Is she so far gone in her stardom that when people start shaking their heads at something she says they are fired immediately or catapulted out of a building?

Rating:

Malcolm & Marie

Malcolm and Marie

These people are pretty but shouldn't be together, nuh uh

dir: Sam Levinson

2021

Pandemic filmmaking. It’s a genre unto itself. You could argue it’s a product of necessity and invention, or you could say “there’s something more helpful or vital that you could be doing with your time.”

Truth be told, you could have said that at any time in the past and there would have been some truth to it.

So. A director / writer, in the form of Sam Levinson, and two actors, and a crew, put together a movie during the coronapocalypse that has engulfed the States and killed half a million people to date. Minimal crew, only two actors, shot mostly at night, all at one location, in gorgeous black and white.

Malcolm (John David Washington, who’s having the year of his life) is a director, and he’s just had a film premiere, and it’s been a triumph. Marie (Zendaya) is seething from beginning to end, and goes outside of their remarkable house somewhere in Carmel-by-the-Sea to smoke.

What is Carmel-by-the-Sea? The only thing I know about it is that I remember way back in the day that Clint Eastwood decided he wanted to be the mayor of the place, which is a town in California, presumably by the sea. And it happened. And then he got bored of doing that and went back to making movies.

Malcolm is pacing and ranting, high on life, but mostly adrenalin, yelling a mile a minute about his triumph, about his conversation with a critic from the LA Times, and about the ignorance of most people about the important milestones in film, being Citizen Kane and the work of Billy Wilder, and how he hat4es

He’s ranting and raving, and drinking a lot, but he’s not drunk, other than on his own smug sense of self-satisfaction.

And that is some powerful stuff.

Marie is, strangely enough, making mac and cheese, though not for herself, at one in the morning. Strange thing to be doing while you’re wearing a spangly dress in high heels, but who am I to question someone else’s choices?

You see, clearly there’s something bugging her, or at least, there are a lot of things bugging her. No doubt it’s because of something Malcolm did or didn’t do. But she doesn’t volunteer the information until it’s demanded, and from then on it’s on for young and old.

And by “young” I mean Zendaya, and by “old” I mean John David Washington.

Rating:

The White Tiger

White Tiger

Eat the Rich, kill kill kill kill kill kill the poor: I don't know who
out of Aerosmith, Motorhead and the Dead Kennedys had it right

dir: Ramin Bahrani

2021

Right from the start, right off the bat, let me tell you something for free: This is the best movie about murdering someone in order to become a successful businessman that I have ever seen.

Any other movies that you’ve seen where someone murders people in order to become successful, they are but as ants at the feet of Alexander the Great.

The great trick that The White Tiger pulls off, that in my eyes Parasite didn’t quite pull off, is that not only is it as good if not better than the novel it is based on by Aravind Adiga that won the Booker Prize in 2008, it makes you almost accept without having too many qualms about it, that the scum of the lower orders sometimes are almost justified in killing their oppressors. That the people at the top of the hierarchy are awful and do awful things, especially to the lower orders, and actively maintain the system which keeps people down. Thus social and societal mobility depends on killing one’s betters, taking their place, and hopefully being kinder to the people below you.

It probably sounds like I’m being sarcastic, but honestly, I’m not. I’m pretty sure neither the main character of Balram (Adarsh Gourav) nor the author are actually advocating that every poor person should rise up and kill the rich. If they were, that would be sweet. The broader societal implications of what Balram is saying only really apply to him. There is no self-help manual on getting out of The Darkness, as he calls it, or, alternately, the rooster coop, other than desperately fighting your way out.

One of the more shocking aspects of the novel, for me, someone who knows little about India and its multitudes, is just what an appalling picture it paints of Indian society, and the prevalent system apportioning personal worth we refer to as the caste system. They don’t call it that, because ‘caste’ isn’t a Hindi word. But there are moments in the film where Balram is asked what his caste is, in order for the asker to know whether Balram is a higher order of scum or a lower order of scum.

He takes a while to answer. He is of the Halwei cast, the sweet maker caste, which is considered one of the lower castes. Boo, hiss you lower orders, get back to your awful villages and make sweets for us, you presumptuous scum!

In stories like this, and there are millions of them, life in the village is sometimes depicted as idyllic, as pure and wonderful, with the main character being forced to travel to the big city in order to learn valuable lessons about what matters, and how the simple life is better than aspiring towards wealth and power.

Rating:

Black Bear

Black Bear

What's she building in there? Is it plans to rule the world or
eat a cookie?

dir: Lawrence Michael Levine

2020

How lucky for us: two movies for the price of one.

Aubrey Plaza stars as Allison, a director / actor who stays in an Airbnb with a couple she doesn’t know in the Adirondack Mountains, in upstate New York. She seems a bit anxious to be there, and the couple she’s staying with seem like they have their own problems.

Blair (Sarah Gadon) is pregnant, and her jerk of a boyfriend Gabe (Christopher Abbot) doesn’t seem too happy about it, and neither of them really seems like they can stand the other. Bringing Allison into the middle of this feels like dropping someone into the middle of a Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? rehearsal. Everyone is overacting like it’s their last chance before the virus destroys the film industry.

I don’t know how much of this is “real”. I mean, it’s easy enough to suspect that it’s all bullshit, but when you have an actor being asked by another actor as to why she stopped getting jobs, and maybe it was because she was “difficult”, you have to wonder what they’re getting at. I don’t know if Aubrey Plaza has been referred to as “difficult”, which is usually the kiss of death of your career. “Difficult” can mean an actress refused to be violated by a Weinstein or didn’t put up with someone else’s predatory bullshit, or thought she should get paid as much as someone else.

You know, grave crimes like that.

Aubrey Plaza has been in a bunch of films, so hopefully it’s not coming from her personal experiences, but then she’s a woman who works in movies and teev, so, yeah, more than likely, she’s been through some shit.

But there are multiple ways to look at the stories the flick is telling. The stories themselves aren’t that complicated beyond the dramatic. I mean, if we divide the film in two halves, and we call the first half “black bear in the road” and the second half “black bear near the boat house”, we would call the first half trashy melodrama, and the second half a behind the scenes look at what awful people directors are and the shit they put actors through.

And even then that could be simplistic.

Rating:

Sound of Metal

Sound of Metal

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

dir: Darius Marder

2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating:

Promising Young Woman

Promising Young Woman

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

dir: Emerald Fennell

2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating:

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

Ma Rainey

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

dir: George C. Wolfe

2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating:

The Devil All The Time

The Devil All the Time

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

dir: Antonio Campos

2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating:

The Burnt Orange Heresy

The Burnt Orange Heresy

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

dir: Giuseppe Capotondi

2020

It’s… There’s… Hmmm.

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

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

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

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

Rating:

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