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Happiest Season

Happiest Season

This is so cheesy it would make the baby Jesus hurl

dir: Clea Duvall

2020

I have a soft spot for these kinds of Christmas-related family comedy-pseudo dramas. I also have a soft spot for grindcore and stoner rock, so I don’t think the former says any more about me than the latter does either.

In case you’re wondering, no, I fucking hate the movie Love, Actually, it’s the absolute worst.

I’m thinking more of flicks like The Family Stone, and other gentle fare, where the “dysfunctional” part of the scenario is that someone likes smoking dope, or someone won’t admit they lost their job, or someone’s upset about something that happened a year ago involving a misplaced thank you note. You know, as opposed to families where the cops have to be called routinely, or there are restraining orders and death threats involved, like the dysfunctional family I grew up in.

Happiest Season doesn’t exactly stick to a certain familiar, untaxing template, but it doesn’t exactly create a new genre out of whole cloth. It’s the kind of film that you feel like you’ve seen a thousand times before even if you’re watching it for the first time, and even if it has a gay couple as the central ones making all the fuss.

Kristen Stewart plays Abby and Mackenzie Davis plays Harper. They’re a couple. It’s Christmas, or at least Christmas is coming up. Harper loves Christmas and loves spending it with her big family. Abby lost her parents when she was a teen, and doesn’t really care to celebrate this most dismal time of the year. But she loves Harper.

For some reason. Abby plans on asking Harper to marry her. Harper doesn’t know this. But she doesn’t want Abby to be alone this Christmas, so she invites her up to whatever snow-covered one pub town her parents live in, in rural Pennsylvania.

Does hilarity ensue? Well, not entirely. All these kinds of flicks depend on a central lie at the beginning, sort of, and this one’s is that Harper is not out to her family, so Abby is just going to be introduced as her housemate. They’re just friends, and Harper encourages her family to take pity on Abby because she’s an orphan.

Rating:

Wild Mountain Thyme

Wild Mountain Thyme

You've got something on yer face. Definitely Something Face.

dir: John Patrick Shanley

2020

Confession time: When I hear about something being almost supernaturally awful, I feel obligated to search it out and watch it. No-one who saw Cats last year could have expected or wanted anything less than a trainwreck when they voluntarily downloaded or streamed it after all those appalling reviews. Anyone who heard about the reviews for this film had to be expecting something so bad it makes the Potato Famine look like a day at Luna Park in comparison.

What I got was a pleasant surprise, in that Wild Mountain Thyme is not the worst film in Irish history, probably. It is a strange and slightly surreal experience, though, and I am sometimes a fan of surreal and strange experiences.

For such a quintessentially Irish story, they had to get that famous Irish actor of longstanding prowess and acclaim, being Christopher Walken. Christopher Walken? Yes, Christopher Fucking Walken, playing an old Irish farmer. Walken I think for the last decade has appeared in any movie anyone has asked him to appear in. I don’t think he even wants money to turn up, either. He just wants to get out of the house, stay active. It’s good, for chaps his age, to keep moving.

The problem with setting a story in Ireland with Irish characters is that people are expected to speak with Irish accents. I mean, it would be unusual to set the story in County Mayo and not have people speaking at least vaguely with an accent people associate with The Troubles and leprechauns and such. I think of the actors here there’s one who’s Irish, through and through. The other was born in Ireland, but didn’t grow up there, so it’s an Acting Exercise for them too.

Elsewhere, really, they could have had me playing some of these roles, because my Irish accent, though terrible, would have been indistinguishable from the rest.

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:

Yesterday

Yesterday

I'm shocked too that they couldn't do more with the idea

dir: Danny Boyle

2019

Danny Boyle has made some surprising flicks in his day, but this has to be one of the most surprising, mostly because it’s such a tame grandmother-pleasing flick from the guy that once made Trainspotting.

Of course he also made Trainspotting 2, but that wasn’t surprising, just depressing. In terms of crowd pleasing fare, this is probably closest to something like Billions (not the series, a movie about a boy who finds a bag full of cash), which was as G rated a film as humanly possible by someone renowned for so, so much filth.

This has a novel premise, but one so fundamentally out there, that you wonder if it resulted among a group of people who were smoking dope together, so impressed were they with this brilliant idea. However, before they could pool their enhanced inspiration together and come up with a plot and an ending, they sobered up, ran out of substances, and were left cold, sad and a little bit hungry.

Maybe it’s a great premise. I don’t know. It’s such a ridiculous premise that the fact they don’t do much with it doesn’t really register until the very end where you wonder how it all got this far without someone saying “Hang on a second – we didn’t give the film a point!”

It’s a stealth way of doing a biopic without the messiness and cost of having to get the consent of the various real people or their estates involved, or having to wrangle the egos of famous-ish people playing people even more famous than themselves. There were scenes in this which were pretty much identical to stuff from Rocketman, the Elton John biopic, where someone sits at a piano and belts out a song as everyone stands around them in awe, and you think “that’s nice, but” because, really, they’re just covers.

Covers of songs that are familiar, well known or beloved by many. Obviously, the original is the preferred version. A decent cover can sometimes be nice, but they’re generally superfluous. A transformative cover sometimes unearths a completely different way of experiencing something we thought we knew, revealed to us in a wholly different form.

Most often the best they can do is get us to remember the past.

This flick hinges on the premise that what if something happened, like, a giant purple dude with a gaudy glove covered in gems snapped his fingers, but instead of wiping out half the life in the universe, he decided to erase the existence of The Beatles from everyone’s minds like they never existed.

But. There’s one guy who remembers most of their songs. What do you think would happen then?

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Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Portrait de la jeune fille en feu

She burns, as one aflame laid bare by desire

(Portrait de la jeune fille en feu)

dir: Céline Sciamma

2019

What a beautiful film. It seems quite simple, really, but it is incredibly intricate and deceptively well done. It’s a lush, romantic story like a few I’ve seen before, but told in such a gentle, aching manner.

I won’t pretend to know anything about the era represented, or painting, or anything about French culture (it’s in French, with whatever subtitles you could possibly choose), but the fundamental elements are relatable to anyone not living on an island off the coast of Brittany. There’s class division, there’s fear of loss of self, the fear that one will never have any freedom to live and breath, the strictures and structures imposed upon women throughout the ages, the ways that society controls women in ways that are never of benefit to women themselves, and the ways in which when they band together, women can be indomitable.

There are very few men in this flick. We see a couple at the beginning, as they row Marianne (Noémie Merlant) to an isolated island, but they don’t play a large part in the proceedings. In trying to get to the island, a crate falls overboard, and Marianne has to jump in to save it, which she does, miraculously without drowning, considering the bulky dress she wears.

This is not the beginning of the film. There’s an opening scene where Marianne, presumably much older, issues instructions to young women drawing in her class. Behind their heads she spies a painting, unexpectedly, and the cool with which she was advising the class dissipates. When asked the title of this forbidden painting, she haltingly delivers the title of the film. You don’t get that every day. Even The Rock doesn’t usually utter the title of the flick in the opening moments of the film’s he’s in: “Looks Like Hobbs & Shaw are going to be kicking ass again!”

But I pointlessly digress. The opening tells us that the painting has some painful significance to the teacher, as she recalls the subject of the painting. That’s why it jumps to the past (Marianne, to be fair, looks no different, but we are to assume she is much younger) where Marianne is commissioned to paint a portrait of a young lady. The purpose of the portrait is for the painting to be sent to a nobleman in Milan who, if he likes what he sees, will wed the young lady.

By “wed” we might as well inscribe “purchase” upon the bill of sale. The large manor has a housekeeper, the young Sophie (Luàna Bajrami), who is quiet, but knows and sees all. She tells the painter, warily at first, what tensions there are in the house. The young lady in question, Hélöise (Adèle Haenel) had an older sister, who was the first choice of the Milanese gentleman, but the prospect of an arranged marriage compelled her to throw herself off of one of the conveniently located cliffs.

Rating:

Always Be My Maybe

Always Be My Maybe

I love the film, but, seriously, that poster is the very
definition of awkward

dir: Nahnatchka Khan

2019

This is, ridiculously, one of my favourite films of the year thus far. I know it’s not over yet, many months to go, but I enjoyed the hell out of it, and I’ve seen it twice.

And the bits with Keanu, honestly, they’re the least part of it.

The film’s greatest strength, whether as a romantic comedy or whatever other phrase one might want to use to genre-fy things up, is Ali Wong and Randall Park. Both immensely funny in other stuff, both perfectly relaxed and believable here, not as a star-crossed lovers or people with monster – Viking – sexual chemistry, but just as two people who could reasonably be happiest with each other despite their myriad differences as people.

Ali Wong has made two Netflix stand-up specials, both while heavily pregnant, that constitute two of the funniest stand up specials I’ve ever seen, on any format. She has a phenomenal energy and delivery, and great skills as a teller of her own tale, and fiercely feminist to boot. Randall Park is naturally funny in anything, can do sitcom stuff with relative ease, played a monstrous dictator and still made that funny as a demented Kim Jong-Un in The Interview, and can play this role here as Marcus comfortably as putting on old sneakers.

Sasha and Marcus, growing up as kids in San Francisco, bond over being Asian-Americans in a predominately whitebread town though they’re not from the same backgrounds. Sasha is also something of a latchkey kid who never sees her hardworking Vietnamese parents, and so she spends even more time with Marcus than friends would. In Marcus’s Korean mum Judy (Susan Park) she gets an adoptive mother, and the comfort and love that comes from regular feeding. From Judy she further picks up a deep love of making quality Korean food.

Up until they are spotty teenagers in their late teens, and Marcus’ mum dies unexpectedly, they’ve been close friends, but grief and a need for something else leads them to having sex for the first time. The awkwardness and the vulnerability, and the stupid stuff people say at that age afterwards, drives them far apart.

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A Star Is Born

A Star Is Born

Let's rub noses together, that's the most rock n' roll thing ever

dir: Bradley Cooper

2018

A Star Is Born is probably the movie I heard random people talk about the most last year, with the possible exception of Bohemian Rhapsody and, in my case, as in, the film I bored people to death talking about, being Black Panther. I know that lots of other films came out, movies even, and a few pictures. But very few of them resonated or seemed to matter that much to the multitudes.

And that’s just, like, my opinion, man. The advantage Rhapsody had was everyone over a certain age at least in the Western world knows all of those songs. Lady Gaga, maybe not as much. But she’s here with her pop vocal stylings and affectless facial expressions, in this most recent telling of the age-old story: previously successful man on the way down boosts the career of an unknown young ingénue, falls in love, is then pushed down the stairs in order to make way for youth. It’s a story as old as time, or at least since 1937, when the first movie version of this came out. There’s also the legendary one from the seventies with Kris Kristofferson and Barbara Streisand. Really, it’s a heart-warming tale because it can be told over and over again.

I don’t know why Bradley Cooper decided he had to direct it, but he did, and he managed to do a bang up job. The film is always in focus, there aren’t too many shots of boom mics and not too many people walk into walls or trip over props. Sam Elliot is also in this along with Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga, and I am glad to report his mustache is very big. Phew! No one likes seeing Sam Elliot without his mustache, especially Sam Elliot.

Speaking of Sam Elliot, Bradley Cooper adopts a kind of southern drawl that makes me think not of an actual Southerner, but of Jeff Bridges (though not as The Dude from The Big Lebowski, because that would be way too symmetrical). Though even if Bradley Cooper is incomprehensible much of the time (he also pretends to be drunk most of the story, unless he went Method and actually got drunk all the time in order to really capture the essence of the character), his soulful eyes and the beard do a lot of the acting for him.

Rating:

The Love Witch

The Love Witch

Sure, there's a lot of red in the flick, but, yeah, better Dead than Red

dir: Anna Biller

2016

What… what in the name of unholy fuck was that about?

I did read some very positive reviews of this flick late last year, very keen appraisals that argue passionately and persuasively about the merits of The Love Witch. This even made some people’s Best Of lists at the tail end of 2016. I even got to read a glowing review in The Age, the local paper of record, which made me think “Hmm, sounds great, must check it out”.

And now? Now I feel this dull rage, like I got ripped off by someone who wasn’t even running that good a scam on me, yet I got played anyway and I lost my watch, my wallet and my glass eye in the deal…

Of course you can’t rely on other people’s opinions in order to form your own opinions about anything: yes, People are People and have Different Experiences and Such when they See the World in All its Glory. I know all that: I’ve seen identical twins watch the same movie and violently disagree over their different takes on it while walking out of the theatre, which even might have resulted in a punch up, no shit.

At the very least what I can say is that the merits a fair few reviewers and / or film critics saw in this film are completely lost on me, even as I can nod my head and comprehend some of the themes and points the film seems to be making. Where I say “seems” I could just readily admit that I have no freaking idea.

Rating:

La La Land

La La Land

I prefer this poster because it makes it look like a completely different
flick from the one it actually is. This ain't no Goddard flick, though maybe
it's a remake of Breathless and no-one told me.

dir: Damien Chazelle

2016

It’s like… don’t they realise how out of place something like this is right now, in this day and age?

Don’t the makers and stars of La La Land realise that the place society seems to be leaning towards is more Fear the Walking Dead rather than Umbrellas of Cherbourg or Singing in the Rain?

They couldn’t have known, I guess, when they were making it that it would look like some anachronistic relic, like something completely at odds with the zeitgeist it would be released into. This flick says nothing about our anxieties, our fears, however concrete or abstract as they may be, but it does speak sweetly to our hopes and dreams.

Turns out, as long as we try our darnedest at whatever the hell it is we most want in the world and don’t give up, and we look like Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, then eventually we’ll get exactly what we want, because this is a universe that rewards people’s most heartfelt desires and their specific attractiveness, instead of a realm that crushes everything in the vast uncaring coldness of oblivion.

This is exactly the kind of cynicism that a film like La La Land is trying to transcend, and why the hell not? These dark times we live in need some spark of light, some reminders that eventually, maybe, things will be a tad brighter? Or that maybe the staggering darkness isn’t as all pervasive as it seems?

Rating:

Pride & Prejudice & Zombies

Pride & Prejudice & Zombies

Oh what a lovely day I had before I watched this monstrosity

dir: Burr Steers

2016

It should have been more fun than this.

It should have been more… something, anything than this.

There’s no argument that the world needs more versions of Pride and Prejudice. We don’t. Thanks, we’ve had plenty, there’s no more room at the inn.

I say that yet I happily watch any of them whenever they appear on cable. Especially that one, you know the one, the one that’s sex on a stick, with Colin Firth as Darcy and Jennifer Ehle as Lizzy Bennett. Even the ones I don’t like I still watch, like that one with the stick insect and the other guy, or that Bollywood ‘inspired’ one, or any of the literally one million other versions.

We further don’t need more of them because virtually every romantic thing aimed at those humans who drink red wine / read / masturbate in the bath is pretty much based on Pride & Prejudice anyway. How so, you ask, as you sip from your second glass of wine for the night, and eat your third Tim Tam?

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