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6 stars

Antebellum

Antebellum

These butterflies have a lot to answer for, not least of
which is their abject racism.

dir: Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz

2020

Antebellum means ‘before the war’ in Latin, and it could mean before any war, but because Americans are Americans, antebellum is generally used to mean “before the Civil War”, like, for the losing side, meaning “weren’t things great before the Civil War?”

They weren’t, not at all, for too many, but for some people the struggle never ends. In this movie, we watch as a bunch of awful people imprison, torture and kill African-Americans, with the intention of proving their supremacy over them, based on skin colour alone.

But, you know, based on actual behaviour and lack of humanity, how is this superior to anything or anyone?

Janelle Monáe plays the lead character, and is in pretty much every scene. She carries the entire weight and freight of the film, for good and for ill. It’s a lot to carry.

She’s better known as a singer and crazily talented creator, but she’s put in some solid performances over the last few years, and she does well here with a very difficult role. A role that one wishes she didn’t have to take.

In the first 40 minutes of the film, we see life, brutal life, on a plantation. A woman is brutalised, and then killed. Southern gentlemen in the uniform of the Confederacy are the ones brutalising the slaves. A woman (Monáe) is told to respond to the name given her, and refuses, and is branded, with the initials BD.

For forty minutes this keeps up. There aren’t many details that give the game away. One of the slaves had a nose ring, a septum piercing. The slaves are made to pick cotton, at gunpoint, and then the cotton is burned. No-one gives the game away through speaking, but it should be pretty fucking obvious to anyone, no matter how little they know about the film, that this is not actually the South before or during the Civil War.

Of course the sounds of war persist in the distance, but we are told that the South is winning, and the cowardly North will soon be vanquished, so these awful people will get to continue their awful ways presumably for ever and ever.

Rating:

Color Out of Space

Color Out of Space

Nice reality you have there. Be a shame if something bad
happened to it.

dir: Richard Stanley

2019

Color Out of Space is a title that probably doesn’t make a lot of sense. It doesn’t matter. The film itself is flat out fucking bonkers, so it’s perfectly appropriate to the title.

It’s based on a HP Lovecraft short story, with the fuller title of The Colour Out of Space, which is just as meaningless, but the importance of it is that whatever it is that is about to happen is otherworldly. As in, people will see things they should not see, which will leave them forever changed.

A witchy girl (Madeleine Arthur) conducts some kind of ceremony near a lake, and she is interrupted by a surveying hydrologist called Ward (Eliot Knight) who is, surveying something, presumably, other than the witchy girl and her witchy ways. He seems to be pretty familiar with magic ceremonies, and he wears a college t-shirt from, I’m guessing, the Miskatonic University, a common element in Lovecraft’s stuff, and plenty of other horror / fantasy stuff that’s been ripping off Lovecraft for nearly a century. He’s not really a protagonist in all of this, though he is a witness to it: cosmic weirdness is the main character. A family, one to which the witch belongs are the scenery upon which the colour, presumably from out of space, will wreak havoc.

I have pretty much avoided anything with Nicolas Cage in it for many years. As far as I know the last good performance he put in was in Adaptation. Since then I think he lost a lot of his money when some accountant / financial manager / astrologer ripped him off, so instead of being okay in a few good movies every now and then, he went to making as many terrible or pointless movies as possible in order to get some wealthiness back into his life. Again, it’s just what I heard.

Cage gives as awful a performance as we now expect from him, but it’s not inappropriate to the material. If anything, it makes what happens in the movie almost easier to handle. In a different kind of adaptation of this kind of story, we’d be introduced to a family that we came to care about, then they would be put under threat, and we would hope that they somehow find a way to survive.

This is not that kind of story. We are introduced to the family, their dog Sam and their alpacas, then a succession of terrible things happen to them, and then it ends, ominously implying that it will happen again to someone else. That kind of horror flick is usually hard to take.

I didn’t find it hard to take here. What happens to this family after a meteorite slams into the earth outside their house can be taken literally, can be taken figuratively, can be looked at as a commentary on environmental degradation, or people’s anxiety about clean water supply.

Rating:

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.

Rating:

Lucky Grandma

Lucky Grandma

She deserves every penny, you ageist bastards

dir: Sasie Sealy

2020

This movie, Lucky Grandma, is a pretty strange movie, in some very minor ways. It is strange in its relative simplicity. It might have a fair bit going on under the surface, or behind the actions of the main character, but it’s all played relatively straight. It’s mostly a very quiet film, which, with everything that’s going on at the moment, actually came as a bit of a relief while I was watching it.

The modesty of the movie’s ambitions don’t detract from its enjoyment, but neither does it make the experience an overly compelling one. It’s a hard movie to recommend, but not because it does anything wrong, or doesn’t succeed at what it tries to do.

The Grandma of the title, (Tsai Chin) is recently widowed. She is a Chinese woman living in New York’s Chinatown, which is a city within a city. She is almost exclusively referred to as Grandma, or Nai Nai, even by people who aren’t related to her. She is a tough old bird, who chainsmokes endlessly (though I have to admit, I found it amusing and worrying that they got her to smoke, when the actress clearly either doesn’t smoke now or have never been a smoker). I don’t know if the character is meant to be in her 80s, but the legendary actress playing Nai Nai certainly is, being 86.

Being an old Chinese woman, and not a wealthy one, she wastes time and money consulting a fortune teller / clairvoyant / luck consultant, who consults the I Ching, who draws out pieces of calligraphy paper and generally assures Nai Nai that her luck will soon turn around, and the 28th of October will be an especially lucky day for her.

I don’t want to appear racially insensitive, or insulting towards anyone’s culture or traditions, but I have a sneaking suspicion that Chinese forms of fortune telling are about as worthy or accurate as any of the other forms of fortune telling available around the world: ie. they’re all total bullshit. We’re not meant to think that there’s any reason why Nai Nai should be any luckier than anyone else on that auspicious day.

She believes it, though, and takes out of the bank the very little money she has left since her husband died. There’s a bus tour from their community to some casino 3 hours away, and she presses her luck there, convinced the universe owes her one.

Part of the delusion is believing that the number 8 is her talisman, so all her bets on all the games are on eight. And the wins start piling up, the money multiplies, and she seems vindicated. See her expression of contempt for the other players who view her behavior with incredulity and concern.

She blows smoke at their worries, mocks their judge-y expressions.

Rating:

Da 5 Bloods

Da 5 Bloods

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

dir: Spike Lee

2020

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

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

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

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

Rating:

We Summon the Darkness

We Summon the Darkness

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

dir: Marc Meyers

2020

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

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

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

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

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

Rating:

Shirley

Shirley

She looks like she would be fun at parties

dir: Josephine Decker

2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is he fuck…

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

Rating:

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?

Rating:

The Gentlemen

The Gentlemen

This is one of the most awkwardly arranged group shots
I've ever seen. It's like something out of the Royal family

dir: Guy Ritchie

2019

I don’t know what Guy Ritchie’s deal is, and I’m pretty sure he’s not going to see things this way, but when you make a flick that seems like it’s all about getting revenge on those dastardly tabloid editors and jerk – crim reporters, it seems a bit personal.

And when one of the main characters you have in the film is Hugh Grant, playing the sleaziest version of the kinds of slimy paparazzi / private detectives / tabloid reporters that made his life a living hell for decades, again, you seem to be making a statement.

Statements are all well and good, but they don’t always make for entertaining cinema. This film here, The Gentlemen, goes out of its way to be entertaining. Perhaps almost even too entertaining. It flirts with breaking the fourth wall plenty of times, with Grant practically winking at us as he refers to camera lenses and anamorphic aspect ratios and fade outs and other narrative / stylistic techniques as he tells his barely believable tale to a captive audience.

There is even a scene involving Guy Ritchie playing a very Weinstein-esque looking exec at Miramax’s offices. You remember Miramax, don’t you? They made all these great movies, and ruined all these women’s lives?

If we’re all really honest, no Guy Ritchie flick has been as outright enjoyable as Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels in all these years. Some of his other flicks have come pretty close (maybe Snatch, maybe RocknRolla, maybe the first Sherlock Holmes flick), some have been meh, and some are flat out dumb. His flicks are only getting more convoluted in their plots, with that frustrating proviso that any situation faced by a character can be gotten out of because of something else we didn’t see happen beforehand done by someone we didn’t know was around.

That might seem like an artless way to describe the complicated plotting on display here, but in some ways this kind of overwrought overwriting is really underwriting. It’s the equivalent of someone with little to say who tries to hide the fact by yelling the little they have to say very loudly and with different phrasing a lot of times, and occasionally backwards.

Rating:

Birds of Prey

Birds of Prey

Birds of Prey and Other Opportunities Wasted Incorporated

dir: Cathy Yan

2020

Let’s not sleep on the whole title: Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of one Harley Quinn. If you saw that on a poster and had never heard of The Birds of Prey or Harley Quinn, would it induce you to brave a virus-filled world and venture forth into a cinema to watch it?

In a Simpsons episode from what feels like a century ago, Hollywood has-been Troy McClure has a brief renaissance professionally when he pretends to be heteronormative for a while by dint of marrying Marge’s sister Selma. When the sham falls apart, despite the best efforts of Troy’s agent MacArthur Parker, instead of going with the part of McBain’s sidekick in McBain IV: Fatal Discharge, he elects to star in The Contrabulous Fabtraption of Professor Horatio Hufnagel. Perhaps only time will tell which would have been the better choice.

Every time I saw mention made of Birds of Prey and the Contrabulous Fabtraption of Harley Hufnagel, I wondered what the fuck they were thinking. To me it seems like less a failure of ambition and more a failure of marketing – they didn’t have enough confidence that people would go see a flick with the Birds of Prey without a playfully shoehorned reference to the actual main character, one Harleen Quinzel. But then why not call it Harley Quinn and the Birds of Prey without the other semi-embarrassed bullshit in between?

Now I’m all for Emancipation, whether it’s from slavery or from toxic relationships with genocidal maniacs, but the flick is, and this hurts to say, a mess, regardless of whether anyone gets emancipated or not.

It’s a fucking mess. At its core it has good intentions, but then they say the Good Intentions Paving Company also does its best building those roads that lead straight to hell.

Rating:

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