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6 stars

Eternals

Marvel's Eternals

Here we stand, all on an angle, all pretending to look at
something. It's all ever so compelling.

dir: Chloé Zhao

2021

Strange days have found us…

Marvel is so confident in its marketing abilities that the masses will consume anything that says ‘Marvel’ on it, that they’re making movies out of the unloved, unwanted, unsuccessful parts of their back catalogue deliberately now. No-one’s been able to make the Eternals work as an ongoing series, and it’s hard to imagine that anyone was really clamoring for them to appear in cinematic form.

Ironically, this feels the least like a Marvel flick, despite being extruded ultimately into such a familiar final form.

We know nothing of these beings, of their characters beforehand, but we’ll be too familiar with them when two and a half hours have elapsed. When some of them ‘die’, we might feel nothing, not even mild surprise.

The ‘trick’ earlier Marvel flicks pulled was having a character, oh, let’s say one played by a very tall blonde Australian, which is a character known of outside of comic books but also within comic books, being Thor, a hammer wielding jerk with a murderous trickster for a brother, being Loki.

The conceit is that, sure, on this Earth we know of the Norse myth of the very strong, very dumb son of Odin who wields a hammer called Mjolnir and gets drunk a lot, but in the ‘reality’ of these movies, the myth springs from the reality, which is that there’s actually a guy called Thor, and he has a hammer, and lives in another realm called Asgard, and they’re so advanced they’re kinda like gods?

Well, if you can swallow that claptrap, let me introduce you to a bunch of other superbeings who also sounds familiarish because their names appear in a bunch of disparate Earth mythologies.

I can’t bring myself to even type their names, because it feels so generic. The important thing to say is that, there’s ten of them, and they came to Earth on a spaceship thousands of years ago, and they’ve protected humans from these monstrous creatures called Deviants. Whenever these creatures appeared, the Eternals destroyed them using their powers, and then they’d sit around for ages waiting for the next attack.

In between attacks, human civilisations generally flourished, populations grew, but the Eternals weren’t getting involved any of the other times when bad stuff happened, nor were they meant to protect humans from their own stupidity.

These Eternals mostly have analogs in old stories, because, we’re meant to think, they would occasionally get bored and tell people, or want to speak to someone’s manager, and bellow “do you know who I am and what I’ve done for your wretched species?”

Rating:

Come True

Come True

I assure you, the movie is better than the poster would indicate

dir: Anthony Scott Burns

2020

This was… one of the most unsettling films that I saw last year, and it wasn’t just because it’s Canadian. It’s not the most horrific flick that I saw last year, or the most horrific Canadian film I saw last year (that would be Violation, but it’s without a doubt the most unsettling.

Up until a certain point. Then it pulls a M. Night Shyamalan, and makes you regret ever having heard of the film in the first place.

It’s not even really a twist so much as an explanation, that comes out of nowhere, that no-one asked for, that improves nothing, that instead makes you feel like you’ve wasted your entire time watching something that has such an appalling ending.

I don’t want to focus on that. I want to focus on what I feel the flick gets right, for most of it length, because that way it feels like I’m being fairer to the film, to the people involved.

Saying that this film, Come True has a nightmarish quality is kind of like describing Kafka’s The Trial as being Kafkaesque. It’s redundant phrasing, because it’s literally about nightmares.

A lot of the flick is passages of a camera swooping through monochrome landscapes and sets with imagery that disturbing, but you can’t quite put your finger on why. It’s not gory or violent (except for maybe a few seconds just before the ending), and there’s no monsters eating people or demons trying to tear people’s bodies or souls apart.

It’s about a person, Sarah (Julia Sarah Stone), who’s homeless, and she doesn’t sleep very well. When she does, she always seems to be approaching a motionless figure, someone who she feels she is terrified of, but doesn’t know why.

We don’t know why Sarah avoids her mother, or doesn’t feel safe at home. She tries to scrounge food, take showers where she can, get to school on time, but she’s always falling asleep during class. When she sees one of those tear-off fliers for a place, presumably a university, offering to pay people in order to conduct sleep studies on them, she thinks that maybe this will help her out and she’ll get some money for her troubles.

Two birds, one stone. The people running the study are friendly enough, but they have a weird boss Dr Meyer (Christopher Hetherington), with these massive glasses on his face, which are even more disturbing than anything else that happens in the flick. Also, they don’t answer many questions when asked.

Rating:

We Need to Do Something

We Need to Do Something

How about let's not and say we did?

dir: Sean King O’Grady

2021

Can you imagine anything as terrifying as not being able to get away from your own family? Imagine being trapped inside with them, unable to get out, unable to go anywhere…

Well, what I mean is, imagine it happening to someone else, but not because of a dumb virus. And they’re Americans, so it’s okay if bad stuff happens to them. As the film opens, we watch a family voluntarily getting into a bathroom together. It’s a pretty big bathroom, at least. There’s a tornado coming, and they’re being casual about it, so I’m going to guess they’re in one of those states where tornadoes happen frequently and people are used to it, but never think to maybe move somewhere else where they don’t happen.

They will be there for a long time. If this screenplay suffers from any problems, it’s that it has a The Shining problem. I know it’s considered a Kubrick / horror classic, but most people rarely mention the fact that Jack Nicholson’s character is a prick and a nut right from the start. He really doesn’t have anywhere to go, other than from fairly nuts to totally nuts. There’s no arc, no development.

The dad (Pat Healy) here, too, is an abusive arsehole before things start going wrong, but at least the other family members can make eye contact with him at the start. Not so much later on.

There’s also a mom (Vinessa Shaw), a son (John James Cronin) and teenage daughter Melissa, or Mel (Sierra McCormick). They’re an average, very average, middle class family. They are fighting and sniping even before the storm happens.

What happens is, the house is damaged and it looks like a tree has trapped them in the bathroom. Forever, unless someone comes to help them out. Phones don’t work, or are conveniently lost.

“We need to do something” is said again and again, mostly by Mel. Thing is, though, the room is a perfect trap, and everything they try, down to brute force, doesn’t work.

The mum of course reassures the kids that everything will be all right, that help will come, that they won’t be harmed, they’ll be fine. The dad rants and raves, humiliated by his powerlessness, alternating between screaming obscenities at his wife, his kids or at the universe at random.

Contrasting parenting styles. Everything we see that happens to them, or doesn’t happen to them, occurs in this one room. It’s almost like they’re in a lockdown that never ends…

Rating:

The Humans

Humans

We who are about to be depressed, salute you

dir: Stephen Karam

2021

This flick was kind of horrifying, but it’s not a horror flick, I don’t care what any reviewer says. It’s shot like a horror flick a lot of the time, and there are jump scares, which is a bit confusing.

But this is really about a family coming together for Thanksgiving, in New York, in a cursed pre-World War II apartment that has never seen better days, and just has them talking in these jagged, awkward ways, like people actually talk rather than carefully curated monologues and declamatory speeches.

It’s awfully, deliberately mundane, but the mistake I don’t want to make is to think that so-called naturalistic performances are easy or that they aren’t acting in and of themselves. It’s hard, just as hard as the showier stuff. Imagine pointing a camera at someone and yelling “act natural!”, and just imagine the performance you’re going to get.

People talk and mumble and get distracted and wander around and check their phones and say one thing and then trail off and talk over each other and support each other or attack each other, and I guess that’s what a group of people having a meal together might be like.

Though there are revelations and such, it’s not a flick that’s building to a crescendo or with natural peaks and flows, or rhythms that we might be accustomed to.

Veteran acting legend Richard Jenkins does his thing as the Dad of the piece: Jayne Houdyshell plays the Mum, a role she also assayed in the play this is based on, on Broadway. Amy Schumer and Beanie Feldstein play their two daughters, Aimee and Brigid. Plus there’s also Brigid’s partner Rich (Steven Yuen) with whom she shares this diabolical apartment.

And. If I’m going to call Richard Jenkins a veteran actor, what am I going to call the legendary June Squibb, who plays the wheelchair bound Momo, as they call her? June Squibb was in goddamn Cat on a Hot Tin Roof all them years ago. Let me tell you something for free: there are not many people who were in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof who are still around today.

Rating:

John and the Hole

John & the Hole

Maybe we should all just stay in the hole a bit longer

dir: Pascual Sisto

2021

John and the Hole is quite a strange movie.

I like strange. Strange is good. Strange is sustaining for me, the way other people need hydration, or painkillers, or holidays. Strange, for me, resets the pathways in my mind, forces me to drift away from the well-trodden ways my mind tends to think, at least when it comes to art and movies.

When I think about this film, I am left with profound, unanswerable questions. It's not questions like whether what we saw was “real” within the context of the movie, or what parts were real, what parts imagined, or story within a story – type storytelling.

The question I can’t figure out is why at least two of these actors agreed to be in this movie.

Did they not read the script beforehand?

Jennifer Ehle will probably always best be known for playing Lizzie Bennett in the series of Pride and Prejudice alongside Colin Firth as Darcy. I know it was decades ago, but if people joke about Firth’s Darcy decades after the fact, then it’s a positive for her too. She’s been in a stack of other movies, even a psychological horror flick called Saint Maud I saw earlier this year, but rarely does she get to attack roles which resonate with the movie-going public. This role is unlikely to change that perception.

Michael C. Hall is probably best known for playing the serial killer lead of the Dexter tv series, but I prefer to remember him as David Fisher from Six Feet Under, a show I still treasure in my heart of hearts. I can only imagine that he lost a bet or has serious gambling debts to have stayed and completed his part of this movie.

I mention these portions of their résumés because for 90 per cent of this movie, which could mean that for 90 per cent of the time that this flick was being shot over the course of 23 days somewhere in rural Massachusetts, Ehle and Hall are down in a hole wearing dirty clothes with mud smeared all over their faces. Or on / in a set made to look as such for all that time.

They’re not even really main characters. The two main characters are the John of the title (Charlie Shotwell), and the Hole itself, near where the characters live.

John is an odd kid. Though nothing in the story implies as such, he could be some kind of alien-cuckoo changeling, replaced at birth, unsuited to and baffled by our human ways.

This is not, just for some reassurance, a story about a deeply disturbed child who goes on to murder a bunch of people. We Don’t Need to Talk About Kevin or John, at least not yet. But there is something deeply weird about this kid, and we get to spend about 100 minutes watching him do weird thing after weird thing, and I’m not sure there was much point to it.

John seems to be baffled by everything, but at least he makes choices. He seems highly intelligent and determined, but he knows little about how the world actually works. The world of adults seems especially alien to him, but he decides that he wants to find out what it would be like, despite being only 13.

Rating:

Titane

Titanium

This car is on fire, with passionate love

dir: Julie Ducournau

2021

Well. That was. A film.

This won the Palme D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, the supreme French honour for cinema, for only the second time by a female director. I had heard that fact previous to watching this flick, but now I’m starting to wonder what it matters.

Prestigious films have won the Palme D’Or, but also some crappy ones that people have forgotten days after the award was awarded. I am pretty secretly sure that no awards actually amount to much in terms of the qualities a film possesses, but sometimes something is being said when certain films win. The last film that won the Palme D’Or was Parasite, and there has to be some reason why people on either side of the Atlantic were so enamoured with a South Korean flick about what scum poor people are and how they’ll do anything to extend their sad existences.

So what am I implying about Titane? Almost nothing. I can’t at all intuit what Titane winning says in a contemporary sense, in terms of a post-pandemic landscape, zeitgeist or any gender-political stuff relevant to France or Europe or the world.

The one thing I can say is that, scene to scene, second to second, there is almost nothing you can predict as this flick unfolds unless you’ve been forewarned, or read a bonkers synopsis.

A young girl called Alexia makes broom-broom noises in a car being driven by her irritated dad. It keeps escalating until there’s a serious accident, and the girl ends up with a titanium plate in her head. When she is eventually released from hospital, she hugs the car, not her parents.

As an adult (Agathe Rousselle), she still has the plate in her head, and a strange spiralish scar above her right ear, and she has an attitude that exudes zero fucks. She also, importantly, keeps her hair up with a metal knitting needle / chopstick or something similar, making sure people can see her scar at all times. Maybe it’s made of titanium. Not sure it matters.

Her job is to dance and writhe on top of cars at a car show. One of the cars she writhes lasciviously upon is like a Cadillac painted in flames, and it’s also a low-rider, with those bouncing hydraulics installed.

Rating:

The Many Saints of Newark

Many Saints of Newark

Now let me teach you how to smoke like a cool guy, capisce?

dir: Alan Taylor

2021

Does there need to be a prequel movie to one of the most famous prestige tv series of all time? Not really, not when you have so many episodes already of the show. Do we learn anything startling and new about the characters of the series that we didn’t know or didn’t know we cared about before? Absolutely not. This is really a flick no-one asked for that no-one needed.

But I still got a lot out of it. This is, despite the very weird framing device, an interesting story about someone who was important to the main character of The Sopranos who we never got to really see because they were long dead before the scope of the series started.

It’s less, very much less an origin story for Tony Soprano, and more a story about his uncle, Dickie Moltisanti, ably played by Alessandro Nivola, who’s been great in a lot of things and is very solid here. The problem from his perspective might be, must be, that Dickie is just a puppet at the hands of fate. The other characters, including the one doing the voiceover, all have a pre-determined fate, and so does Dicky, but for him we know he doesn’t make it out of the 1970s.

Why, becomes our question. Well, and this is about as pretentious as the series creator David Chase has ever gotten, it’s because Dickie’s story is a tragedy. A Greek tragedy, despite the fact that they’re Italian-Americans.

There’s a lot in the film, and not all of it is that interesting. I have to confess that the bits dealing with Tony (who later on in the film is played by James Gandolfini’s son Michael, which really does your head in a bit) weren’t as fundamental as everything Dickie does when Tony isn’t around. But we’re meant to see what happens to Dickie, and what he does or doesn’t do, as being central to why Tony became the way he is.

It’s important to remind myself that The Sopranos used the trappings and clichés of the mafia genre to tell a story, primarily, that wasn’t about life in the mafia. It was always about the therapy, far more so than the strippers, the mob machinations and deals, and the murders.

Through 6 seasons the questions were asked and sometimes answered as to why a person ends up the way they are, and whether any amount of therapy can ultimately change them, or improve them, or help them and the people around them. The series quite definitively came down on the side of charming sociopaths, like Tony, ultimately not changing at all, but finding new ways to manipulate the people around them through using the verbiage and cover of therapy speak.

Put more simplistically, it can help okay people with stuff, but it makes monsters worse.

The main character of the show literally decides nothing means anything, so he might as well keep being the monster he’s always been.

Rating:

Free Guy

Free Guy

Oh look it's generic Guy in his generic Tie, looking so
generically Fly

dir: Shawn Levy

2021

Free Guy is the recent update to The Truman Show that you never knew you wanted and probably aren’t going to enjoy that much anyway. It does have the benefit of not having Jim Carrey in it.

On a different hand entirely, you may find Ryan Reynolds even more annoying that Carrey in his SMOKIN’ prime, in which case you are never going to watch this flick and why would you care anyway?

Yes, this is perennial fratboy Reynolds’ gig, in which he is in almost every scene and talks to us, the lucky audience, in voiceover, constantly. This is literally one of those movies where if the main character isn’t on screen, any other character is talking about him. He is the one who wakes up in the same place, dresses the same way, experiences the same day every day for our amusement

The city in which he lives, being Free City, is like something out of a computer game. Specifically, it’s a very violent but cartoonishly so game, in which there are two classes of people from Guy’s perspective. Oh yeah, the main guy played by Reynolds is called Guy, or Blue-Shirt Guy. How generic, you might think. Anyway, there are the regular shmoes like Guy, and then there are cool people who wear sunglasses and commit all the crimes and have what seems like agency and self-determination.

Guy wants to have self-determination and agency too. He has a best friend called Buddy (Lil Rel Howery), but Buddy doesn’t aspire to anything. Every time the bank in which he works is attacked by robbers, he drops his gun belt to the floor and lies on the ground, as does Guy, who is a teller in that bank.

I don’t know that it’s that much of a spoiler to mention that this is a game, and these “characters” are what are generally referred to as NPCs or Non-Player Characters, and that the people with sunglasses are avatars for actual people in the “real” world who play this game.

The thing is, though, at least at first, all the other NPCs stick to their stock scripts. They are very limited in their programming. They have no hopes or aspirations.

But not Guy. Like Wall-E in the Pixar flick of the same name, something magical has happened over time that has raised the humble program to something more complex. But like Emmett in The LEGO Movie, he’s the generically everyman Everyman who exists in a constructed world not of his making for the amusement or therapy of someone else within the movie. Media within media.

That is, if you can accept the concept of Ryan Reynolds as a generic everyman character, which I don’t think anyone can.

Rating:

Candyman

Candyman 2021

Don't say his name, he just wants the attention so he can
murderise more people

dir: Nia DaCosta

2021

Such a shame. I’m not angry or sad, just a bit disappointed.

I utterly adore the original Candyman. I think it’s one of the classic horror flicks of the era, and a classic in its own right. Seriously! I’m not even kidding or being facetious, or calling it a guilty pleasure or anything like that.

And I acknowledge that there are problematic elements to it, not least of which is the fact that it was based on a story by (pasty) British horror writer Clive Barker, and directed by (pasty) British director Bernard Rose, and that despite being set in Chicago at notorious projects / public housing known as Cabrini-Green, the main character was (pasty) Virginia Madsen.

There’s nothing wrong with being pasty. There are a lot of things wrong with being a pastie, or even a pastry, because you will get eaten, and I’ve never thought pasties are that great. In fact, I have always loathed them. But that’s not important right now; what is important is that Virginia Madsen was pretty great in Candyman., and has always been pretty great in everything she’s ever done.

But a story like this… remade today, it can’t be centered around a WASP academic trying to track down an urban myth and finding horror, brutality and death at the hands of a supernatural spectre.

Instead it’s centered around an African-American couple who live in the hoity toity kinds of bougie apartments that have replaced the demolished towers of Cabrini Green with loft refurbs and tasteful copper lighting. Although… holy fuck, they’re not really that different from a middle class academic with research and tenure on her mind.

If anything, they’re somehow even worse. Anthony (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) and Brianna (Teyonah Paris) are a painter and a gallery director respectively. Ew. Gross. We’ve replaced the pretentiousness of academia with the even somehow worse pretentiousness of the art scene. They struggle for relevance in an art world that is only even barely polite to their faces. Just in case you were wondering, yes, rich white people in the art world can be just as racist as your man down the pub who’s just asking questions and going to anti-lockdown rallies and doing their own research about virus treatments.

Rating:

Malignant

Malignant

Dario Argento must be spinning in his grave. Quick, someone
kill him so he can spin in his grave already!

dir: James Wan

2021

Well, well, well, if it isn’t the most bonkers horror flick of 2021.

Nothing will top this, not this year. The virus could mutate into something that attacks people on public transport with fangs and teeth, or that slits throats at family gatherings or makes ivermectin shoot out of people’s noses, and it still won’t be as insane / dumb / manic as what happens in this flick.

Australia’s Own James Wan has been making massive blockbustery monstrosities for years now, but his heart seems to belong to the horror genre. I guess once you’ve directed so many Saws and Conjurings and Annabelles, there’s strengths you believe you have as a director that you want to play to. He pulls out all the stops trying to maximise the virtuosity of the incredible camerawork in the service of a flick where someone or something just kills a bunch of people in gruesome and specific ways.

He’s not pretending that he reinvented the genre: he’s specifically proceeding in the ways that seem to honour Dario Argento and the other Italian hacks that birthed the misbegotten child of giallo cinema into an unwilling and unsuspecting world.

And before I proceed any further, let me clarify that Argento was and still remains the hackiest of hacks ever. He has made films so terrible that I shudder just remembering them. But he made a few okay ones. Suspiria may be a classic, but I would say that Malignant probably draws from the Profundo Rosso / Deep Red and Tenebrae side of things rather than the supernatural ones, but hey, it’s not like it matters. Even Argento would probably never had twists as bonkers as this flick does.

Madison (Annabelle Wallis) is pregnant, and has a terrible, shitty, violent husband who won’t be around long enough to matter, and nor will I even record his name or the actor’s either, such was my disgust with him. The important thing to note is that he assaults his heavily pregnant wife by bashing her head against a wall.

He is soon dead, and very violently dead at that, and Madison loses the baby. She tells her sister Sydney (Maddie Hasson) how desperately she wanted a child in order to have a biological connection to someone.

For, you see, Madison was…adopted!

Huh. It’s meant to be a surprise to Sydney, but not to us because we saw a bit at the beginning of the film that presumably Sydney hasn’t seen yet. On video tape no less. Video tape aesthetics play a surprisingly big role in this flick. The camera even goes into the workings of a VHS player at some point. I’m not sure why. Does anyone even have VHS players any more? And if so why? Are they waiting for tapes to become cool again the way vinyl has?

No, it’s to remind us of a time when the way most of us brought horror into our lives wasn’t from being born into shitty families or even shittier circumstances, but from hiring tapes from places, bringing them home, closing the blinds, and watching people do unspeakable stuff for 90 or so minutes.

Rating:

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