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7 stars

On the Rocks

On the Rocks

Some movies I watch just for the wallpaper

dir: Sofia Coppola

2020

I was kinda excited to see this. Lost in Translation has played an outsized role in my life for many years, and at least 2 of the people responsible for it are here again.

Yeah, I know, parts of Lost in Translation are a bit problematic, which is a euphemism for straight out racist, but it did have a great soundtrack? And it looked great, and made Japan look great?

Bill Murray dominated that film, and he dominates this film too, even with less screen time. Like either the shark in Jaws or the giant gorilla in King Kong, when he’s not around, everyone’s still talking about him until he turns up.

The protagonist here, really, is Laura (Rashida Jones), and Murray plays her father. She has two young kids, seems checked out, is trying to write something, and her husband (Marlon Wayons) is often away on work trips.

That’s pretty much the whole film. I don’t mean that’s the premise, or how it starts, I mean that’s the entire film. I haven’t gone out of my way to make it sound simplistic or off-putting – I’ve left those bits out. I guess I’m trying to say there’s not a lot going on here.

When she starts suspecting that maybe her husband is cheating on her with a lady at work, that gives her something to do with her dad. You see, her dad, is a terrible piece of shit. But he is an immensely successful and charismatic piece of shit. His relentless womanising and contempt for women immediately makes him certain that Laura’s husband must definitely be cheating on her, because, hey, all men are dogs, right?

In a very weak, wan fashion, this gives father and daughter something to do, and something to talk about, until the grand revelation at the end: I’m not going to spoil shit about this flick, because then there’d be even less reason to potentially watch it, and it’s not my business trying to dissuade people from watching flicks made by Sofia Coppola. I think Sofia Coppola is a great director, better than her more famous father, that’s for sure. But as good as she is, some days it must be hard to have Francis Ford Coppola as a father.

Rating:

Barb and Star Go To Vista Del Mar

Barb and Star

If you ever go, you must absolutely ride the wild prawn

dir: Josh Greenbaum

2021

Well, I guess with a title like that, no-one’s expecting either Masterpiece Theatre or serious stuff for discussion at one’s next dinner party, in between debating the various strengths and weaknesses of the couples on Married at First Sight.

Even though I can’t imagine people having dinner parties. Is…that a thing people do anymore? Or is that something from the old world, before 2.6 million people met their maker at the hands of a fucking airborne virus?

It seems callous to take comfort in silly, frivolous things, but if there’s one thing I’m good at, it’s taking callous comfort in silly, frivolous things and then writing about them as a way of staving off the terror of meaninglessness and oblivion.

Just like everyone else.

Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar is entirely delightful and entirely ridiculous. I was somehow in the perfect mood for this because despite its utter ridiculousness and pointlessness, it made me chuckle, and two hours of my life passed without having to think about the bullshit that life throws at us on a daily basis. And that’s not because it’s brilliantly made, brilliantly acted and carefully crafted with heartwarming messages of universal redemption and meaning.

Because it is none of those things, at all.

It’s pretty fucking dumb, like, deliberately dumb, and about as convincing as an episode of Get Smart, just without the powerful social commentary or stunning fashions.

But it was still enjoyable, and yet talking about the plot at all will make it seem so fucking dumb that no-one would bother watching it on the strength of such a recommendation.

Because the plot is pretty fucking dumb. An evil Bond-like supervillain, played by Kristen Wiig, with severe bangs and albino skin, plots to kill people not all across Florida, which would be a gift to humanity, but specifically at a place called Vista Del Mar.

I don’t know if there’s a real Vista Del Mar, because the place they show in footage isn’t a town: it’s a sandbar with a bunch of hotels on it, making it look like a cruise ship run aground on dry land, but if there is such a place, they’re pretty much doomed anyway, and not because of the machinations of a villain who wants revenge through genetically modified mosquitoes. And even before rising sea levels blanket the site such that nothing but ancient ruins remain.

Rating:

I Care a Lot

I Care A Lot

She doesn't, not really. She is not being entirely forthcoming with you

dir: J Blakeson

2021

This is going to blow your mind, but the main character in this film called I Care A Lot, called Marla Grayson, played by Rosemund Pike, doesn’t, actually.

This is the REALLY mindblowing part: She doesn’t care at all.

Marla is a lawyer who, through manipulating the legal system around the guardianship of oldies, and bribing the right people, forces old people into old folks homes and then drains all their assets over the years until they die penniless and alone.

Piece of work, right? And we all thought Rosemund Pike perfected playing psychopaths back in Gone Girl. Turns out there are even nastier characters for her to play in the Rosemund Pike Cinematic Universe.

At movie’s beginning, over scenes where a distraught bearded chap is trying to visit his mother in an old folks home, and being pummeled by the security, we hear in voiceover Marla tell us that this world ain’t shit, victory is for the ruthless and the weak can go fuck themselves.

This is the movie’s mission statement. It does not shy away from equating the monstrous ruthlessness of the protagonist with American late-stage capitalism, with the American Dream, with doing what people need to do not to get by but to destroy other people for shits and giggles.

Marla has a wall covered in the photos of the people for whom she has organised to be appointed as their guardian. It’s a lot of old people. It’s not really to give her a sentimental attachment to the people she gives not one fuck about. It’s to remind her of who her cash cows are. Once they die she scrunches up their photos and throws them in the trash.

While they live but are declared mentally incompetent, this set up allows her to sell their houses, drain their bank accounts, basically get them institutionalised and cut off, and make it impossible for them to leave, or for anyone related to them to help them out. It’s shocking, and bracing, and from the perspective of the people it’s happening to, I guess this is like an awful horror film, from which someone has to go to extraordinary lengths in order to beat Marla at her game.

Rating:

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:

The Little Things

Little Things

Nice poster. Nicer than the film THAT's FOR SURE

dir: John Lee Hancock

2021

Well isn’t this flick a barrel of laughs.

It’s a bit of a throwback to police procedurals of which there used to be a dime a dozen. I’m not sure what changed, because there were a million on the teev before and there are even more now.

They’re not really my cup of tea. Of course, like billions of people I’ve watched so many episodes of Law & Order that I confuse it with reality, and think all the time about stuff that happened in the show as having happened in real life, but my capacity for watching crime these days is pretty limited.

So I can’t really say why I was drawn to watching this flick. Sure, it’s got Denzel, and that’s usually a great drawcard, but, honestly, he’s been phoning it in for years. And Denzel playing a tortured cop trying to figure out who some murderer is, is like such a cliché it’s beyond cliché. Almost every actor who’s ever acted has this role on their resume.

But I watched it anyway. It’s set in the early 90s, so no mobiles or internet, which honestly sometimes comes as a bit of a relief. Sure it’s the past, but it’s recent enough for those of us who were alive then to be able to remember a time before doomscrolling or getting hourly phone updates on what the dumbest people around the world are doing every day.

Now, that doesn’t mean life was actually any safer back than. If the opening of this film is any indication, even driving around in your car meant serial killers were going to come after you.

A young woman is driving a car, and gets weirded out by some guy in a car that she doesn’t see who drives near her. She gets so freaked out that she stops the car, and gets out, presumably because she’s going to reverse-psychology the serial killer into thinking killing her now would be too easy?

Anyway, things aren’t looking that good for her.

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:

One Night in Miami

One Night in Miami

Maybe a few more nights would have changed the world

dir: Regina King

2021

My first film for 2021! Who knew that we were even ever going to make it this far? I was sure by now nuclear missiles would have been launched, or flying piranhas would have taken us out, but here we still are, somehow, as much of the world collectively sighs in relief.

This film is another seen recently that is pretty much a play confined to one location, which pretty much is defining the business model of the streaming services that seem to be happy giving people money to make movies based on plays but only if they’re cheap cheap cheap. I don’t mind, because it’s not like multiple locations would have improved what is already a pretty decent film, awesomely acted and tightly directed by a woman who’s had a great couple of years, being the Queen, Regina King.

As if she hadn’t already achieved great things as the lead in the limited Watchmen series as Sister Night, here she shepherds a mythical story about 4 African-American titans and a night they might have shared together.

I call it mythical because, let’s be honest, no-one has any idea what happened that night. That four men hung out and talked shit isn’t that unusual, but when the four men are Muhammed Ali, Malcolm X, Jim Brown and Sam Cooke, and the year is 1964, then it seems like something incredibly important.

The film starts with 4 little vignettes, four lead ups to show us where these men are at in their lives and where America is at this point in time, for those who somehow think racism started in 2016: Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), the most acclaimed football player of his day, visits some guy with massive eyebrows in his mansion, where they have a pleasant enough conversation, but the kicker at the end is that the guy, for all the respect he might have for Jim’s achievements, won’t ever allow him into his house, because…

Prototypical soul singer Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jnr), already pretty successful, gets to play the Copacabana club for the first time, to the absolute indifference of an entirely white crowd.

Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) boxes in England, taunting his bloodied opponent, showboating to a degree that even he should find embarrassing, and gets knocked out for his troubles.

Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir) nervously discusses his plans to leave the Nation of Islam with his nervous wife, and, needless to say, they’re pretty nervous about things.

Rating:

Mulan

Mulan

She can enrol in the army in my place any time

dir: Niki Caro

2020

I am not embarrassed to admit that I have sat through and enjoyed the Disney animated movie Mulan a couple of times, in the same way that I’ve watched most of their cheesy products over the years, both with and without my daughter. But now that she’s too old for me to use her as an excuse when I want to watch something, the choice to watch a new version of this tale has to be a more conscious one.

Everything is so freighted and problematic these days. By watching Mulan, and enjoying the pretty visuals and the costumes and the performances, and tearing up a few times, am I supporting the genocide of the Uighur people by the one party totalitarian government of China? Well, probably, I don’t know. I’ve been watching Hong Kong and Chinese films for decades, and I’ve long known that now the government has to approve every script before it goes into production, and virtually every Chinese film, even ones made by Disney, have to toe the party line.

And, yes, the party line is a cruel, inhuman and brutal one. I don’t really have a justification beyond that. I have to hope that, at least from the perspective of the person playing the lead character, and the person directing, being Kiwi director Niki Caro, most famous for Whale Rider all those years ago, their intent with this film, with its predominantly Chinese-American cast (with some major exceptions, being legends like Gong Li, Jet Li and Donnie Yen), is to side-step the political stuff and to tell the ‘classic proto-feminist story of a girl who fights great pretending to be a boy in order to save her dear old dad, the emperor and all of China.

That it is all told within the context of a story that glorifies empires / totalitarian states, and emperors that rule by Divine Right, and obedience to patriarchal structures and such, well, as my daughter handily points out, this is Disney after all. What were we expecting?

This mostly sticks to the script set out by the ‘original’ animated version, doesn’t update it in any way, but wants to use the look and the tropes of wuxia epics to deliver something that looks like one thing but appeals to both a mass Chinese audience as well as a mass American audience.

When you try to make two different people happy, who have two completely different agendas, and you do it in the most ham-fisted and timid way, you’re not going to leave anyone happy.

Of the many names of people who ‘worked’ on the screenplay (the greater the number of names, the shittier the end product, quite often), there wasn’t an even vaguely Asian-sounding surname amongst them, let alone a Chinese or Chinese-American one. Sure, there are Chinese actors, but they are awkwardly singing to an American tune. Thankfully there is no singing in this flick, if that metaphor used in the previous sentence gave you the impression this was going to be a new Chinese Cats inflicted upon the world.

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:

She Dies Tomorrow

She Dies Tomorrow

Amy doesn't seem like she's at peace with whatever's going on

dir: Amy Seimetz

2020

One of the stranger flicks to come out this year, in what is turning out to be the strangest year in living memory, She Dies Tomorrow almost seems prescient in its story about someone infecting everyone she comes in contact with over the course of a day/night.

No, none of them are wearing masks, though this is the one instance in which I don’t think masks would have helped. A young woman called Amy (Kate Lyn Shiel) seems to be dealing with the aftermath of a breakup, and also with moving in to a new house, which is its own ordeal. She will burst into tears every now and then, and compulsively play part of Mozart’s Requiem on her turntable, lie on the floor, rub her face on the wall.

She really does own a lot of vinyl for someone so young, but we don’t get to check out the rest of her collection because she keeps playing the same piece from the Requiem. Shame.

Eventually she speaks to a friend on the phone, and everything she says makes the other friend not want to come over that much, because she has a birthday party she doesn’t want to go to, so she reverts to drinking alcohol and using a leaf blower in the middle of the night. I guess we have the impression that she’s not coping well with whatever it is that she’s not coping well with. Or she’s just doing random pointless things because…

Rating:

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