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7 stars

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:

VFW

VFW

VFW, better known as Valiant Fighters Wassailing

dir: John Begos

2020

Damn, I guess I felt like watching some 80s trash, and I found the perfect neon and blood-drenched delivery device, so, really, I have nothing to complain about.

Except it’s not actually violent action trash from the 80s; it’s a recent flick mimicking and set in the 80s and with the complete disregard for decency, physics, budgets and believability that typifies that era’s highs and lows.

VFW is ridiculously violent, but in a cheap-rubber-mask-filled-with-fake-blood-exploding kind of way. This looks exceedingly cheap and seedy, but that is not a negative, necessarily. Of course people in reviews and comments keep referring to John Carpenter’s legendary Assault on Precinct 13, not only for the heroes under siege storyline, but the exceedingly Carpenter-esque soundtrack, which is all synthesizer keyboards whenever it’s not metal guitar chords all over the place.

Our assembled heroes are, mostly, Veterans of Foreign Wars, hence the acronymic title. That would make this place where most of the heads explode the equivalent of the Returned Servicemen Leagues, or RSLs that we have here in Australia, which are places mostly old people go for cheap buffet food and booze. In our RSLs the most that happens is a little annoyance when they force you at gunpoint to sign into the guest register, if you’re not a member. Very few heads explode, though there’s probably a fair bit of food poisoning, which is no less awful than mass murder, sometimes.

But the VFW this film is concerned with, seems to be located in the worst part of some alternate history America in the 80s where a drug called hype turns users into violent lunatic zombies, and members of gangs wear lots of leather with spikes coming out of them from wacky angles. Presumably, in all realities and timelines, leather is always the textile of choice of cool people, gangs, drug dealers and their lackeys for ever more.

Rating:

Greyhound

Greyhound

Dads doing Dad things, in the Daddest ways possible

dir: Aaron Schneider

2020

Tom Hanks is not just a dad to four kids, he is America’s Dad. It is a role superior even to Pope or President: he supersedes them in the White American Anglo-Saxon Protestant patriarchal hierarchy. In his role as America’s Dad, he created this gift to the Dads of the world, and gifted it to streaming service Apple TV+, during these troubling times where a lot of Dads are in quarantine and have run out of DIY projects in their respective sheds. This will keep them occupied for 90 or so minutes, so they won’t need to pause it too often for loo breaks.

In a different era the intent would have been to create something that everyone, in the so called Western world, would be able to give a copy of to their Dads for Father’s Day, after taking their dads to the cinema for the first time in decades, several months prior to the home release. But that world is gone. In some ways it’s even further away than World War II itself, because back in the 1940s, people were still able to go to the cinemas at least, even as the Nazis’ bombs were falling from the skies.

The world that exists now still has a surplus of Dads whose only subject of interest is that War, because they can speak of it comfortably (unless they’re from a German background), with enough distance, to celebrate the heroism of the men involved and men in general, those bonds of brotherhood unsullied by the presence of pesky women. Men being men, camaraderie, bonding, sexual prowess mockery, feats of strength, general dick measuring, casual racism, all that kind of stuff.

Greyhound fits snuggly within all those needs, so it’s going to be catnip for the right Dads. Almost any of the actual men who would have been in the navy back then are most likely either dead, being killed by their respective countries’ negligent responses to the coronavirus especially with regards to aged care facilities, or are having a nap right now, shh, let them rest, don’t wake them, they’re just going to ask for more painkillers.

Tom Hanks himself wrote the screenplay, and plays the main character, as the commander of a destroyer protecting a fleet of ships carrying war supplies to England. He is an older gentleman, commanding for the first time, and it’s 1942, so there’s plenty more war to come after these events. Unlike the other war film America’s Dad is best known for, being Saving Private Ryan, the intention with this flick is to keep the focus very narrow, and not to pontificate about the bigger picture of the whole world at war, just one guy on one ship, and his crew, trying to do a job. Hanks’s character already has the in-built personality or character of Tom Hanks. They call him Commander Ernest Krause, but no-one’s really fooled, it’s just Tom Hanks in another Dad role. We accept it, everyone else accepts it; it could even be what we need right now.

Rating:

Ready or Not

Ready or Not

Pretty great poster independent of the film, also misleading.
She doesn't hunt elephants, she's hunting rich bastards.

dirs.: Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillet

2019

Ready or Not isn’t deep, or profound, it’s not particularly scary or horrific or dramatically credible or in any way sensible. It’s a grotesque and macabre comedy masquerading as horror, with a sliver of class warfare at play, and it was exactly what I needed to see on a slow, cold, Thursday night.

Thursday nights are when I allow myself to have a modicum of medicinal alcohol, but not too much, because there’s work the next day, after five days of abstaining. No, please, hold your applause, I’m a humble wretch just like the rest of you, please, cease plans for the parade in my honour. My point is that on these particular Thursday nights, I’ll invariable enjoy a tipple, and invariably watch a somewhat trashy movie but be far more forgiving than, let’s say, a Sunday night. Sunday nights are for punishing Eastern European epics that make you wish the Black Plague had wiped out all life centuries ago, mostly because you have to work the next day, partly because you might be hungover from Saturday’s wretched excesses.

No, last night was the perfect time to watch this. A brave young woman (Samara Weaving) with very distinctive eyebrows is about to marry into a mega wealthy family. Not just comfortable, or rich, more like Queen of Versailles-levels of excess and Olympian remove from the concerns of general humanity. She has no idea what she’s getting in to. And nor should we, even as the film opens with a bunch of people in masks killing a guy in front of some kids.

Thirty years later is this massive wedding / undertaking, and the ominous promise that there is a game that is to be played at midnight. This is very unrealistic, unless extremely rich people are genuinely as different from the rest of humanity as they are depicted here. No-one except the staff are sober at midnight after a wedding, and usually the bride and groom have other matters to discuss in the sanctity of their marital boudoir.

This family, the Le Domases, have a central origin story to their wealth. Like Balzac said, behind every great fortune is a crime, but in this family’s case, there is a belief, or a pact, if you will, with some weird guy called Le Bail, in that the family occasionally has to sacrifice people in order to stay alive and mega-wealthy.

Sure, it seems absurd written down like that, but when you hear billionaires in our present reality urging people back to work in coronavirus times in order to safeguard their profits, and to hell with the lives of the impoverished scum, you realise “well, it’s not really that different from how capitalism works anyway.”

Rating:

The Old Guard

The Old Guard

They're not that old, this is blatant false advertising

dir: Gina Prince-Bythewood

2020

The Old Guard. It was okay.

If only I was able to restrict myself to a few words, think of all the electrons and storage space I could save. But, when you’re an introvert, the temptation is to never if ever say anything, so if I go with that unhelpful impulse, nary a review would ever get written.

And what a tremendous shame that would be.

Old Guard may be based on a comic book by Greg Rucka and Leandro Fernandez, but it’s entirely within the action franchise wheelhouse we all seem to be comfortable with where an unkillable badass kills a whole bunch of people wearing masks and helmets in sometimes inventive ways. John Wick didn’t invent violent action cinema, but it crystalised something, since which every gun action flick draws from the same well.

But it’s not as if Charlize Theron is any slouch in the killfest stakes anyway. She has more than established her action bona fides with Fury Road, and even more so with Atomic Blonde. At this stage seeing her in a film where she doesn’t artfully kill dozens of people seems unnatural.

She is the leader of a group of special people. They are special because they don’t die, or are very hard to kill, until they die or are killed. Andromache of Scythia, as she is known to the scholars, goes by Andy (Theron) these days. She never says outright how old she is, but it’s implied she is many thousands of years old. She doesn’t drink blood or Dior perfume in order to stay ageless, she can’t fly or turn into a turnip – she and her peeps mostly just don’t die when someone tries to kill them. Alternately, they do die, but it doesn’t usually take.

Until it does. For immortals, they mostly mope about wondering what the point of immortality is, though it seems like they did some stuff in the past. The film’s point seems to be if you were an immortal who couldn’t die in combat, naturally, if you met a few others like you, you would devote your life to fighting people where it would usually take an army to do it. But Andy is tired of doing this, after having done it for literal centuries, and not seeing the world be any the better for it.

The chaps who follow her are mostly in the same boat, except one of them, Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), is even more depressed than she is. The two other chaps, Joey and Nicky (Marwan Kenzari and Luca Marinelli) may have immortality, but they also love each other, so they don’t feel as alone and pointless as the other two.

The initial set-up, as unpromising as it is, almost looks like the “one last job” bullshit that a lot of movies start with, but isn’t quite.

A CIA jerk called Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) tells them there’s a school full of kids that’s been kidnapped in South Sudan, and only Andy and her crew of special soldiers can save them. Save me, Andromache of Scythia, you’re my only hope. The shocking thing is, the job isn’t what it seems, the crew are all killed in an ambush, and even if it’s only a quarter of an hour into the film, you’d be forgiven for thinking the story could just end there.

Rating:

I'm No Longer Here

I'm No Longer Here

Dance the dance of your forefathers, people

(Ya no estoy aqui)

dir: Fernando Frías de la Parra

2020

It’s an… interesting film. I don’t know whether the intention was for it to screen in cinemas ever, but it ended up on Netflix fairly early in its life, and so I felt compelled to watch it.

What intrigued me about it simply from the perspective of the images used to advertise it, is that I had no idea what it was about based on the images they promoted it with, being images of the main character Ulises (Juan Daniel Garcia Treviña) and nothing else. The thing is, though, that he has such a distinctive look, such an arresting appearance and manner, that you’d be forgiven making certain assumptions, which, if they were anything like mine, would be totally off the mark.

What I mean is, even if you watched the trailer for this film, you wouldn’t guess it was about aching loneliness.

Ulises, at the beginning of the film, is fleeing from where he lives, in Monterrey, Mexico. And then he’s in Queens, New York. So the film follows two parallel lines, being the lead up to why he fled from Mexico, and then his experiences in the States. It’s not complicated keeping them apart, because you know what’s going to happen in one time line versus the other, but you might not get the “why” of it.

Rating:

Eurovision Song Contest - The Story of Fire Saga

Fire Saga

Her hair is still better than yours, Lars, live with it

dir: David Dobkin

2020

Eurovision Song Contest – The Story of Fire Saga is not about either the song contest or about Fire Saga. We have been misinformed. Lied to. Fake news etc.

It’s really just about the singular talent that is Will Ferrell. He has made a career of playing a particular kind of man-child lunatic (as opposed to the very different man-child lunatics played by Adam Sandler or Zach Galifianakis or Seth Rogen or probably fifty other guys you can think of), which only achieves more poignancy / hilarity as he ages. There’s Peter Pan, an ageless sprite who never wants to grow up, and then there’s Will Ferrell, a very much aging sprite who never wants to not play a lunatic with a dream.

In this film his dream is winning the Eurovision Song Contest, to the exclusion of anything and everything else. Somehow, or somewhy, this story is set in Iceland, a small island nation that is famous for a lot of things that have nothing to do with Will Ferrell or the Eurovision Song Contest. As a child his character of Lars Erickssong is entranced by watching ABBA winning the contest with Waterloo, and, sad about his mother’s recent death, he vows to honour her and, um, himself by squandering his entire life in the pursuit of winning the contest.

Because, reasons. Over forty years later, he’s still trying, but at least he has a luxuriant wig and a great film clip for his song Volcano Man, which was so great, and so very much more like a clip by Empire of the Sun rather than an entrant in Eurovision, but then the rug is pulled out from beneath our feet when we see that the clip is only in Lars’ imagination, as he bangs away on a keyboard in his dad’s garage.

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:

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