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7 stars

You Were Never Really Here

You Were Never Really Here

You, Really, Here, Never Were, but you could have tried at least

dir: Lynne Ramsay

2017

Such a title sounds like an admonition, a cold observation, a sad reckoning. It sounds like the kind of thing someone would say to an absent parent, especially, but I can imagine a bunch of other situations where someone could say it and mean it, too. You could say to someone “you were never really here”, and it would be an acknowledgement that even if that person was actually, physically there the whole time, their mind, their emotional investment, was somewhere else, focused on something or someone else.

If nothing else it emphasises absence over presence, and we can safely assume it’s not seen as a positive quality.

I cannot say that I entirely know what it means in the mind of the author of the novella that this is based (by Jonathan Ames), or in Lynne Ramsay’s mind, but the main character definitely has a lot on his mind, and if he’s a bit distracted, I can understand why.

Joe, as played by someone who clearly already has mental health issues, being Joaquin Phoenix, has a mass of mental health issues and an array of traumas from which crests a continued existence of remarkable precariousness. That’s a fancy way of saying Joe is so messed up I’m amazed he can get out of bed. Almost every action flick with a jerk at the centre of it has a tragic backstory where someone’s wife died or someone’s kid died, and they have to make up for it by killing a bunch of people in order to save some other woman or child. And then, when that’s done, they can be rewarded either by partnering with the woman, adopting the child, or dying, or all three.

It’s the standard screenwriting playbook, as lazy and as repeated as a Valentine’s Day card’s banal message. Is it really that different in the hands of Joaquin Phoenix and Lynne Ramsay?

Well, do you remember what else Lynne Ramsay’s done? Do you remember watching We Need to Talk About Kevin? If you did watch it, do you remember watching it a second time? Could you ever bring yourself to watch it again?

I think not, but that doesn’t speak as to the quality of the films she makes. They are high quality and like no-one else’s films. Her approach is distinctive and amazing in equal measure (not really, but it seemed like the right thing to say at the time). They are definitely memorable, but the reason you remember them is not because of the dialogue, or the script in general. It’s because of the way she chooses to tell her stories visually, and how unsettling an experience it is to watch them. She finds the most distinctive but sometimes most obtuse ways to get her images and ideas across. And she wants you to remember her images, the same way in which the protagonist here can’t stop thinking about the horror-show going on in his own head.

Joe’s traumas begin early, in childhood, at the hands of an abusive parent, but he has also clearly seen terrible, truly terrible things in a time of war, and as an FBI agent, images that haunt him constantly, and now some of them will probably haunt us too.

Rating:

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Six paths, six stories, that all say the same bloody thing

dir: Coens

2018

Usually I’d argue that anthology films are kind of a waste of time and resources unless you’re in the mood for the cinematic equivalent of tapas instead of an actual meal, but, hell, it’s the Coens, it’s on Netflix, and I’d be a fool to not see it, considering the, I dunno, 14 or so truly great films they’ve made so far. It’s a reasonable bet to give them the benefit of the doubt, and it pays off most of the time.

Except when it doesn’t. But this is not one of those times. The fact that these stories are told in short story form, is the perfect delivery device for the overall package, because there’s no real connection between any of the stories, other than that people suck. It’s not the first time the Coens have ventured in the realm of the Western, but it’s the most recent, and probably the funniest. There is a certain mordent grimness as well, which befits the frontier setting, one which maybe implies man’s drive to ‘conquer’ the New World was an inherently deadly business.

Almost all the stories trade in death, in that death is either an element of the story, or the punchline to it, but not always. The last story, as far as I could tell, is entirely about death, with a number of people lead unawares to their final reward on a stagecoach, and yet they also argue about the nature of love, tedium, loneliness, the value of speaking the same language as someone you’ve shacked up with. All while the driver drives on.

The stories are bookended with images from a literal book being leafed through, as if these are all stories from the same book, by the same author, but really it’s mostly the Coens putting together some stories they thought up over the years (one of the stories is from Jack London, probably the best one, but who could tell) and making it look like there’s an overarching theme or connection at work.

There isn’t. Their only point is the same one they borrowed when they made No Country for Old Men, which is that there is no mercy, no divine grace, no power of prayer, no divine intercession on our behalf, and evil easily triumphs over good because it is way meaner and wants the prize more.

Again, except when it doesn’t. There is a wry approach at play here, where luck doesn’t really seem to go anyone’s way for too long, and misunderstandings lead to tragedy, or where venality wins out over virtue, but it’s not meant in a mean way, if that makes any sense, and it probably doesn’t.

The first story, which shares the title of the movie, is about a happy-go-lucky singing cowboy (Tim Blake Nelson) who looks like and sounds like the clear embodiment of all that jerks used to love about cowboy movies. Not only that but, like Deadpool, or any number of other characters who talk directly to the audience, this jerk tells us all about how wonderful he is, through his particular song and dance routine. And wouldn’t you know it, he’s quite handy with a gun.

Rating:

The Death of Stalin

The Death of Stalin

Heroes of the People, surely, except when they're killing,
torturing and starving them all. Vodka and circuses for
everyone!

dir: Armando Iannucci

2018

When someone tells you that times have changed and the world we live in is not like the world depicted in this movie, consider the fact that the Russian government threatened and sued cinemas in Russia for playing this goddamn movie, because the Ministry of Culture (as oxymoronic a phrase as has ever existed) felt it insulted the memory of one of history’s greatest monsters, and it might make Russian peoples feel bad about their appalling history.

Is it really a comedy? There are moments of humour in this flick, and it’s referred to as a comedy in every single review, but there really is very little to laugh about. The world it conjures up, of the Soviet Union in the 1950s, is a totalitarian hellscape where virtually everyone lives in terror of being hauled off and killed at a moment’s notice.

Even those close to the Big Man himself, who you’d think would feel a bit more secure, know that at the slightest inclination, for the most ludicrous reason, they or their families could be hauled off and shot, tortured or sent to Siberia for having incurred the displeasure of Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin). His ‘friends’, the other members of the Select Committee, have to monitor every single thing they say on the off chance that they refer to something or someone out of favour, or that they don’t bray loud enough like the donkeys they are at his jokes, that they could be doomed. It’s a bit of a toxic work environment, to put it in today’s terms.

I have had managers like that in the past. Capricious, aggressive, needy, completely lacking in empathy, willing to destroy everything just to get their way or prove a point. The major difference is, in my case the people in power didn’t condemn literally millions to death and torment just for a laugh or a lack thereof.

The basic premise that the film has to establish is not the period piece specifics, of aesthetics and such; it’s the horrifying and anti-human atmosphere of a hellish totalitarian state. However the flick is described, as satirical, as whatever else, it does not make light of the fact that most of the men shown here were monsters of the highest order, of the greatest magnitude, some of the worst that humanity had ever seen at the time. It’s hard, at many times, to see what humour there is in such horror.

Rating:

Avengers: Infinity War

Infinity War

Purple Rain, Purple Rain, Only wanna see you, dissolving in
the purple rain

dir: Russo Brothers

2018

What the hell?

Marvel is becoming that particular kind of arrogant boyfriend / girlfriend that takes you for granted so much that they feel like they can basically do anything to you and you’d put up with it forever. Infinitely. So confident are they that we’ll put up with anything, that you’ll eternally keep coming back for more they’re like a character from Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, who is so sure of herself and her hold over her partner that she often walks away from the bedroom in the middle of sex after bringing them close to the ‘edge’, so to speak, but deciding to torture them by walking away with the job unfinished.

It’s a strained analogy, I’m the first to admit, but I am not sure this flick exists as a flick that makes any sense on its own, unlike the other 18 Marvel flicks which all have discrete beginnings and ends while teasing what’s going to come next. This just exists as whatever it is, but will completely not make sense BECAUSE of what will come next.

Again that’s not going to make sense. In a lot of ways I wish Marvel was even more arrogant and disinterested in anything other than making a point, and decided that this was going to be the last Marvel movie. It’s an impossibility, really, because the amount of money these movies have made is staggering. Put real simply they’ve spent 3 billion dollars over 10 years to make 15 billion dollars. That’s a ROI (Return on Investment) of 400%. Drug cartels don’t make that kind of money.

So obviously there are going to be an infinite amount of Marvel flicks, but eventually won’t we get sick of being brought to the edge and have it fade out to nothing every fucking time? Isn’t this becoming a masochistic exercise in frustrating futility?

Rating:

Nocturama

Nocturama

I have to admit, that's a pretty great film poster, maybe
better than the film itself(?)

dir: Bertrand Bonello

2016

Every now and then even people, like me, who’ve seen millions of films, will watch a film and say to themselves, or someone nearby, “I have no fucking idea what that was about.”

Sometimes having an experience like that fills me with great anger, and furious vengeance, like when I watched Upstream Color and hated it so much I recently watched it with my daughter just so she could know just how terrible and pretentious a ‘grown-ups’ film could be. More recently, when a flick garners some critical praise and I endeavour to seek it out, when I have an experience like the one I had last night watching this French flick, I just shrug my shoulders and think, “well, maybe it makes more sense to French people” and then go on with the rest of my life.

I can’t claim to understand what the point of Nocturama is or was, but I’m comfortable with that. It doesn’t really matter in the scheme of things. As long as the director got something out of it, and the kids in the flick are happy with their work, then who the fuck am I to complain about it?

It would seem that this flick is about terrorism, or at least the main characters commit some acts of terrorism in the heart of Paris, but giving it political significance like that might be foolhardy. This flick was apparently made well before the massacre at the Bataclan where Eagles of Death Metal were meant to be playing, or the Bastille Day atrocity in Nice, or the myriad other instances of so many human lives being wasted for the dumbest reasons possible. The kids here don’t seem to be doing it for anything like the same reasons ie. fundamentalist hatred, loneliness, not getting the biggest slice of cake at that 8th birthday party.

If the ‘kids’ here have a leader, he is the straight-laced and dorky looking son of some mainstream French politician. He seems to be inspired by something, by some desire to make a statement, and has recruited a large group of perhaps similarly disaffected kids to his cause, who each might have their own reasons for getting involved. A number of them are perhaps from the kinds of backgrounds that Marine Le Pen and the rest of the National Front would want to boot out of the country or kill or both, but they don’t seem (I have no idea, really), seem to be doing what they’re doing for ideological reasons, or nationalistic reasons.

Rating:

A United Kingdom

A United Kingdom

What are we looking at again? Is it that thing over there, no wait, ah,
now I see it

dir: Amma Asante

2016

Ah, I love a good pun title. No, actually, I tell a lie. I fucking hate puns.

It’s an amusing perhaps pun, at least, or it’s not even a pun, and is more of an ironic title. The Kingdom referred to in the title isn’t necessarily the United Kingdom as it is known (that dwindling empire of yesteryear, that dwindles ever more with each passing year that the Tories are in charge), but another place divided by strife in Africa that the helpful Brits generously decided to help out of the goodness of their hearts.

That kingdom , that used to be called Bechuanaland, had itself, after World War II, a very merry yet precarious existence. Its status as an independent kingdom was guaranteed by Queen Victoria somehow (meaning it was essentially a vassal state), however changes are afoot, apparently. At least at the time that the flick begins. An uncle, serving as regent ruler, lives in some hut somewhere, and sends the heir to the throne, Seretse (the amazing David Oyelowo), a letter telling him it’s time to come home from Oxford to assume the mantle of kingship, time to rule his people like he was always meant to.

Seretse is, somehow, in 1940s Britain, studying law and getting along just fine down the local pub with his mates. He meets, through a church group, a lovely young Brit called Ruth (Rosamund Pike). They fall in love, have some babies, and lived happily ever after.

Rating:

Logan

Logan

Run, Logan, Run. I think you're taking this over-parenting stuff a bit far

dir: James Mangold

2017

Goddamn that was a violent film. And not in a jokey-comedic-comic-book way. This is violent in a gruesome ‘grown-up’ way, in order to disabuse us of any notion that this flick about Wolverine is going to be like any of the other multitude of X-Men or Marvel movies birthed and disgorged upon this unsuspecting but entirely too willing world.

And, with that as their objective, they totally succeeded. This is so grimly violent, with such consequences for the main characters, that there’s no walking away from this with a giggle and a shrug.

The thing is, though, while it might be ‘different’ from other comic book based flicks, it’s pretty much a standard action flick, just with no editing tricks to mask the violence. There might be reviews that make profound statements like “Logan deconstructs the action / superhero film like no other” or that it’s a meditation on mortality or whatever, but I am here to reassure you that this is pretty much like every action flick ever made, just with more people using adamantium claws to kill a shitload of people instead of guns.

Rating:

Lion

Lion

You could almost think this was a love story from the poster

dir: Garth Davis

2016

This is perhaps not a wonderful film. The fact that it is based on a true story perhaps means it deserves slack being cut its way. That being said, it is a very emotional flick to watch. What matters is whether it earns the emotions it insists, almost at gunpoint, that the audience feel.

And I felt them, oh gods in heaven did I feel them. Parts of this flick are deeply disturbing, and parts are wrenching. But what does it add up to?

It is such a compelling story, at least some aspects of it. The first section of the film, and the section that I daresay most people will think draws you in the most, shows two boys, at some time in the 80s trying to steal coal from a moving train. Now, I don’t support this kind of criminal behaviour, mostly because brown coal is, like, the total worst for the environment, but when we see why they steal the goddamn coal (to exchange it for two small bags of milk), you realise that these kids aren’t exactly criminal masterminds.

No, they ain’t slinging crack or shooting byatches upside their dome pieces for mad money – they’re two poor kids who lament how hard their labourer mother (Priyanka Bose) works, and they try to ease her burdens. For a bit of milk.

Rating:

Kubo and the Two Strings

Kubo and the Two Strings

He's got a sword, and he's going to stab the moon with it

dir: Travis Knight

2016

I wanted to love this, I really did. I love most of the stuff that the animators at Laika Entertainment have come up with thus far. They’re idiosyncratic as purveyors of animation, getting the distinctive look you’re not going to confuse with any of the other studios that comes from still using a lot of stop-motion (physical) animation in their movies.

It’s certainly the brightest and best looking of their works, shiniest and cleanest, compared to Coraline, The Boxtrolls and ParaNorman, which all looked somewhat gothic (in Coraline’s case) or a bit gangrenous. They were shooting for a mass audience, and they didn’t get it, which is a bit of a shame.

It’s ambitious, too. It opens with a woman in a boat trying to get somewhere in a terrible storm, one which wrecks her little boat and wounds her terribly, but even worse she is not alone. A baby boy is with her, and they crawl together into a cave to die.

It’s a very idyllic cave, beautiful ocean views, though probably a bit drafty. Some time passes, and the baby becomes a boy, and what a boy. He looks after his damaged mother, who sits motionless all day, and raises money for some rice by telling stories at a nearby village.

Rating:

Midnight Special

Midnight Special

He's not from around here and he's not like us and he looks a bit funny.
And the kid's a bit weird, too.

dir: Jeff Nichols

2016

Strange yet familiar. That can be a potent combination. It can also be a boring one that fails to elicit any feelings, positive or negative.

Midnight Special is strange, certainly, as is any flick in which you have bug-eyed Michael Shannon in any role. He brings the weird to virtually any flick he’s in, no matter how large or small the role. He’s just that kind of guy. But the real ‘twist’ here is that Michael Shannon’s character isn’t the villain, or some random paranoid lunatic screaming about the doom that awaits us all, but a caring father trying to protect his special-needs son from this harsh and uncaring world.

Well, actually, as in many of these situations, it’s sometimes the world that needs to be protected from them.

This isn’t the origin story for some superhero kid, but it almost plays out like it should be. It’s very much all mysterious in the beginning. Two grunting guys in a car with a kid along for the ride drive recklessly through the night getting away from something or towards something else. We know the cops are after them, but we don’t know why.

Rating:

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