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7 stars

The Loverbirds

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:

Terminator: Dark Fate

Terminator: Dark Fate

The future is female, which is fine by me

dir: Tim Miller

2019

And thus completes my recent trip down Nostalgia Lane. Of the two recent reiterations of venerable franchises, being the very dumb Predator movies and the slightly less dumb Terminator movies, the thing they have in common is Arnie. The Predator franchise felt no need to involve Arnie in any of its movies past the first one, and they were right, because he had better things to do, and they were only going to be shit (he must have known).

The Terminator flicks have always been indebted to him, because he is the Terminator of the title, after all, and only one of the flicks thus far didn’t have him in it (though it had a CGI version of him, because he was busy being Governor of California, after all). In a strange new trend, this is not a reboot or a continuation from the last flick Terminator: Genisys, but instead argues that everything after Terminator 2: Judgement Day never happened, so this is a direct sequel to T2.

It’s…a strange thing to do, isn’t it? It’s not unheard of, because different people work on stuff over years, and either new people want to go in other directions without being handcuffed, or the original people come back in, think everything they weren’t involved with is shit, so they revert the story back to where they’re comfortable with.

I can’t help but think that real world issues impacted on many choices in these movies over the years. I’m not going to use the words “artistic choices”, because let’s not pretend franchises are art. They’re product, and we know it. No, I mean stuff like Sarah Connor being written out after T2 mostly because James Cameron dumped her for someone he met making Titanic. And while the John Connor character kept popping up in T3: Rise of the Machines, Terminator: Salvation and Genysis, they were never going to bring back Edward Furlong, considering his addiction and legal troubles over the last 20+ years.

Rating:

Underwater

Underwater

Streamlined for maximum speed at the bottom of the ocean

dir: William Eubank

2020

It’s…hmm. So, well, people put a bunch of money together and thought that making an updated version of Aliens without having to pay whoever owns that franchise any money was a good idea.

And, it’s fine, I mean, as an idea, it’s fine. They also set this deep underwater on our actual planet, which means everything basically functions the same than as if they were in outer space or on some inhospitable planet: go outside the walls or outside of your suit, and you’re dead.

And they got Kristen Stewart to essentially play Ripley, but, it’s Kristen Stewart, so it’s her playing Kristen Stewart playing Ripley, with a shaved blonde head an all. She is quite striking, admittedly, and yet the hardest ask is us believing that she is an engineer. They never show her binge-drinking, not once.

An engineer, mind you, located in a facility 6 miles underwater in the Mariana Trench, literally the deepest point known of any part of the planet. I can believe the engineer bit, but the other bit is too fanciful, even for a sci-fi movie. There’s a massive main facility, and a bunch of other ones as well, all having been constructed with concrete and metal and stuff, and you just think: How? The pressure at those depths would crush almost any materials of any thickness like a hand crushing a can, and yet for this story to work we have to believe that somehow a bunch of people in high-vis built all this stuff just so our heroes can run around and die, one after the other.

It's an environment so dangerous that tiny flaws in equipment will implode people with a second’s notice. The survival of the bunch of people we see is so unlikely that they have to indulge in way riskier activities in order to go from a slim chance of survival to a slight chance of survival. And Norah (Kristen Stewart) is along for the ride, using her working-around skills whenever she can to find solutions to the cascade of errors going on around her.

But this isn’t enough. I mean, if the remaining crew can’t get to yadda yadda before a deadline, then they’re all going to die, if they stay in place, the facility will be destroyed and kill them, and there’s no safe way to get to the surface without using escape pods because of the bends etc. And yet all these dangers aren’t enough.

Rating:

Extraction

Extraction

What gets blood out of shagpile carpets again?

dir: Sam Hargrave

2020

Extraction. It’s like John Wick, except in Bangladesh, and with a Hemsworth, not a Keanu.

And it’s the good Hemsworth (not Larry), as in, one of the biggest current film stars in the world.

When you’re a star of his magnitude, people don’t watch a film you’re in because of the character you play or because of the premise: they are watching you because you’re in it.

So it must have been the easiest of all sells for Netflix to greenlight this, especially now when the cinemas are closed and the Netflixes are open 24 hours a day.

Like most action movies, this is constructed from the most cliché components that have comprised "action movies" for at least the last 40 years. The lead character is suicidal and an alcoholic because of something that happened in their past (check). He’s willing to do any job that pays well, because he doesn’t care if he lives or dies (check). Though he seems like a complete psychopath, he’ll build a connection with someone (child or dog) that keeps him connected to humanity but also justifies killing thousands of people (check).

Arnie did it for 20 or so films. Keanu as John Wick killed more people in New York than the coronavirus over 3 films. And the Chrisest of Chrises, Chris Hemsworth, kills most of Bangladesh here, all justified, because a young Indian kid called Ovi reminds him of the son he lost to lymphoma several years ago.

Wait, does that constitute a spoiler in this day and age? Surely you jest. I cannot recall the last time I watched a violent action flick where the death of someone close to the protagonist, child or otherwise, wasn’t the pretext for going on a kill crazy rampage against some nebulous enemy.

Rating:

The Lighthouse

The Lighthouse

They make a very handsome couple, don't you think?

dir: Robert Eggers

2019

The Lighthouse is not a fun flick to sit through. Almost every visual image and moment of sound design imbues everything with the feeling of overwhelming dread, so much so that it almost becomes comical.

Is it entertaining? If it is, it’s a strange form of entertainment perhaps made for some alien species.

If it has to be pigeonholed, and it doesn’t, it probably fits neatest into the horror genre, what with all the horrifying imagery and all the constant, relentless feeling of menace. Really, even if they want to claim it’s based on a real story about how two guys in a Welsh lighthouse went fucking nuts, it comes down to being a drama about two men trapped in a loveless relationship from which neither can escape.

One of them is old with a beard (Willem Dafoe), one of them is young, but has a moustache (Robert Pattinson). The two of them tend to a lighthouse off the cost of New England, which is a phrase Americans use all the time like the rest of us always know what they’re talking about. Oi, we have a New England region in Australia, too, but you don’t hear us always bragging about it. Like ours, it’s on their eastern coast. Unlike ours, it seems to bring out the monsters that lurk within all men’s hearts.

It’s not clear that the isolation or the drinking brings out the worst in these men alone. The old man speaks like a briny salty sea dog straight out of Moby Dick, with all the poise and drama of a preacher yelling “REPENT! REPENT ALL YE BEFORE IT TURNETH TOO LATE” from the pulpit of a wooden Nantucket church. Plus he looks like both the very definition of a crusty sea captain, and the living embodiment of the Michelangelo statue of Moses from the church of San Pietro in Rome (especially in one terrifying, brain-melting scene late in the flick).

Rating:

The Hunt

The Hunt

And this little piggy murdered all the left wing arseholes,
all the way home

dir: Craig Zobel

2020

Now, The Hunt was meant to come out some time last year. But there had been a mass shooting somewhere in the States, as these things rarely happen, and morons, including the orange emperor of the morons, made some moronic statements about the film, so it was shelved.

Jump forward to a time when mass shootings have lowered, what with people wanting to stay safe and all, and The Hunt finally sees its “controversial” release, mostly on streaming services, as far as I can tell. It was shown for only a week in cinemas before being released digitally and before the cinemas were all closed forever thanks to a different kind of plague compared to the one Americans usually face.

So one could be tempted to start a review with something like: was it worth the wait? Is it as damning a piece of cinema as was threatened or implied by the clueless and the feckless?

Well, probably no on both counts. People took umbrage with the premise because they’d heard that what starts off as a horror flick and degenerates / improves into an action flick celebrates the murdering of innocent conservatives by a collection of wealthy liberal elitists.

Dumb people who thrive on outrage don’t need reasons or accuracy to impact their decisions.

They ignored from the start that the hero in these kinds of flicks is the one left standing – the villains are the ones slaughtering innocents for no good reason. Such a premise doesn’t allow for the nuances of ideology even if they shift around the origins of the participants. Humans hunting humans always looks pretty nasty, so having rich people hunt poor and homeless people (Hard Target, Turkey Shoot, The Most Dangerous Game, The Purge) or liberals murdering conservatives for no good reason (The Last Supper, and only this, as far as I can remember) doesn’t make the murderers look good.

In fact, it emphasises that it is the murderers who are, in fact, bad.

When I say that this starts off as a horror film, and then improves, I mean it starts off looking very cheap and nasty, and then gets marginally better once it works up some momentum and once they let Betty Gilpin shine.

Rating:

The Irishman

The Irishman

No leprechauns were harmed in the making of this documentary

dir: Martin Scorsese

2019

I don’t really have the reverence for Martin Scorsese that almost every other film critic and reviewer on this green but burning earth possesses, but that’s not the same as saying I don’t like him or like his movies. I like him well enough, as an old man, but especially as someone who loves movies. His series on film history is sublime, especially since it’s not about his movies.

In the discussion about this flick that I was having with a dear friend, I felt compelled to open up and admit that I’ve never really loved any of Scorsese’s films in the manner in which a lot of other people fall over themselves to admit. His films, to me, for the longest time, felt like homework, like you had to love them, or else people would frown upon you. Admitting you couldn’t stand Taxi Driver or Goodfellas could be enough to get you thrown out of a pub if the people you were arguing with were drunk enough.

There are dozens of reasons why much of his oeuvre hasn’t resonated with me, but I would never be foolish enough to pretend that he hasn't had an immense impact on the medium of film.

What’s ironic for me is that in this, his most recent film about the same shit he’s been making films about for decades, the element that disgusts me the most about his depiction of toxic masculinity here is transformed into something else entirely. Wow, what a convoluted fucking sentence. What I’m trying to say is that many of his other films depict the depths of toxic masculinity but also have their cake and eat it too by showing how much glorious fun can come from being the perpetrator of this mobbed up version of toxic masculinity. The Irishman lays bare that mentality, showing how completely it defeats itself over the longest term.

It’s really a film about old age and regret, made by an old Catholic man with regrets. The hushed tones and awards screeds pretend that it’s important because it reveals the “truth” about various chapters of American history. Honestly, give us a fucking break. This should be held up as a glowing beacon of truth and honesty the way Oliver Stone’s JFK is held up as a shocking film about what really happened: it’s isn’t, no one does, no-one mentions it any more.

Rating:

The King

The King

It is unlikely to always be good to be the king. There must be
times when it sucks

dir: David Michôd

2019

I have a confession to make – not that anyone asked. I do love me some Henry V. I don’t know whether I give a tinker’s cuss for the actual Henry the Fifth, as in the actual royal jerk, but I have enjoyed the Shakespearean version in several forms. I have probably seen the Kenneth Brannagh version too many times, and I’ve even seen the Sir Laurence Olivier version, because, yes, I am that old.

In whatever version of it I’ve seen or listened to, considering the joy of language on display when you hear Shakespeare firing on all cylinders, I never sat there watching it thinking, “You know what this needs? Less talky-talky, more stabby stabby.”

I can’t imagine the mindset that thinks, “You know how great the St Crispin’s Day speech is about bands of brothers and once more unto the breech and all that jazz, you know what, it’s tired, we need something with more pizazz so the audience can collectively shrug in indifference.”

So, okay, maybe the thinking was “let’s make a more grounded, more down to earth version of this story, less flowery, more brutal”. I’m somewhat ashamed to admit that this thinking perplexes me. While we might not know or care how brutal things were way back then, we have actually had at least a million movies and tv series purporting to show us the ‘real’ long ago, the real brutality of what people are capable of.

And to that I say: Got it already, thanks. I’m never going to need “gritty” retellings of humanity’s barbaric past, because I’ve already seen it too many times, and our present, let alone our past, is plenty brutal anyway.

Rating:

Parasite

Parasite

I musn't be remembering the film properly, because I don't
remember the bit where rich people stole everyone's eyes.
Sounds like something they'd do, though.

(기생충 Gisaengchung)

dir: Bong Joon-ho

2019

The thing about parasites is… how many are too many, and what should I do to get rid of them, lickety split?

Nah, but Parasite, the latest flick from the deranged and brilliant mind that brought us Okja, Snowpiercer, Mother, The Host and Memories of Murder, all of which are remarkably solid films, all of which are fairly unique, is probably the most outwardly conventional of all his films.

Not only that, but it won the Palme D’Or this year at Cannes! Can you imagine caring about such a thing? Surely if something wins the Palme D’Or it means it’s a pretty great film, if not the greatest film of all time, or at least that year thus far? I mean, look at all the other great Palme D’Or winners, like Pulp Fiction, Barton Fink, The Piano and Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.

I didn’t make up that last one. On the list of winners there are a lot of Ken Loach and Mike Leigh films, and films from many nations, with no obvious bias towards the films of any region. Mostly, they have nothing in common, though one could be tempted to imply that the jury likes flicks where class is addressed, or plays a part thematically, or is indeed called The Class, which won the Palme D’Or in 2008.

Parasite, the South Korean director’s latest flick, is pretty much about class, but it’s also about the struggles of a family of grifters, and their travails. The least charitable application of the title would be to say that what this family does is become a parasite burrowing its way into the body of another, wealthier family. When we meet our grifters, they’re living in a basement, fighting to find the right spot in which to use someone else’s wi-fi connection in order to connect for some data. Calling the place a hovel would be an insult to squalor.

But they’re tough, and resourceful, as are most petty crims who need to survive on their wits. The father, Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho, who is not only in most of the Bong Joon-ho or Park chan-wook movies I’ve seen, but also in the majority of all South Korean flicks I’ve ever seen) is a fairly quiet, fairly optimistic chap. He supports all his kids in all their attempts to grift. He seems like such a likable guy. The mum, Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin) is a former athlete, and gives the least amount of fucks of any in the family (being exactly zero), often threatening to bite the hand that feeds or actively biting it especially when it’s not in their interest. Then there’s the gentle and retiring son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik), and the daughter, Ki-jung (Park So-dam), with some serious Photoshop skills that she puts to work in service of the plan.

Rating:

The Perfection

The Perfection

Just keep practicing, it's the only way to get to Carnegie Hall

dir: Richard Shepard

2019

That was… a decidedly macabre experience.

Some films live for their twists. Others pay lip service to the twist, and just dangle it as an afterthought at the end, which often undoes much of the goodwill a film might have earned along the way. Others are so dependent on their twists that getting invested in the story seems pointless once you know that the rug is going to be pulled out enough times such that there’s nothing left to believe in anymore, man. The whole System is corrupt, Man!

But some films, like this one, and the great recent Korean flick The Handmaiden, have twists baked into the production, meaning we couldn’t predict what was coming, or why, but it at least enhances the story even as it keeps changing course in whiplash-inducing ways.

We think we know what’s going on. We don’t really know what’s going on, until the very end.

The Perfection refers to… something, I’m not entirely sure what. It might be the level of excellence required by the elite classical musicians of this strange world. It could also be a short cut phrase to the almost-cult like mentality of the musicians trained at the 1 % of the 1 % that is the Backoff Academy, run like a personal fiefdom by Anton (Steven Weber).

Rating:

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