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7 stars

Unicorn Store

Unicorn Store

You can relax now, job well done

dir: Brie Larson

2019

It’s a bit of a strange anomaly of a flick. It’s a so-called Netflix Original, but all that means is that when it played the film festival circuit, Netflix bought the rights to screen in when no-one else wanted to.

Perhaps they thought audiences would clamour to see it after Captain Marvel became a massive hit. But how could they have known? I mean, Larson did win an Academy award for her role in Room, but she was hardly a household name before this year. Maybe it was to build a creative relationship with her ongoing, as this is her directorial debut.

It’s unlikely that they saw it and thought “People will punch their grandmothers in the face in order to be the first to stream this goddamn movie!”

Oh, it’s quite odd. I like odd, there’s no doubt, and this is plenty odd. This is the kind of odd that I actually value Netflix for. It is the kind of thing I see or seek out of curiosity that I otherwise would never have even heard of, and I would probably only watch it on a streaming service.

I am not going to explain any further. It is what it is. It is, I hope, the flick that Brie Larson wanted it to be, the exact flick she wanted it to be. It is strange, it doesn’t follow predictable story beats, it seems to exist in our reality, and it seems to be making some points about art, about creativity and about creative people being in tension with commercial interests or profit motives, and how easily people are crushed in that altercation / dynamic.

But it’s also about a young woman who is finally going to get the unicorn she’s craved all her life, as any girl would.

I watched this with my daughter, and at one point she turned to me and asked, “So, do you think the unicorn is meant to be, like, a metaphor for something, or real?”

Rating:

Sorry to Bother You

Sorry to Bother You

... but have you accepted Jesus as your personal saviour?

dir: Boots Riley

2018

Any film can go off the rails in its third act, but few do it in such a bonkers, catastrophic fashion. If you’re going to crash and burn, I say do it as spectacularly as possible, and this flick certainly gives it a red hot go.

I could not even begin to describe what genre this movie slots into. I guess you could kind of say it was a comedy? Corporate satire with racial / social commentary? I mean, it’s pretty funny in parts, but it tries to do so much in its running time that to say it transcends traditional restrictions in favour of making an insane set of literal and allegorical points would really not even scratch the surface.

Maybe it’s just easier to call it a satire, though a satire of late-stage capitalism and the pretentiousness of performance art, or the way African-Americans have to commodify themselves in order to eke out a living, I could not rightly say. It’s saying something, or a lot of somethings, it’s just that I don’t know ultimately what it means, if anything.

Our Hero Cassius, or Cash as he’s referred to more often, is played by Lakeith Stanfield, probably best known for playing Darius in the FX series Atlanta. The characters, at least initially, aren’t that dissimilar. He also had a brief but memorable role in Get Out, as someone who clearly wasn’t feeling like himself anymore.

Here he’s a financially disadvantaged bum who lives in his uncle’s garage, and is desperate for work. We see him trying to put 40 cents of petrol in his car, one which needs literal strings to be pulled in order to get the wipers moving. I wouldn’t have mentioned the uncle except that the uncle is played by the sublime Terry Crews, who is confidently working towards taking over America by appearing in everything and on everything. If there is only one person on the planet I can accept getting to refer to themselves in the third person, and there is only one, it’s Terry.

I have however expended more words in the last paragraph than Terry gets in the whole flick. Let me not give the impression that Cash’s uncle Sergio plays any significant part in the proceedings. He doesn’t, other than as an occasional antagonist.

Cash tries to lie his way into a job at a telemarketing place. He unfortunately perpetrates a bit of resume padding claiming he worked as a manager at the Bank of Oakland during a particular time period, not knowing of course that the jerk interviewing him was the manager at that bank at the same time. Other places would show you the door, but this is telemarketing, of course, where being an awful person is its own reward and a valuable skill. Cash’s initial attempts to sell bullshit to people on the phone fails because the second people hear his voice they hang up.

An old hand at the job, Langston (Danny Glover), advises Cash to speak with his white voice. A voice that reassures the listener, that calms and comforts them, radiating ease and privilege, a voice that never knows want or fear of being able to pay the rent. When Cash finally masters that kind of voice, his rise through the ranks becomes stratospheric.

Rating:

Us

Us

This phenomenal poster is more disturbing than
anything in the film. Plus, where did they get all
the fingerless gloves from?

dir: Jordan Peele

2019

That was…something.

The shadow self, the dark Jungian version of our unexpressed ourselves that might have up until now lurked in the depths of our consciousness; right now, for plot reasons, comes to the fore, scissors in hand, ready to take our place.

I… am not going to pretend that I actually completely understood either the text, the subtext, the literal meaning of stuff or the allegorical meaning of what actually transpires in this horror film that starts off looking like a family under siege in their own home kind of story, and becomes something very much more complicated.

It starts in the 80s, as a young girl called Adelaide watches an ad for Hands Across America, an effort that came after the whole We Are The World fiasco to raise money for charities including homelessness. Also maybe to prove that Americans could stand up and hold hands, doing two things simultaneously. In retrospect it seems bizarre that anyone would do such a thing, but when I looked up that it raised probably around $100 million, but only about $15 million went to actual charities, it makes perfect sense.

Although, let’s be honest about this, after that, there was no homelessness or poverty in America or anywhere else for that matter, ever again, so it was all obviously worth it.

Adelaide watches this bizarre ad on the telly, and then it cuts to her and her parents going down to the Santa Cruz boardwalk, to celebrate her birthday with candied apples and games of chance, as her parents bicker. She observes her parents from behind, but observes all the people around her, including a strange chap holding a sign that says Jeremiah 11:11. This number and this wordless character keeps cropping up throughout the flick. I had to look it up, because I’m a godless heathen, and it talks about the Lord God visiting evil upon a bunch of people for no good reason.

Rating:

Avengers: Endgame

Avengers Endgame

You've got to wonder what the hell they're all looking at

dirs: Joe and Anthony Russo

2019

It’s finally over. Now we can all stop watching Marvel movies. They’ve got all our money; they’re richer than the gods now, so there’s no need to keep putting out movies. The heroes won, the baddies are gone, and now we can all rest easy in peace or in pieces, as the case may be.

It’s about bloody time. We could all do with a rest, don’t you think? We’ve earned it, they’ve earned it, we’re all good.

But… we can’t. Just can’t let it go. They can’t, we can’t. We knew it was only a matter of time. Marvel, and by Marvel I mean Disney, are addicted to money. It’s sad, but it’s true. They’ve got so much already, you think, they’ve taken so much for so long, but past actions, past performance doesn’t stop them from wanting more in the future. It’s the unfortunate way of the world.

When people talk about the death of cinema, or declining audiences etc, some, usually pretentious wankers, complain that it’s because the amount of decent films being put out is ever decreasing; more flicks are going straight to streaming versus the multiplex, piracy and more people spending time gaming or whatever else we occupy our time with in between tormenting strangers online via social media.

Disney sees this. Disney hears this. Disney’s plan of action is: however many or few eyeballs exist to glare at screens, we will own them all. Marvel’s ascent is just a part of the same rise that sees every massive franchise now under their one banner. Ultimately, they’re not going to care about how many or how few people are still going to the movies, because however many it is, wherever it is being watched, the ‘product’ they’re watching, in most cases, will be Disney product.

That’s the shame about all of this, but there are also benefits in these films now being the biggest movies in the world. One of them, I guess, is that maybe this is the natural peak, the pinnacle, the ne plus ultra, after which maybe, just maybe, we can start focusing on something else other than these monstrosities.

I don’t really think I’m ever going to sit through another 3+ hour film in the cinemas. I just find it increasingly hard to justify the time constraint of being forced to sit in a specific place at a specific time in order to see something soon enough such that we’re not exposed to too many spoilers. That’s the only real driver to seeing it near opening day: a fear both of missing out and of having others lord it over you that they saw it first.

Rating:

Green Book

Green Book

Green Book Green Book with two Stars. Twinkly Racist Driving Cars.

dir: Peter Farrelly

2018

Yes the fact that this got nominated for things at the thingie ceremony in late Feb / early March is the only reason I saw this. Otherwise I probably would have skipped it, not that I’m against touching stories where a low-rent mob palooka and a prissy African-American pianist reach across the racial divide and make America a better place by doing so.

I would have skipped it because on paper, in ads, conceptually and aesthetically, it did not appeal to me on any level, despite starring two actors that I adore. Viggo Mortensen is a tremendous man and a wonderful actor, and I’ve loved him in almost everything I’ve ever seen him in. And Mahershala Ali has been magnificent on tv, in movies and, like, probably even when he walks down the street or just out the front door to get his newspaper, very convincing, totally believable. Mahershala has charisma and presence to burn 99% of the time, so the stage is set for a feel-good movie you could take your grandmother too, that could just as easily have had Ebony & Ivory playing in it, that would also win heaps of awards from the less than discerning voters of the Academy, thank you, thank you, this is such an honour, I’d like to thank the Academy, and my agent etc etc…

That this is based on a couple of people who existed in human history does not make it a documentary, and a lot of critics point to discrepancies between what Doc Shirley’s surviving family say about their time together, and what Tony Vallelonga’s family say happened, as if either of the two sets of gold-diggers / reality deniers would really know. Even better, several times in the film Tony takes pride in announcing to the world that he’s famous for his well-earned nickname ‘Lip’ because of his propensity and alacrity with bullshitting people at any and all times.

Plus, not to be too rude, but who the fuck is Don Shirley anyway, and why should we care? I mean, he’s no Freddie Mercury / Jackson Maine / Lady Gaga, is he.

So perhaps the most accurate rendering of what this film is about, is that this movie is based on a story Frank ‘Tony Lip’ Vallelonga told anyone who would listen about the time he drove a famous pianist around. Is that so complicated?

Well, it’s complicated by the time in which this happened, and the myriad of levels that people feel the need to argue and discount people’s stories these days (I guess it was always thus and always thus shall be). Some critics have dismissed the film saying a) it’s all bullshit, b), it’s a white saviour narrative, c) the road trip did happen, but not like this, d) bloody Hollywood pushing its agendas on us.

Rating:

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:

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