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8 stars

Searching

Searching

Nothing good comes from sitting in a dark room on the internet...

dir: Aneesh Chaganty

2018

This is a really keen film that transcends its gimmick (of almost entirely transpiring on the screens of multiple computers, phones, security cam footage and police interviews), to be more a story about the lengths one parent will go to save their child than about the technology it uses.

That sounds like a simple premise, and, in American hands, it seems to, at least recently, involve Liam Neeson killing a bunch of foreigners in order to save his daughter / ex-wife from multiculturalism. Those of us who are parents (and who, on average, like being parents) are compelled by stories like this to wonder about the lengths we would go to in order to protect or save our kids. Rarely do we see it as a negative.

Searching stars the great John Cho, world renowned as the Harold from Harold and Kumar Do Some Dumb Shit while on Drugs trilogy, for taking over the Sulu role in Star Trek from the equally legendary George Takei, and scrambling for decades as a tv guy in a million blink and you'll miss them roles.

He's pretty memorable, though. He's got a certain amount of presence. In this he's not playing an avenging vigilante parent or some kind of action hero. He's mostly just an American guy who works in Northern California and lives with his family, wife and daughter, and would probably prefer not to have to endure such a hideous drama.

The first ten minutes of the film are a study in how you can rip off the accelerated storytelling of a scene like the beginning of Pixar's Up, make it your own, make it work, and not be accused of abject plagiarism. Really, it’s a (banal) master class, it truly is. Even with its montage-like effect, it still gives you enough reasons to care about the family and what happens to them, even if you’ve barely spent any time with them yet.

We meet David (John Cho), Pam (Sara Sohn) and Margot Kim (eventually played by Michelle La) through the various milestones and home video-type stuff that accompanies modern life in the so-called Western world. 1st day's at school, Father's Day, first piano recitals, all that stuff. In between the various elements of a family's lives are the unavoidable hints that something is terribly medically wrong with Pam, and it just keeps getting worse as she battles with, and eventually succumbs to, lymphoma.

Some time passes, and we get to watch the interactions, via phones and chat apps, between a father and daughter that have lost an incredibly important person in their lives, and who are unsure how to carry on. David is, like a typical guy, all "let's just keep moving forward like that person I never mention is just in the other room and never talk about it", and poor Margot, who your heart breaks for, clearly is yearning to talk about the person who’s no longer there, but just doesn’t feel like she can with her dad.

Rating:

Always Be My Maybe

Always Be My Maybe

I love the film, but, seriously, that poster is the very
definition of awkward

dir: Nahnatchka Khan

2019

This is, ridiculously, one of my favourite films of the year thus far. I know it’s not over yet, many months to go, but I enjoyed the hell out of it, and I’ve seen it twice.

And the bits with Keanu, honestly, they’re the least part of it.

The film’s greatest strength, whether as a romantic comedy or whatever other phrase one might want to use to genre-fy things up, is Ali Wong and Randall Park. Both immensely funny in other stuff, both perfectly relaxed and believable here, not as a star-crossed lovers or people with monster – Viking – sexual chemistry, but just as two people who could reasonably be happiest with each other despite their myriad differences as people.

Ali Wong has made two Netflix stand-up specials, both while heavily pregnant, that constitute two of the funniest stand up specials I’ve ever seen, on any format. She has a phenomenal energy and delivery, and great skills as a teller of her own tale, and fiercely feminist to boot. Randall Park is naturally funny in anything, can do sitcom stuff with relative ease, played a monstrous dictator and still made that funny as a demented Kim Jong-Un in The Interview, and can play this role here as Marcus comfortably as putting on old sneakers.

Sasha and Marcus, growing up as kids in San Francisco, bond over being Asian-Americans in a predominately whitebread town though they’re not from the same backgrounds. Sasha is also something of a latchkey kid who never sees her hardworking Vietnamese parents, and so she spends even more time with Marcus than friends would. In Marcus’s Korean mum Judy (Susan Park) she gets an adoptive mother, and the comfort and love that comes from regular feeding. From Judy she further picks up a deep love of making quality Korean food.

Up until they are spotty teenagers in their late teens, and Marcus’ mum dies unexpectedly, they’ve been close friends, but grief and a need for something else leads them to having sex for the first time. The awkwardness and the vulnerability, and the stupid stuff people say at that age afterwards, drives them far apart.

Rating:

Destroyer

Destroyer

Destroyer, or How I Learned to Love the Passage of Time

dir: Karyn Kusama

2018

This is a pretty grim story, in case you couldn’t tell from the heavily made up images of Nicole Kidman’s ravaged face.

The intention in this, I’m sorry to be so cynical, could have been Oscar-bait. Someone must have convinced Nicole that accepting a piddling amount of money to star in this would be compensated by the inevitable awards that would flow. It worked for Charlize Theron in Monster, so surely it would work again?

It’s not like Nicole doesn’t have awards, including the golden smooth shiny ones of the Academy. I don’t even have to look it up to remember that she won an Oscar for playing Virginia Woolf in The Hours, where the very unkind joked that the prosthetic nose she wore deserved the award for doing all the work. She was fine. It was one of a few occasions where people were surprised that she could subsume herself into a role and not just be Nicole.

She definitely doesn’t look like the fragile, afraid to crack a smile actor that she is in Big Little Lies or anything else that she does contemporaneously. There’s an unfortunate focus on her looks that detracts from her meagre or multitudinous acting skills, and I’m probably contributing to it here yet again. Suffice to say they really make her look haggard here, to good effect.

When the film opens Detective Erin Bell (Kidman) wakes up, bleary eyed and crusty, in her car. She never sleeps in a bed, at least in the present (there are a lot of flashbacks in this flick). She does not just look, act and speak like she’s hungover: she acts like she’s at death’s door. A body is found at the LA aqueduct, with three distinctive tattooed marks on the back of his neck. The cops actually there doing their jobs are disgusted by Bell’s presence, a theme which is carried on throughout the film: People are either horrified, surprised or disgusted when she turns up. She tells the investigating cops that she knows who killed the victim.

Back at her office, her actual co-workers are also surprised that she’s turned up, and also annoyed. We sense that no-one really likes being around her or listening to her or looking at her. The world is so unfair. Most of this flick’s action, or activities occur in bright, debilitating daylight, as if to show how horrible daytime is to both vampires and alcoholics.

Rating:

The Mule

The Mule

Old men don't think the law should apply to them, and
maybe they're right

dir: Clint Eastwood

2018

This is like the eleventy millionth Eastwood flick that he’s directed, and, who knows, he could have at least another 100 in him. Of course, however many more films Eastwood is going to make and star in these days, they’re not going to be that different. He’s going to play a character who’s an old guy, who is a Korean War veteran, who’s irascible and vitriolic about the youth of today, perhaps estranged from his family, but, no matter what he did, he loves them and he’s sorry.

His family, whether daughters or granddaughters or ex-wives, are all exasperated by him and stuff he did or didn’t do decades ago, but eventually, because they don’t really have much of a choice, forgive him for his transgressions.

How do I know this is the plot of this and future films of his? Because. Just because. It’s an educated guess. It’s also a safe bet.

Every flick is the same because Eastwood is the same man. Whether he’s playing the lead of a fictional story or a true story that isn’t about him per se, but which easily be warped into his kind of story.

But, and I’m ashamed of myself a bit for what I’m about to write, that’s why we love him.

Not every flick that Eastwood makes is as good as the good ones, and many of them completely lose their way, or start and finish terrible. But when they work, when we get where he’s coming from and forgive him for his awful racial and sexist attitudes (or don’t) that often bleed through into his characters, we’re really forgiving many of the older men in our lives, some of whom we already love, some maybe we don’t, but at the very least we somehow (ill-advisedly) cut him a break because, well, we sense the end is probably near anyway, so why fight anymore?

Rating:

I Am Mother

I Am Mother

Surely there's nothing ominous about this setup?

dir: Grant Sputore

2019

There’s a lot going on in this flick. A lot. Firstly, and this is going to blow your mind because you’ve never heard of such a thing before, it’s set in the future, it has robots, and the robots have turned eeeeeeeeeevil.

I know! Whodda thunkit?

Every day we have news media telling us automation is taking over all our jobs and that robots are now doing heaps of things previously only people could do, from complex tasks to climbing stairs and doing backflips. And every night we have movies telling us that if we make smart robots, they will one day try to kill us all.

People, we’re getting mixed messages. Or maybe they’re just partial messages that we need to combine in order to get the full message: “The Robots Are Coming and they’re Going to Kill Us All!”

It has been science’s job for centuries to tell us how or why things happen, and to explain the progress we’ve made as a species, and science fiction’s job to tell us how and why we should be afraid of that progress. Even as far back as the first famous science fiction novel, which is probably Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, science fiction has been telling us that just because you can miraculously do something that couldn’t be done before doesn’t mean you should. Doing something previously impossible often brings with it unfortunate consequences we have little chance of foreseeing because a lot of the time you can’t predict the possible outcomes of scenarios you’ve never imagined before

In I Am Mother, something terrible has already happened wiping out the humans on this sad planet Earth. In some kind of secure facility, a solicitous and kind robot (voiced by Rose Byrne), raises a child from an embryo, that she calls Daughter (Clara Rugaard, eventually), and who calls her Mother. The robot that is Mother is in no way approximates human features – the robot is sleek like an appliance and very functional. The voice it uses has this lilt of concern or feeling, but is fundamentally cold. Mother uses all sorts of functions and programs to maximise its efforts in child-rearing, probably having read all the What to Expect When You’re Expecting-type books and follows all the advice, even the stuff that contradicts the other stuff.

If it could, Mother would probably breastfeed and give super formula at the same time to maximise the infant’s potential, but the difference is (one of a multitude) that this Mother doesn’t second-guess herself (itself) constantly, doesn’t constantly compare herself to other mums on social media and find herself inadequate; she doesn’t have to try to balance the needs of her relationship with looking after the kids and looking after a house and balance a job and try to have a social life and do find time for self-care and not feel undermined by her mother-in-law / younger Instagram influencer sister.

Rating:

The Favourite

The Favourite

Come, family, let us bask in the warming glow of our betters,
giving us a myriad of life lessons

dir: Yorgos Lanthimos

2018

Unbelievable. Finally they’ve made a good remake of All About Eve. It’s about bloody time.

The Favourite is one of the most bizarre situations to ever rise to such prominence that it not only earns nominations but actual Academy Awards and such, but, controversially, I’m going to argue the awards went to the wrong persons. Also, that this flick by this lunatic of a director ever could have been nominated for Best Picture (and lose to a manipulative nothing like Green Book) is flat out surreal.

As wonderful as I find Olivia Colman generally and specifically in everything she’s ever done, probably especially Broadchurch and Peep Show, I actually am not sure why you’d give the award to her and not her two co-stars. I can’t see this film working without the strength of the other two performances, being those by Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz.

For this director, in quite a baffling way, this is probably the most conventional flick he’s made so far, the most “normal”. Working backwards, The Killing of a Sacred Deer reformulated ancient Greek tragedy as a bizarre family under threat drama, telling an awful story (‘tis a tragedy after all) with his signature oddness. Before that, known actors in The Lobster delivered the flattest and awkwardest performances of their careers in a movie where single people are transformed into animals if they don’t hook up after a year of singledom. Before that, there was the film about people who, for a fee, pretend to be your recently deceased loves ones to help you through the grieving process, awkwardly and flatly delivered (Alps). And before that (Dogtooth), it was a flick where two parents keep their three adult kids in captivity, spinning a tale about the world outside gone to rack and ruin, even though the world inside is pretty fucking awful and bonkers.

Not a conventional filmmaker. He’s pretty prominent, for a Greek director, but it’s a testament to how successful he is now that he no longer has to or wants to work with Greek actors in the Greek language. I mean, why would you, if you could avoid it?

Lord knows I’m sick of it. Just kidding. Now I’m no scholar of Greek film, but he’s clearly the most prominent director to come out of Greece since maybe Costa-Gavras, whose best work was admittedly decades ago. If that is, in itself, a good thing, then it’s an even better thing that he’s bringing up some other talented Greek actors like Ariane Labed (his wife), directors and film production people, especially Athina Rachel Tsangari (whose films Attenberg and Chevalier were pretty good).

All of that has nothing to do with this. The Favourite is a movie about Queen Anne (Oliva Colman), who reigned between 1702 and 1714. I don’t know anything about what she was actually like as a queen or as a person. The Favourite depicts her as a singularly ineffectual monarch and probably a complete nightmare of a person to hang around. She’s unwell physically, she seems fairly fearful of everything and everyone both inside and outside the palace, and she doesn’t really seem to be relishing the privileges that come with aristocracy.

Rating:

A Star Is Born

A Star Is Born

Let's rub noses together, that's the most rock n' roll thing ever

dir: Bradley Cooper

2018

A Star Is Born is probably the movie I heard random people talk about the most last year, with the possible exception of Bohemian Rhapsody and, in my case, as in, the film I bored people to death talking about, being Black Panther. I know that lots of other films came out, movies even, and a few pictures. But very few of them resonated or seemed to matter that much to the multitudes.

And that’s just, like, my opinion, man. The advantage Rhapsody had was everyone over a certain age at least in the Western world knows all of those songs. Lady Gaga, maybe not as much. But she’s here with her pop vocal stylings and affectless facial expressions, in this most recent telling of the age-old story: previously successful man on the way down boosts the career of an unknown young ingénue, falls in love, is then pushed down the stairs in order to make way for youth. It’s a story as old as time, or at least since 1937, when the first movie version of this came out. There’s also the legendary one from the seventies with Kris Kristofferson and Barbara Streisand. Really, it’s a heart-warming tale because it can be told over and over again.

I don’t know why Bradley Cooper decided he had to direct it, but he did, and he managed to do a bang up job. The film is always in focus, there aren’t too many shots of boom mics and not too many people walk into walls or trip over props. Sam Elliot is also in this along with Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga, and I am glad to report his mustache is very big. Phew! No one likes seeing Sam Elliot without his mustache, especially Sam Elliot.

Speaking of Sam Elliot, Bradley Cooper adopts a kind of southern drawl that makes me think not of an actual Southerner, but of Jeff Bridges (though not as The Dude from The Big Lebowski, because that would be way too symmetrical). Though even if Bradley Cooper is incomprehensible much of the time (he also pretends to be drunk most of the story, unless he went Method and actually got drunk all the time in order to really capture the essence of the character), his soulful eyes and the beard do a lot of the acting for him.

Rating:

Bohemian Rhapsody

Bohemian Rhapsody

That can't be good for your back, Freddie, ease up

dir: Bryan Singer

2018

I did not expect to enjoy this film as much as I did, but I certainly did. It could have been because it was my birthday and I was in an emotionally fragile state (what with the feeling of impending doom that accompanies every birthday now that I’ve lived to a ‘ripe’ old age), or it could have been because of the prosecco Aperol cocktail I was drinking in the cinema like I was some kind of royal / celebrity / shameful alcoholic. And let me just point out that the most estimable Westgarth cinema has a bar – this was not something I smuggled in my pocket / a thermos /within the bladder of a wine cask.

No, it was professionally made, and quite delightful, and maybe the perfect drink to get me in the mood for a dramatic retelling of the history, or at least part of the history of Queen, that legendary band from the 1970s / 80s. Finding someone to embody the mercurial and one of a kind Freddie Mercury could not have been easy, but at least they had at least one extremely thin and extremely odd looking person who could fit the bill. The only other thing I’ve seen Rami Malek in is Mr Robot, in which he’s superb, of course, but this could not have been an easy performance for him or for anyone else to do or endure.

It’s the teeth, you see. Forced to wear a set of prosthetic teeth that would put a mule to shame, and trying to act and talk and sing could not have been easy for this good chap, but he gives it his darndest. I thought at some points that the false teeth were distracting for him and for the people around him, but just think how Freddie must have felt for having to deal with all those teeth for reals when he was still alive. That couldn’t have been easy, and, when I recall watching a documentary about him about a year ago, he was constantly adjusting his mouth and compensating for his extra teeth anyway, so the actor doing it as well is just Pure Method acting of the kind and level that probably made Daniel Day Lewis punch someone in the face for not giving him the role.

I don’t need to be told that elements of the film aren’t right. I don’t expect biopics of pop / rock stars to be documentaries. I expect documentaries to be fascinating and accurate, and I expect fictional retellings of people’s lives to be entertaining or at least diverting. What Bohemian Rhapsody gave me is an intense appreciation of a) what a keen actor Rami Malek is to put so much work into this portrayal b) what an amazing talented man Freddie was and c) how amazing it is that in their day Queen were the biggest band in the whole freaking world. It is nothing short of bizarre considering the disparate elements that went together to make this band happen.

And the world that accepted them with open arms and wallets! To this day Queen still remain one of the bestselling bands of all time, and for the life of me I still have no idea how or why, except of course when you see Queen and Freddie perform, and here, where you see Rami Malek and the other actors replicate it with such fervency, with such awe-inspiring passion that it really confuses reality with memory.

Rating:

Annihilation

Annihilation

I'm trying to imagine what the opposite of Annihilation is and I can't.
Is it a Jennifer Aniston / Jason Bateman movie?

dir: Alex Garland

2018

Damn. Now that was an unsettling experience.

Annihilation was not what I was expecting, and I’d already read a bunch of reviews referencing Andrei Tarkovsky’s films, all of which I’ve seen / endured / survived. Mostly, Solaris, one of the most sleep inducing movies ever made, and Stalker, the other most sleep inducing movie ever made, are referenced. Everything’s always just a collection of references, naturally, but these are two very specific, very necessary ones.

Rest assured, Annihilation is nowhere near as boring as any of those movies mentioned. It has too much forward momentum, too many evil crazy bears and alligators, and people confronting the unknown and being painfully fucked by the unknown to have too much in common with the films of the Russian master.

Annihilation, though, is not a cheap and easy flick cobbled together from the remnants of a thousand other sci-fi flicks. It is, like many of the other flicks Alex Garland has been associated with, a fairly unique experience. Yes, there are antecedents, but it stands alone, and mostly unloved, but it deserves at least a certain amount of respect.

He used to just write the screenplays before, but then he must have thought “fuck it, I can do at least as good a job as the shmucks directing my work” and for once he seems to be right. Virtually everyone who saw Ex Machina thought it was pretty good, if not great, and on the back of that somehow somewhy Netflix coughed up a bunch of money to buy the flick after Paramount lost faith with the end product. Some people saw it in cinemas, but really, Netflix is the perfect venue for this. It’s visually strong but it’s not something that has to be seen on the big screen. Its virtues aren’t purely visual, they’re more conceptual, and that’s fine for the home theatre.

It’s an odd flick, that’s for sure. It doesn’t fit completely in either the science fiction genre or the horror genre, nor is it really an amalgam of the two. It does have a predominately female cast, but that doesn’t really change the nature of the flick even if it changes its tenor, its tone.

Rating:

Blade Runner 2049

2049

This was the best poster I could find for it, and
they still missed the point. Unless they wanted to
trick those pesky Ghost In The Shell fans into watching it

dir: Denis Villeneuve

2017

It’s amazing that they tried to do this.

I’m glad that they did it, in some ways. Yes, the original is a bona fide 80s sci-fi classic. On the other hand, there’s not really a sense that some mercenary jerks got together and thought “Hey, we need to make oodles more money from exploiting a franchise famous for being a box office failure but a critical darling, because that’ll definitely work”.

Or maybe they were that delusional. It happens. They made a Baywatch movie, after all.

Instead of going down the commercial route, they seem to have made a very expensive film, and spent a fortune advertising it (I assume it’s a fortune if I see posters advertising it at the tram and bus stops in my neighbourhood), completely at odds with what was likely to happen with audiences.

So, just to leap ahead to the end result: Blade Runner 2049 lost way more money and connected with far fewer people than the original did. Maybe that was all part of the plan?

Which is a shame, because in a lot of ways it’s a better film, and is quite compelling, even if it is the continuation of a story that no-one really asked for. Also, it has as its centre an actor who seems content to be a void more than a presence, which is his prerogative, I guess. Say what you will about Harrison Ford, but whatever role he’s in or however good or back the flick is that he’s in, he is very much present. He very much fills a role with his presence.

Not so much Ryan Gosling, who has raised impassivity to an art form. It might sound like I’m criticising him for his performance here, but I’m really not, because I don’t doubt that he probably did exactly what the director wanted for this role. You needed a blue-eyed robot for a role; you got the most blue-eyed robot of them all.

Rating:

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