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8 stars

The Vast of Night

The Vast of Night

I think her awesome glasses are the third main character

dir: Andrew Patterson

2020

The Vast of Night is such a tiny, modest and strange little film, that you almost want to hold it in your hands like a hatchling that’s fallen out of its nest to protect it, and it’s like not much else that I’ve ever seen, at least not lately.

It’s set in the late 50s, and everyone’s talking in that gee golly gosh way that apparently they spoke after the war, and dressing like they’re all going to a sock hop or the drug store for a malt shake. But the movie is also bookended with strange television credits as if this is a lost episode of some Twilight Zone-like early television program called Paradox Theatre. Everyone smokes, including teenagers, but I guess that was just the style at the time. The town in which all of this happens is so tiny that the local high school basketball game consumes virtually the whole town. Everyone bar a couple of stragglers are at the pokey school stadium in anticipation of the game.

It’s not even a final or anything. It’s just a game, and these hicks have literally nothing better to do. There were a lot, and I mean a lot of Salvation Army and vintage stores raided to get the ugly ancient clothing necessary to clothe all these extras. None of it looks like fancy hipster costuming, not by a long shot. It’s all just quietly ugly, era appropriate clothing.

And that’s where the movie production’s entire budget possibly went. That and buying one drone with a camera, and probably a Go-Pro, and that’s about it. Just because this is an Amazon Original doesn’t mean Jeff Bezos, he of the costliest divorce settlement in human history, ponied up the cash for this flick. They made it on the scent remaining from the fumes exuded from an oily rag that was set on fire which wafted across to a third rag. But they do an incredible, flat out incredible job pulling something so small and strangely perfect, in its own way, which manages to be familiar but not formulaic in any way.

After all, this flick has a continuous at least ten minute scene where one of the protagonists (Sierra McCormick) does nothing but connect calls at one of those old timey switchboards, and yet the scene remains utterly riveting.

Rating:

The Nightingale

The Nightingale

She doesn't look happy. Maybe some more revenge will do the trick

dir: Jennifer Kent

2019

Some films are almost too brutal. I thought Jennifer Kent’s first film The Babadook was too disturbing, too discomforting, but then I didn’t reckon with Jennifer Kent making a film set in 1800s Van Diemen’s Land, or Tasmania as we know it now.

There have been a few films set on that hallowed isle from an age ago, and they all tend to be beyond horrible in their depictions of what colonialism does to people. A film of the same name as what it used to be called focused on the actions of Alexander Pearce and a bunch of other convicts, only one of which survived. Cinematically, those days don’t get a good rap at all, by acknowledgement, for two main reasons: the brutality of the penal colonies, like Port Arthur and Macquarie Harbour, and the complete extermination of the indigenous population.

The Nightingale is set in the middle of all this frontier / manifest destiny bullshit. Colonisation has been going on for over 30 years, and the brutality of the Brits towards convicts and former convicts is only slightly less horrible than their brutality towards the indigenous. Whole families, whole tribes have already been murdered with the open approval of the authorities, because they want it to happen, only quicker. But in this flick, “white” lives are pretty much as worthless in an environment where anyone with a gun or a knife can do whatever the fuck they want as long as they’re not aboriginal.

And especially if they’re not a young Irish woman, recently transported, recently released but kept in legal limbo by an awful, sadistic monster who also happens to be a lieutenant in the British army, being Lieut. Hawkins (Sam Claflin). Sam Claflin has played a smug piece of shit in a whole bunch of movies, including the Hunger Games ones, and I’m sure every other film he’s ever done and every film he’s ever in, in the future (if they ever make films again during these virus-dominated times), and here they use his smarmiest features to play just one of the most horrible people I’ve ever seen on screen. He plays such an appalling character here that I’m amazed he signed up for this voluntarily without wondering what it would do for his future employability. I wouldn’t hire him to paint a fence let alone play some decent person ever again.

It’s a role devoid of humanity, or anything other than an overwhelming belief in one’s own superiority to all.

Look, I would generally not talk about a story in such a way, because it’s beyond spoiling plots or story beats and such, but this is a brutal and sadistic film that, in the first half hour, has the same character of Clare raped multiple times, her baby and husband murdered in front of her (and us, as viewers), and people need to know this kind of stuff because I’m certain there’s a bunch of people who would consider themselves mature, thoughtful fans of broad ranges of cinematic experiences who would read what I’ve just written and say “fuck that for a game of soldiers, I’m not going to watch shit like that.”

Rating:

Uncut Gems

Uncut Gems

Maybe the uncut gems are inside of us, or maybe it's just
a literal title. About some gems. That aren't cut

dir: the Safdie Brothers

2019

Sometimes, you watch a film, about a character, and all you can really say about them is “what a piece of shit.”

Howard Ratner, the character Adam Sandler plays here, is an absolute piece of shit. There’s not a single way around it. I don’t care if Sandler was nominated for awards for playing this character, even more I don’t care that people were saying this is finally the time that Sandler will be taken seriously as an actor (which they said every time he did a ‘serious’ role over the last twenty years). The character he plays here is an unremitting, utterly relentless piece of shit.

The way you can sometimes hide a cascade of character flaws like that, which in total result in an absolute piece of shit, is by having worse people around them. In Uncut Gems, there’s no-one who’s more of a piece of shit, so there’s that going for Howie – he’s top of the pile.

This film is an exhausting, unstoppable, anxiety-inducing downhill slalom, by two people who currently have the monopoly on this kind of hyper-caffeinated cinema, being Benny and Joshua Safdie. Good Times, their earlier flick with Robert Pattinson in the lead, was pretty much the same kind of experience with even scuzzier and more desperate people. But this…

My gods, Howard. Spending time with him is exhausting, he’s an exhausting person. In your life, if you’ve lived long enough and met enough people, you have met people like this, people who are themselves a simultaneous slow-motion and lightning fast car crash that is only ever ongoing. As long as they are awake, they are whirling around bouncing off of everyone and everything in their orbit. It can make for fun times and excruciating times, sometimes at the same time.

Howard owes money to bunches of people, but especially his psychotic looking brother-in-law Arno (Eric Bogosian). He keeps making more bets in order to get himself out of a hole, but each action he takes digs him in deeper. He has a diamond wholesale business, but he has a friend, Demany (Lakeith Stanfield, who has to be in everything at the moment) who brings in rappers and ball players to buy their cheesy bling from Howard. So, at any given moment, Howard is spinning plates badly to keep himself above water and to continually put himself in more danger as well. He doesn’t feel alive if he isn’t risking everything and potentially failing.

Rating:

Jojo Rabbit

Jojo Rabbit

Genocidal fun for the whole family

dir: Taika Waititi

2019

I know that there are a lot of people for whom stories and movies like this are too much, that it’s disrespectful to those who were persecuted and murdered by the Nazis, that it minimises the sheer enormity of what happened. Similar criticisms were aimed at Roberto Benigni for making Life is Beautiful; a comedy about a Jewish father trying to playfully shield his son from the fact that they’re in a concentration camp.

How did they get away with that one? I also remember people bleating similar crap about the book and the film of The Book Thief, which also was seen as not treating the Holocaust with enough reverence, or centring the narrative on non-Jewish characters at the expense of the worst affected by the genocide.

And here, in Jojo Rabbit, a ten-year-old boy has Hitler as his best, imaginary friend, and wants to do nothing more than make his Fuhrer proud by killing Jews.

If I walked into the offices of Fox Searchlight, and said any of the above, I’d probably not only get arrested, I’d get the shit kicked out of me in alley somewhere for good measure.

But I’m not Taika Waititi, so when he says it, people listen and take him seriously, and they think “this might work” and not “Security, get this bum out of here.”

Taika has been making his absurdist masterpieces for a while now, so I would hope that he and the people he works with have a good enough idea of how to balance the various elements one needs to in order to make something like this work. This isn’t, on the surface, that complicated a story – young boy indoctrinated by Nazi propaganda hates the Jews, but slowly learns to not hate at least one of them. We often see these kinds of stories with adult characters, and it’s a redemption story in those contexts. But Jojo, or Johannes (Roman Griffin Davis) as he’s more commonly known, isn’t looking at redemption, he’s a kid who believes vile Nazi propaganda because he doesn’t know any better, and he doesn’t realise how close Germany is to losing the war. His path, since he’s only ten, is to realise some of the stuff he thought was true, isn’t.

Rating:

Atlantics

Atlantique

Who ever thought dancing in a disco could be so sad...

(French title: Atlantique)

dir: Mati Diop

2019

Atlantics is a slow, strange, moody piece; a supernatural slice-of-life covering a few days in the life of a Senegalese girl called Ada (Mame Bineta Sane), living her best life. But before we get to her, we watch a bunch of young Senegalese chaps working at a building site, working for a long time.

A real long time. And at the end of their shift, the guys are like “where is our pay from the last three months?” and no satisfying answers are offered. The tower they are working on looks like something for the Avengers, as their new Senegalese headquarters, maybe, and yet these workers live in tiny homes made of breeze blocks with no windows, and haven’t gotten paid for months. One of them, Souleiman (Ibrahima Traoré) yells that he’s in so much debt with not getting paid by their bastard boss, that he avoids going home until it’s dark, so he doesn’t get chased by creditors.

Souleiman rides home in the back of a truck with his mates, and though we don’t know it yet, they have hatched a plan. He visits his girlfriend Ada, and they try to get it on but are interrupted, and she tells him to cool his boots, as they will be meeting again later that night.

When she sees some of her girlfriends, they taunt her about a few things, but she has friends from different walks of life, it appears, and not all of them are trash. She has a religious friend Mariama (Mariama Gassama), always wearing the hijab, who scolds her for her wicked ways and reminds her that God is testing her with temptation, since she’s meant to be marrying some jerk called Omar in a number of days, and not swanning about with the far more handsome and likable Souleiman.

Her other friends, who Mariama doesn’t like, routinely give her the kind of bad advice that good friends who don’t care if you fuck up all the time would give. They’re materialist and selfish, but they’re not wrong. Like Ada, many of them have boyfriends or brothers who worked at the construction site with Souleiman.

But, that same night, when Ada goes to their local bar on the beach, looking out as it does across the Atlantic Ocean (Senegal is a West African country), all of the girls are there, but neither Souleiman nor any of the other guys are present. They have, apparently, commandeered a boat and decided to sail to Spain, to Europe and towards the promise of a better life.

Rating:

The Platform

El Hoyo

Trickledown economics in its purest and prettiest form

(Spanish title: El Hoyo)

dir: Galder Gaztelu-Urrutria

2019

There’s…there’s never going to be a more obvious film about capitalism, the distribution of wealth, and the pressures involved in keeping people fearful, selfish and in conflict with those around them. And you thought Animal Farm as an allegory for the Russian Revolution was over the top with its pig called Napoleon, and its “all animals being equal, but some animals being more equal than others” line.

Orwell would probably hurl in disgust watching The Platform, but he’d nod his head in recognition.

What The Platform lacks in subtlety it more than makes up for with horrific depictions of how selfish the system needs to keep people, and that’s not even just to keep it functioning. The system works completely independently of what the people trapped on the many levels of the Vertical Self-Management Centre do to themselves or each other. And that the cruelty is very much the point.

The people trapped here are situated two to a level. The rooms cannot be escaped from. There is a hole in the centre of the room. Once a day, a platform lowers, and on it is food. It is the only source of food these prisoners can have. They can only eat what’s in front of them, not being allowed to hoard any of the food for later, which is enforced with lethal temperature controls. But whether there is any food on the platform depends on two mains factors: what floor you happen to be on, and the generosity of the people above you.

A high floor (as in 1 to 10) means you get heaps of untainted food. Floors below the 20s mean you’re eating scraps, plus the people above have no qualms about tainting the food for no good reason. 50 and beyond, well, it’s barely the aroma of food remaining.

Thing is, there’s hundreds of floors.

Further thing is, each month the prisoners are seemingly randomly moved from floor to floor.

When our main character awakes, he has the rules of the place, the lethal schematics explained to him by someone who has obviously been there a while. So our main guy Goreng (Ivàn Massagué) clutching his book (Don Quixote, naturally) needs to be schooled. He’s awakened on level 48, and when the platform arrives, mid explanation from Trimagasi (Zorion Eguileor) there are slim pickings.

Turns out that Goreng volunteered to enter this bizarre place deliberately. Like, he chose to be there, for six months, at the end of which he’ll have some kind of degree. How prestigious, to have graduated from the Vertical Self-Management Centre Academy. That’s Ivy League shit right there. Would open a lot of doors for you, doubtless. All entrants are allowed to bring one thing with them, and this guy chose Cervantes's epic about a lunatic who tilts at windmills.

Rating:

1917

1917

Nine nine nine nineteen. Seventeen. Nineteen Seventeen.
Should catch on

dir: Sam Mendes

2019

1917 is a well-choreographed, well-shot film about that minor skirmish that used to be called The Great War, until the unending War on Christmas began. It says nothing new about war, or new about anything other than on the technical level (of what’s achievable with a massive budget and the latest in filming tech), because we already knew war sucked.

But for the director, Sam Mendes, who based this movie on a story his grandfather told him, it’s personal. It’s not biographical, but it’s possibly about the images imagined and the feelings engendered within a young Sam upon hearing his pop talk about what it was like to live through such a hell and survive.

World War II flicks are usually about, at least the American ones, how war is hell but at least the Americans won, because they were the toughest and the bravest. World War I flicks, because of the nature of the pointlessness of it all, with its imagery of trenches, mustard gas, barren no man’s lands surrounded by walls of barbed wire, mud and corpses, of soldiers going over the top and dying in their droves, aren’t as conducive to the idea of visceral, exciting cinema that is the cinematic ideal for action set pieces. What might have worked with a goddess in Wonder Woman, where she fights against the very embodiment of War, doesn’t work as neatly with mere mortals when it’s treated realistically. The very nature of it not only obliterated so many people, it obliterated the illusion that any one individual could make a difference. Films depend on that illusion. A lot of films don’t work without that illusion.

Not to say that any of this is realistic, but it is meant to give us a taste for what it might have been like over two crazy days in April of 1917 for two desperate soldiers. Or at least how a child listening to his granddad talk about the war imagined what he was hearing. No matter how much of it was bullshit.

Two mere mortals, or more accurately, two British lance corporals, are tasked with running across an area that until that very morning was controlled by the Germans, in the French countryside. They carry orders to a specific Colonel, who thinks the Germans are retreating, even though he’s planning a counterattack with which to cover himself with glory.

Rating:

Queen & Slim

Queen and Slim

Two films he's been in, both times outshone by Amazons, and
he's okay with that. I like that a lot.

dir: Melina Matsoukas

2019

Queen & Slim aims high. How do you encompass all of America’s issues with race, crime, justice, relationships in the Tinder age and parental difficulties in a two-hour film?

Well, you select two very attractive people and you make them the face of contemporary African-American Man and African-American Woman, then you put them through the ringer, and see if sexy results ensue.

Except…I dunno, I find it weird that neither of the leads is actually American. Both Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith as the Queen and Slim of the title, grew up in Britain, with Ugandan parent’s in Daniel’s case and Jamaican in Jodie’s case. It kind of implies no-one else in America could have filled the roles, and I can think of at least four, maybe five people.

I guess it’s not really that relevant a point. Having grown up in Britain, on a council estate, there’s no doubt Daniel knows a lot about casual racism and the institutional variety, and Jodie has lived in LA for over a decade after doing uni in Pennsylvania, which is the most racist of the Northern states, as everyone knows (I’m just kidding even though I know it’s not funny in the slightest). Plus Daniel stared in Jordan Peel’s flick Get Out and in Black Panther as one of T’Challa’s friends from childhood, so I think he’s earned his place at the table.

Speaking of Black Panther, they couldn’t even resist making a Black Panther reference, though at least they didn’t say Wakanda Forever at any point. That would have broken the fragile tension keeping this contemporary story current and believable. There’s nothing funny about what’s they’re living through, though there is a bit of humour to leaven the dread.

A lot of the flick seems to be about the tensions surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement, since the precipitating event involves a police officer. It expands out broadly to encompass issues to do with the justice system’s inherent biases against African-Americans, but also tries to capitalise on the status of the protagonists as proud counterculture symbols, which is a bit problematic. They become symbols to others, which obscures that they are people, with hopes and aspirations, as opposed to hollow Bonnie & Clyde surrogates, which is less than human.

It’s also about the growing relationship between the protagonists, who are unnamed for the majority of the flick. And because most scenes between them involve just the two of them, and that they’re mostly on what in any other context would be considered a road trip, they are getting to know each other as we’re getting to know them as well.

Rating:

Swallow

Swallow

This is going to hurt her more than it's going to hurt our eyeballs

dir: Carlo Mirabella-Davis

2020

This film. Was deeply disturbing. To watch. And harrowing, too!

I warn you now, it’s not for the squeamish, oh no.

Haley Bennett, who probably to her professional detriment looks a lot like Jennifer Lawrence, puts in a performance for the ages in this gutting, in many senses of the word, character study.

In the beginning she is the very image of the perfect 1950s Stepford wife so we already know something terrible is going to happen (it’s not set in the 50s). Her perfect coiffure, her perfect clothing, the overly fussy nature of that multi-million dollar house that overlooks the Hudson River, the perfect hunky husband with his mega-wealthy parents, it’s like, what do you get the woman that seemingly has everything?

Well, you give her a crippling compulsion to eat stuff that is inedible. I’m not talking McDonalds or the fried chicken in bain maries at roadside truck stops.

No, Hunter, as she is known, swallows things. At first, or at least the first thing we see her swallow, is a marble. You’d think, well, that’s a bad idea.

And you would be right. In the times leading up to this, we see Hunter being belittled, minimised, mocked and generally disregarded. It’s not loudly dramatic, it’s just in virtually everything her parents-in-law do and say, and her husband’s jerky self-centredness. We get the strong sense that Hunter is striving mightily to be the perfect wife that these rich bastards demand, but that level of struggle is too much for everyone in general, and not just her.

Lest you think this is going to be anything like the Maggie Gyllenhaal flick from ages ago called Secretary, about a woman who compulsively self-mutilates until she gets her happily ever after in a sadomasochistic relationship with James fucking Spader, it’s nothing like that. No, Hunter’s compulsion to mutilate her insides is not played for sexy laughs at all.

It’s taken very seriously, and it’s also not meant to be a coincidence that this compulsion is escalating just as Hunter finds she is pregnant.

This is a very discrete kind of body horror. Generally in horror flicks we’re worried on behalf of characters (if we care about them at all, which is not a given) that are threatened with torment or death because we either feel for them or imagine ourselves in their place. If this is a kind of horror flick, which I’m not completely convinced it falls into the category of, the horror perhaps is imagining either what these increasingly dangerous objects are doing to her insides, or imagine how it would feel if it was happening to us.

Rating:

The Rise of Skywalker

The Rise of Skywalker

Let's take a few years off before making the exact same movie again,
Okay?

dir: J.J. Abrams

2019

Skywalkers rise and Skywalkers fall. All we know for sure is that, like the waves on any ocean, they’ll keep rising and falling as long as there’s money in it. And since this still made over a billion dollars for Disney, it’s pretty clear they’ll never stop the Skywalkers.

Where something will always happen very similar to before, doo doo doo de doo.

Even with all the rancour and acrimony out there in the fandom, still angry about female characters getting too much agency, screen-time and dialogue in these latest three films, they still went to the cinemas late last year and early this year in order to make this succeed, gazing angrily through their tears of hatewatching.

The Rise of Skywalker pretty much could have started off where Return of the Jedi ended, because it kinda makes it seem like the other films really weren’t that necessary. Right off the bat, they bring Palpatine back (Ian McDiarmid), who admits he’s been pulling the strings of the First Order after all these years, and that Snoke was a puppet (does anyone fondly remember and miss Snoke?) He tells the moody Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) that he’ll get all the candy he ever wanted as long as he kills Rey (Daisy Ridley).

Let’s not skip over the insanity of where Palpatine is: I could be all sorts of wrong about this because maybe the imagery was a bit confusing, but after flying through a storm cloud that’s on fire, Kylo Ren walks in this dark place that has like this evil Sith pyramid or something suspended above the ground by the power of, evil, I guess, and then there’s the even creepier than before Emperor, who promises him a bunch of stuff just like the evillest Santa imaginable.

Rating:

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