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8 stars

The Farewell

The Farewell

It's a mystery as to why Grandma looks so happy, and no-one else does

dir: Lulu Wang

2019

The Farewell is such a modest film, such a mostly quiet film that I find it quite amazing that it exists at all. And I’m glad it does. Even more so, for me, the strange premise is one that I probably wouldn’t have been curious about, had I not actually listened to the director telling the story on This American Life about five years ago.

I have listened to thousands of podcasts over the years, whether from This American Life or bunches of other people. I remember very little of any of them, but the story Ms Wang told stayed with me all these years. Not because there was anything that dramatic that occurred within it, or horrible, or shocking. But there was something about how unique the story seemed to be to this family, it never left my consciousness.

So: a Chinese-American woman called Billi (Awkwafina) lives in New York. She has a beloved grandma (Zhao Shuzen) that she and everyone naturally calls Nai Nai. This is the second film in as many weeks where one of the main characters was a Nai Nai that I watched. It’s a growing demographic / genre: films about Chinese Grandmas! No, not like that you goddamned perverts!

This one, though, is a much nicer Nai Nai than the other one who falls afoul of the triads for selfish reasons in Lucky Grandma. This Nai Nai faces some serious health issues. Not only that, she faces the trials and tribulations of living in a culture that supports lying to individuals for the supposed good of the collective. If that isn’t a comment on the docility required for living under communist one-party rule, I don’t know what is.

When Billi, after arguing with her parents, finds out that beloved Nai Nai has cancer, that’s a horrible shock. The even bigger shock she has to be confronted with is that none of the family, including the woman’s sons or grandkids, or own sister, will tell her what’s going on.

I cannot emphasise this enough, but apparently this is a true story, and it happens on the regular in China, and it happened to this director’s grandma, and her whole family was complicit in this elaborate charade, which only gets more elaborate as it goes on. See, they have this belief that when someone is of a certain age, telling them the truth about their health conditions could kill them, the shock of it. So instead of telling them that they’re terminal, you tell them they’re fine, the doctors go along with it, and you lie about their treatments, and then you wait for the inevitable, I guess?

Rating:

How to Build a Girl

How to Build a Girl

Well, you start with gin, cornmeal, velvet, chocolate,
adamantium and rosewater, and work from there

dir: Coky Giedroyc

2019

How to Build a Girl is another entry into the one woman industry that is Caitlin Moran. We previously had a fictionalised foray into her teenage years in the brilliant but short lived series Raised by Wolves, but here we get another go at seeing some of the formative years of a clever and somehow optimistic young writer who gets seduced by the dark side of music criticism.

Moran’s big success book-wise was the publication of How to Build a Woman, which was part memoir, part collection of various columns she’d written over the years ranging from her experiences as a teen writer for weekly music newspaper Melody Maker, her experiences growing up and her family life, and broader issues she’s faced in life and that women face in general. It was a tremendous book, funny, trenchant and illuminating, and fiercely feminist. Specifically, there’s a chapter in the book dedicated to convincing people to reclaim the term, which a lot of people, including women, tend to shy away from because of the negative connotations the media has appended to it, essentially accepting the distorted interpretation of their enemies of its meaning and purpose.

For me, as an added element, the thing is, the era in which she was writing at Melody Maker, and the era in which Melody Maker and NME, or the New Musical Express were the two titans that dominated British music press in the late 80s early 90s, is not just an era I’m informed about through media as an interesting time, kinda like how watching Almost Famous about a teenage boy writing for Rolling Stone in the early 70s represented Cameron Crowe’s experiences. I wasn’t there. It didn’t speak to me on that level.

No, the big difference for me is that I used to obsessively buy both Melody Maker and NME in that era, despite the fact that I definitely didn’t live in Britain at any stage of my life back then, and, looking at the place now, not for the foreseeable future.

Rating:

Harriet

Harriet

Coming to free the downtrodden in a town near you

dir: Kasi Lemmons

2019

I had heard the name of Harriet Tubman many times in the past, but never really had known her achievements in life, even as I could see she was venerated in death, with good reason. This film here called Harriet, which you can safely assume is about her, tries to summarise an extraordinary life in under two hours, and, I’ve got to say, she did a lot.

Cynthia Erivo plays the title character, and she plays the role really well. Harriet is pretty much depicted as a combination of Joan of Arc (a warrior chosen by God to liberate her people) and Moses (chosen by God to set her people free). She has epileptic fits / visions that show her the future, and warn her of danger. She is convinced God is guiding her. A more skeptical acquaintance notes in his journal “potential brain damage” when he hears her tale of wonder and liberation.

And what a tale it is. Living on a slaver’s farm in Maryland in the 1850s or so, so before the Civil War, her position is precarious. For some reason, her owners fail to treat her with the respect and dignity she and all her family deserve but never get, seeing as by law they are considered to be livestock. Her cruel owner is replaced, through death, by an even crueler owner, being the son, Gideon Brodess (Jon Alwyn), complete with sadistic eyes and an endless capacity for torment. I don’t care that he didn’t exist. Slavery required structures, laws and a whole lot of awful people to continue as long as it did. Sometimes you need to embody those ideas and horrors in the person of a Southern dandy who is anything but a gentleman, just so the audience can remember what the ethos of white supremacy looks like in person.

She escapes north, travelling to Philadelphia where she has relative safety. But that is not enough for this sterling woman. She cannot rest, or God won’t let her rest, until she saves as many of her family members as she can. So the journey back and forth, back into hostile territory, perilous as it is, is one she makes countless times in order to save almost everyone she knows.

Though she is remarkable in and of herself, this endeavor required the help of others, so we are introduced to the rudiments of the so-called Underground Railroad, the network of abolitionists, freed former slaves and opportunists who would ferry countless souls to safety up north.

As the film makes clear though, for many of these slaveholders, the loss of their slaves represents a cruel blow upon their finances, and the viability of their business enterprises. The slaves themselves are assets worth so many hundreds of dollars, and their labour, which can’t be replaced by working people, because that’s just not how we do things down here in the South, means these good white people could end up destitute. We can’t have that. They band together to, I dunno, randomly kill Black people, threaten each other, vow to capture and execute Moses, who they don’t realise is actually a woman, and a former slave at that. They convince themselves that this liberator of slaves would have to be a white man in blackface, because surely no former slaves, let alone women, could organise such an enterprise.

Rating:

Relic

Relic

Three generations of successful women, together, united

dir: Natalie Erika James

2020

The horror…of watching a loved one succumb to dementia and impending death…

For many of us, this is not why we watch entertainment, in fact it’s the exact opposite impulse. Yet here we are.

It’s impossible to separate our fear of death and the mortality of the people around us from the wellspring of fears that horror movies prey upon. Relic crafts together what looks like a haunted house story, but, really, come on. It’s not. It’s about something far less supernatural and far more likely for us all to experience, being the decline of the elders in our families.

Kay (Emily Mortimer, putting on a pretty solid Aussie accent) receives a welfare check call from the cops, saying that her mum Edna (the great Robyn Nevin) hasn’t been seen around the last couple of days, and isn’t answering the door. So Kay and her daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) drive to somewhere in rural Victoria to find out if she’s okay.

But before that we watched a naked Edna, presumably, standing stunned in the lounge room, as water overflows the bath, cascades down the stairs and spreads everywhere, both beneath Edna’s feet, and towards someone else that seems to be standing in the room near her.

When Sam and Kay get to the house, they cannot find her. There are post it-notes around, saying mundane things like “take pills” or “shut the door”, maybe indicating that Edna’s having memory problems. Otherwise there’s nothing too much out of the ordinary. That is to say, nothing visually seems that much out of place, but the sound design, and the ominous, claustrophobic atmosphere never let up, never let us think anything will ever be too normal.

And then Edna is back, never explaining where she’s been or why, and not feeling the need to justify herself. Kay expresses both relief, bafflement and frustration, but Sam is just glad to have her back safe. There are tentative stabs at potentially returning to some form of normality. A doctor’s visit makes it seem like Edna hasn’t totally lost her marbles. When Sam offers to move in and look after her, Edna at first seems to welcome the company. She hands over one of her treasured rings, saying it no longer fits her, so Sam should have it.

Rating:

Palm Springs

Palm Springs

Would you trust either of these jerks with your existential crisis?

dir: Max Barbacaw

2020

So, basically, we’ve seen enough variations on Groundhog Day, or enough variations have been done that it’s become a genre unto itself, fit for movies and tv shows, in any form. Person or persons get trapped in a loop and have to figure a way out of it.

The original movie had a guy be perplexed by his circumstances, fight against it by lashing out, try every form of suicide and crime, but eventually come to terms with it and become a better person, who then, when released from the loop, decides he’s going to stay in the place he was trapped in.

Some see it as a Buddhist story about reincarnation, some see it as a different philosophical or religious tradition pointing to a similar outcome, but ultimately it’s a story about a person getting multiple chances to get “it” right, however “it” is defined, and being set free, whatever that entails.

Palm Springs has the guy trapped already when we start; he’s been trapped for a long time, so long in fact that he doesn’t really give much of a shit about anything. It’s kind of the antithesis of what character work Groundhog Day tried to establish: instead of someone coming to realise what’s important in life from multiple goes around, he comes to believe that this perpetual November 9th at a wedding reception at Palm Springs means nothing means anything. Life is meaningless when you’re trapped in an unending loop. You learn nothing new, you do everything possible, but you don’t get better or worse, just bored.

It’s a pretty grim message. Nyles (Andy Samberg) does the same stuff Phil Connors does in Groundhog Day, as in he gets to know everything about everyone, and has sex with almost everyone, male or female, but it only brings him to a lower state of being, not transcendence. It doesn’t make him awful, it just makes him not care about stuff, or anything, other than drinking as much beer as he can.

Into this mix drops another person, being Sara (Cristin Milioti), who Nyles pretends to be chatting charmingly with for the first time, but you just know, based on the fact that he’s been here a long while, that they’ve probably hooked up before. But just before they hook up for the first time, someone appears out of nowhere, trying to kill Nyles, forcing him to crawl into a mysterious cave with a glowing light in it, that he keeps begging Sarah not to go into…

Rating:

The Personal History of David Copperfield

David Copperfield

Score extra points if you thought it was about the magician, instead.

dir: Armando Iannucci

2020

It’s not the first time the great Armando Iannucci has made a film set in a bygone era – The Death of Stalin was very much a period piece – but this is more meat and potatoes costumes, top hats and bustles kind of stuff. There haven’t been an abundance of adaptations of David Copperfield, at least not recently, not like bloody Great Expectations which has more versions than Spider-Man. This is a fairly radical retelling of the story, only because it’s such a long book, and lots of it is probably dull.

Iannucci and his actors here commit to making this as upbeat and propulsive as possible, which isn’t that radical, but when you consider that most adaptations of Dickens’ work is usually so painstakingly put together for BBC Quality Television Series that paint itself tears itself from walls in the vicinity of televisions that play them, just to end their misery, maybe it’s a blessed relief.

The production also goes out of its way to cast actors of different backgrounds from the ones one would expect for such a telling, since it’s usually a Whites Only kind of affair in Dickens’ stuff. Especially the lead, being played by Dev Patel, with charm and energy turned up to 11, but plenty of other roles too. It’s refreshing, in a way, because while it might seem anachronistic to tell a story set in the 1800s with so many people from diverse backgrounds, it doesn’t at all change the fact that a) Britain is one of the most ridiculously, multiculturally diverse places on the planet because of its legacy of colonialism no matter what fuckwits like Boris Johnson or Nigel Farage would prefer and b) Dickens’ work has always been about class warfare and the threat of poverty, and people desperately trying to rise above their station in life.

Let’s not sugarcoat anything, though: It’s doubtful Dickens himself would have approved of this movie, considering how racist the fucker was.

But we don’t need to cancel him or his very enjoyable books; we can enhance them for our storytelling purposes in ways that reflect contemporary Britain, as well as acknowledging the perils of the past.

Rating:

In My Blood it Runs

In My Blood it Runs

Good luck in this hard world, Dujuan, to you and your family

dir: Maya Newell

2020

This documentary, called In My Blood it Runs, is a timely film, because its story has been relevant for at least, oh, the last couple of hundred years or so. The problems Dujuan and his family face are the problems all First Nations people face, but the film focuses of course on this one boy in order to represent the larger issues at play. If we can appreciate the world that he lives in, maybe we can grasp the significant obstacles placed before him and the people he shares a connection with.

And in case a theoretical reader of such a review is already getting an outrage boner muttering under their breath “As if First Nations / Indigenous people have any fucking problems, we give them EVERYTHING and they set fire to it and steal our hard earned jobs and then don’t work because they’re fucking lazy” etc etc bullshit, even though this person would in theory benefit most from such an intimate portrayal in such a doco, they are the least likely to appreciate it.

It requires empathy, and the ability to appreciate the humanity of people you reflexively might not like, and yet don’t understand why you can’t, therefore you spend your life maligning them in public, online, in Parliament or as columnists, for shits, giggles and clicks, all the while telling yourself “they’re the problem, they’re the reason why I don’t like ‘em, nothing wrong with ME”.

Don’t go changing. Not as if you’re capable, anyway.

What runs in the main subject’s blood? His ancestors, his history, the trauma of colonisation, the deep persisting wound of the Stolen Generation, the expectations of his family and people, but also, the healing power that he keeps being told he inherited from his grandfather. Now, I am more cynical than most, and more unfair than many, but this isn’t the place to debate the pros and cons of whether he genuinely possesses the power to heal people or not. It’s not like he’s telling people to use his powers at a cost of $299.99 per hour, instead of any other form of medicine, or that he can cure the coronavirus with colloidal silver and a laying on of hands. There’s something simpler and more complex at the same time.

Rating:

The King of Staten Island

The King of Staten Island

"and as he surveyed all before him, he wept, for there were no
worlds left to conquer"

dir: Judd Apatow

2020

These films, from Judd Apatow, about men (almost exclusively men, except for Trainwreck, where the emotionally immature main character was a woman), very immature men, straining to grow over the course of the movie in order to be better people and be worthy of some other character’s love, are right up my alley. Sure, it indicates that Apatow never really wants to do anything that different from what he’s done before, but who are we to complain in these difficult times?

I mean, the value of entertainment cannot be understated given what's going on in the world at the moment. Thank Christ, the Buddha and maybe Satan as well that all these productions were waiting in the wings, waiting for a docile and compliant and famished audience to hoover down, like so many Twisties from a Party Size bag.

Unlike the other flicks, one could argue, this time telling this kind of tale, they are using a doozy of a story, and a doozy of an actor to play the main character. Pete Davidson is notorious for a lot of stuff that has nothing to do with movies or Saturday Night Live, and more to do with his mental health struggles and unapologetic drug use. At least here it is in the service of telling a story that’s not too dissimilar to his actual life.

It's a backhanded way of saying that though the characters in his other flicks, that aren’t the ones about how growing older and having families suck (Funny People, This is 40), might have had issues and hang ups, but not like this guy. He’s always on drugs and is clearly suicidal, and makes terrible choices that any person can see are terrible.

The film starts with Scott (Davidson) driving a car, deciding he doesn’t care if he lives or dies, nearly having a serious accident, but at the last second swerving out of the way because there’s already a car wreck on the road. He hits a couple of cars, yells sorry, but doesn’t really do anything about it.

The main characterisation of Scott is that there is the fundamental absence in his life, being that of his father, which has contributed to his fuckedupedness. It sounds pretty simplistic, doesn’t it? Like, that one thing surely doesn’t explain or excuse the countless terrible things he does here.

Rating:

Beanpole

Dylda

She's a bad mother...hush your mouth, I'm talking about my
lady Beanpole! You're damn right.

(Дылда)

dir: Kantemir Balagov

2019

Beanpole is a fairly amazing movie, of which I knew nothing before watching, and of which I could not predict anything as it was happening. A lot of contemporary Russian war movies tend to be fairly nationalistic, so this has nothing to do with that idea. It’s actually about a complex relationship between two female survivors of World War II. It’s not about beans, or poles, or poles with beans on them, or tall people in general. It’s about one tall girl, like a Russian Brienne of Tarth, just taller and more fragile.

Set in Leningrad just after the end of the war, Beanpole refers to the tall protagonist, so tall that she looms over almost everyone else, male or female, on the street, on the tram or at the hospital where she works. She has an actual name, being Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko), but more often than not she’s referred to by her “affectionate” nickname. She hunches over a lot, and her eyes are already haunted. She survived the siege of Leningrad, so she must have seen some shit.

She not only survived the war, but fought in the anti-aircraft division, where she received a head wound, which occasionally results in her having a kind of seizure. Not like narcolepsy, where she would collapse, limp like a marionette with cut strings; she freezes in place, unseeing, unhearing, rigidly insensate until it passes.

The hospital where she works looks to be mostly for the soldiers wounded in the war, many of whom are missing limbs or worse. Many seemingly have no hope of recovering, but aren’t going to immediately die of anything either). The head doctor, who looks suspiciously like a Russian version of Jeremy Irons (Andrey Bykov), pulls her aside at one point and pointedly tells her he needs her help with something.

It’s not what you think it is; it’s far worse.

So, not only does she have a harsh job, a worrying condition, and the kind of Soviet impoverished life of starvation we would come to expect from the “winners” of the great war against the Germans, she also comes home to a little boy, Pashka (Timofey Glazkov), who must have been born during the war. Can you imagine anything more terrifying? It puts the children born during this strange pandemic / apocalypse of 2020 seem like blessed lucky angels in comparison.

Rating:

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:

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