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8 stars

The Trial of the Chicago 7

Trial of the Chicago 7

Nice building you've got there. It'd be a shame if some
democracy happened to it.

dir: Aaron Sorkin

2020

Aaron Sorkin is known for a lot of things. The West Wing, very talky films, two people walking hurriedly down a hallway having an animated discussion, being pretty sexist, having a blazing cocaine addiction in his prime, but what he’s most famous for is another courtroom drama from a long time ago that many people above a certain age know of whether they’ve seen the film or not: A Few Good Men with Tom Cruise (boo) and Jack Nicholson (yay).

It’s the pinnacle, the apotheosis of court room dramas. It takes what is generally, if you’ve been part of any trials, dry, procedural formal processes and transforms them into gladiatorial combat between egotistical jerks. Grand speeches decide people’s fates, not evidence, nor the law itself. People yell about wanting to know the truth, and others deride the ability of the person saying such a thing, asserting that they couldn’t possibly handle the truth, no truth handler, you.

But that was fiction. High drama. A movie, directed by Rob Reiner, based on a play, written by Aaron Sorkin.

You would think Aaron Sorkin is coming full circle tackling a movie about a trial, but this time as writer and director, and he probably did some other stuff on the film as well, maybe a bit of the sewing on some of the hippy clothing, maybe a sandwich or two. The trial of the so-called Chicago 7, despite there being 8 defendants, is something that actually happened, that there’s a lot of evidence for. I don’t even have to look up any articles to know where the script deviates from reality in a lot of instances, because if there’s one thing Sorkin prizes over accuracy, it’s a good line.

The remarkable thing about what he needs to depict here, though, is not some battle between defense attorneys and prosecutors, or wily defendants blustering their way through a court room convinced of their own invulnerability: All he has to show is how farcical the trial actually was, in order to prove his point. And his point is: whether you can handle the truth or not, what American governments, both Federal and State, in this case the state of Illinois, and the powers of local government as exercised through the police did to these people was fucking awful and profoundly undemocratic.

And this is not a point you’re going to see in many places: the mayor of Chicago, Richard Daley, who urged the cops to not be gentle with these protestors, the legislators and party apparatchiks who wanted these protestors wiped out, and the Black Panthers eradicated by murderous force if necessary, were all Democrats.

But…but I thought the Democrats were the “good” guys in American history?

Turns out, spoiler alert, Democrat politicians and administrations have been just as fucked at this democracy stuff as the dreaded Republicans.

People forget the American contribution to the Viet Nam War of Independence from the colonial control of France started with JFK and continued under LBJ, both of whom, last I checked, were Democrats. Nixon came in, in 1968, but plenty of people had already been fucked up by then. Bunches, disconnected bunches of activists, mostly young, mostly hopeful beyond hope, thought that a good way to stop the war, or at least the drafting of young Americans to die and kill overseas, would have been to disrupt the Democratic Convention in Chicago prior to the election that saw Nixon come to power in all his divine, malevolent majesty.

So the cops popped a lot of skulls at that convention, and in the parks, and in the streets, and wanted to fuck up this activist movement once and for all. Convince young American peoples, regardless of the colour of their skin or the content of their characters (but especially African-Americans) not to protest the war, not to protest the government, not to protest police murders of activists, and to do this they grabbed a bunch of people, grouped them together, and tried to make painful examples of them to dissuade everyone else.

I mean, it’s so fucking nakedly corrupt. It’s shameful. Sham trials like this still go on these days, but it’s usually in countries where they don’t even pretend to do anything other than enforce the will of the Great Leader or one party or a group of generals that hate their own populations. You expect more from the land of the free and the home of the people so brave they need hundreds of guns each and no masks to get by.

Rating:

Dear Comrades!

Dorogie Tovarishchi

It's always sad when people get murdered around you for
the dumbest of reasons and you do nothing to stop it

Dorogie Tovarishchi!

dir: Andrei Konchalovsky

2020

If you ever wanted to watch a movie about a strike at a factory in Novocherkassk in 1962 that resulted in Soviet authorities killing a bunch of innocent people who had the temerity to protest falling wages, rising prices and unavailability of basic food in what they were told was a communist paradise, then this is the film you’ve been waiting for all your life.

Saying that the Soviet years were already renowned for the sheer, spiteful waste of millions of lives and the cruelty of such a brutal, totalitarian system downplays the fact that people forget, all the time, and it’s stuff none of us should be forgetting, ever. But it also ignores the fact that Russian life has always been brutal, and that, just to massively over-generalise, they are a fatalistic people who always expect the worst and are rarely disappointed.

I’ll give you two basic idiomatic examples: in English there’s the phrase “hope springs eternal”.

In Russian the phrase is “hope dies last”.

In English, we say “love is blind”.

In Russian? “Love is evil”. Literally. Lyubov zla means “love is evil”. The full phrase is “love is evil and will even make you fall in love with a goat”.

I mean, how the fuck do you deal with such an entrenched cultural mentality?

Rating:

The Climb

Climb

Biking in your 40s and beyond should be a criminal offence

dir: Michael Angelo Covino

2020

The Climb is about friendship.

It’s not about the friends we make along the way in this crazy journey we call life. It’s about the friends we drag with us, or drag us back, stopping us from growing or changing for a multitude of reasons throughout our lives.

I mean, this is not Sisters of the Travelling Pants. This is The Climb, and it is about two adult male friends who’ve known each other since childhood, Mike and Kyle. ‘Mike’ is also the director. Kyle Marvin plays Kyle. They clearly made the film together. Do you see where I’m going with this?

I don’t know if they’re actual lifelong frenemies in real life, but surely they’re bringing something to this too.

I hesitate to call it a comedy, because comedy, as a genre, implies laughter, chuckling, giggling and so forth. It’s funny, but there aren’t jokes. The whole film is immensely funny, in that it’s suffused with irony, and very cleverly done. But it’s not immediately apparent, it’s not showy, really, though it’s very well crafted.

And though I’ve said it’s not showy, that’s a lie, because there’s a section which is one long shot without edits which is incredibly well done, and would have been a nightmare to coordinate and get right, and both the filming and the way it’s put together are phenomenal for a film made with such a tiny budget.

Rating:

Judas and the Black Messiah

Judas & The Black Messiah

Look out Fred, this jerk behind you isn't social distancing!

dir: Shaka King

2021

I am… not… a revolutionary. It would seem hypocritical of me if I were. I mean, after all, I do work for the Empire, and there’s little tolerance for revolution or rebellion within the Empire’s rank and file.

This movie is not about me, which is handy, because I wasn’t a prominent member of the Black Panther Party, nor was I murdered in my sleep by the Chicago police in 1968. Nor was I betrayed by a sneaky, weasel-y fucker given no choice otherwise by his FBI handlers.

Judas and the Black Messiah is about a chap called Fred Hampton, who tried to help his fellow African-Americans against the forces of white supremacy, here represented by the FBI’s director J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen), and one of his underlings, being played one of the whitest actors in all of America, called Jesse Plemons.

It doesn’t matter what the character’s actual name is: he’s just bad news. He is always smoking a cigar, and always gorging on masses of food, and sometimes smokes a cigar while eating, which is somehow even grosser.

At first, like everyone at first, creepy FBI guy seems like he’s actually trying to do things legally. His concerns with the activities of the Black Panther Party are not about the breakfast programs for kids, or the community outreach: it’s for the illegal stuff they do, and for the crimes some of their members commit.

But at about three quarters of the way through the movie, J. Edgar himself asks the jerk Jesse Plemons is playing how he’s going to feel when his daughter grows up and brings a negro home for dinner.

Hasn’t he seen Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner yet? What if she brought handsome doctor Sidney Poitier home? That would be grand, surely?

But no. That’s the moment where mostly okay FBI agent goes “fuck that, all the prominent African-Americans must be slaughtered lest my daughter go black and never come back.”

Rating:

Malcolm & Marie

Malcolm and Marie

These people are pretty but shouldn't be together, nuh uh

dir: Sam Levinson

2021

Pandemic filmmaking. It’s a genre unto itself. You could argue it’s a product of necessity and invention, or you could say “there’s something more helpful or vital that you could be doing with your time.”

Truth be told, you could have said that at any time in the past and there would have been some truth to it.

So. A director / writer, in the form of Sam Levinson, and two actors, and a crew, put together a movie during the coronapocalypse that has engulfed the States and killed half a million people to date. Minimal crew, only two actors, shot mostly at night, all at one location, in gorgeous black and white.

Malcolm (John David Washington, who’s having the year of his life) is a director, and he’s just had a film premiere, and it’s been a triumph. Marie (Zendaya) is seething from beginning to end, and goes outside of their remarkable house somewhere in Carmel-by-the-Sea to smoke.

What is Carmel-by-the-Sea? The only thing I know about it is that I remember way back in the day that Clint Eastwood decided he wanted to be the mayor of the place, which is a town in California, presumably by the sea. And it happened. And then he got bored of doing that and went back to making movies.

Malcolm is pacing and ranting, high on life, but mostly adrenalin, yelling a mile a minute about his triumph, about his conversation with a critic from the LA Times, and about the ignorance of most people about the important milestones in film, being Citizen Kane and the work of Billy Wilder, and how he hates having to be compared only to other African-American directors.

He’s ranting and raving, and drinking a lot, but he’s not drunk, other than on his own smug sense of self-satisfaction.

And that is some powerful stuff.

Marie is, strangely enough, making mac and cheese, though not for herself, at one in the morning. Strange thing to be doing while you’re wearing a spangly dress in high heels, but who am I to question someone else’s choices?

You see, clearly there’s something bugging her, or at least, there are a lot of things bugging her. No doubt it’s because of something Malcolm did or didn’t do. But she doesn’t volunteer the information until it’s demanded, and from then on it’s on for young and old.

And by “young” I mean Zendaya, and by “old” I mean John David Washington.

Rating:

Possessor

Possessor

How to succeed in business by trying really hard

dir: Brandon Cronenberg

2020

Possessor is a nasty, vicious horror movie replete with horrifying and disturbing imagery in the service of a plot that pulls none of the punches you expect would be a done deal in almost any other movie, made by anyone else with a different legacy.

It’s not a film that uses humour to dissipate or alleviate the tension, either. It’s pretty much committed to a singular vision of a terrifying world in which corporate assassins have mastered a technique whereby an assassin’s consciousness can be inserted into a particular person’s brain, allowing them to take out their target, with no-one any the wiser as to the actual ‘person’ pulling the trigger or inserting the knife, as the case may be.

Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough) is this company’s, called Trematon, star assassin. The first scene is of her “possessing” a woman called Holly (Gabrielle Graham) in order to kill a lawyer at a party. Killing lawyers to improve society has been a longstanding joke since at least Shakespeare’s day, but it’s unlikely he envisaged something as bloody as this. Tasya’s task is to shoot the guy and then herself, but she takes a physical relish in her work, and pleasurably luxuriates in the bloodbath that ensues to the point where the practical necessities don’t seem as necessary anymore.

She tries to shoot herself in the mouth, in an image that will reoccur throughout the film, but cannot bring herself to do so, but luckily, when the cops arrive, they tie up that loose end for her.

From there it cuts back to Tasya waking up out of some awful looking machine, throwing up, but coming back to herself. These possessions are not simple affairs, and they take a lot out of the possessor, and, obviously, everything out of the person taken over.

She has to debrief with the company’s handler, being a woman called Girder (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who asks her if she recognises a number of items, and the back story to those items.

Of significance is the story she tells about a pinned red butterfly, one she pinned as a child, that always makes her feel a bit guilty whenever she looks at it. You’d think with all the people she has likely killed, there are other things to feel bad about. It reoccurs towards the end, to an extremely chilling affect.

As alien as this performance is throughout, and as far nastier as the story gets, the character of Vos is disconcerting from beginning to end. How else would a person losing their sense of self AND carrying out horrific murders in other people’s bodies be?

Rating:

Ammonite

Ammonite

it's like Ingmar Bergman died for somebody's sins, but not mine

dir: Francis Lee

2020

Ammonite. It’s a fossil.

Why is this film called Ammonite? Because one of the characters was famous for the fossils she discovered, back when women in England weren’t allowed to vote, own stuff or count numbers out loud for fear of shriveling up all the gentlemen’s dicks with their fancy book learnin’.

Mary Anning found a bunch of sea monster fossils at a place called Lyme Regis, from the age of 11 onwards, and was quite adept and skilled when it came to finding, excavating and drawing them. She accumulated a lot of knowledge, but she couldn’t be allowed to join the Royal Society of Geologists or even call herself a science type person because, obviously no testicles means not scientist.

But she found and excavated what would be called ichthyosaurs, pteranadons and plesiosaurs and stacks of other fossils, including ammonites, those spiral shells so synonymous with limestone, and she was good at it. Few people start an entire branch of science, but she was surely one of the progenitors of modern paleontology (if that isn’t oxymoronic language, and I think it probably is). This is the rare instance where I knew something about the person a movie is about (this is not a biopic, not really), but, like most British figures from history, I knew about her because of an episode of Horrible Histories which I watched with my daughter years ago. I thought it was a pretty fascinating story about a pretty dauntless, accomplished person, who barely got credit in her lifetime for her work or achievements.

Ammonite is a story about Mary Anning and her relationship with the world, not so much about her achievements. The film conjectures that Mary’s experiences in life, being one of the only surviving children of a family of ten, where most died soon after birth, and living with the grimmest ghoul of a mother (Gemma Jones) in a place that looks utterly soul-draining, had an impact. She, herself, is fossil-like, stone cold, living only to please her desolate, dour mother and find more fossils for sale. It’s their only source of income, and, amazingly, fossils don’t go for much, because there isn’t much of a market.

As portrayed in the film, a dilettante, a prancing smug poser of a jerk called Roderick Murchison (James McArdle) walks into her shop and fawns over her and her discoveries. She, being Mary Anning (the always great Kate Winslet), listens to his prattle with unconcealed disinterest. She does like to make a sale, though.

Rating:

Borat Subsequent Moviefilm

Borat Subsequent Moviefilm

I wish we lived in a world where this wasn't necessary. But it is.

dir: Jason Woliner

2020

It’s getting increasingly hard to know what to call these films with Sacha Baron Cohen playing strange characters trying to trick people into showing how awful they are. They’re not docos, mockumentary is not a real word, they’re not entirely fictional, except for the people who don’t know they’re on camera for the purposes of making a Borat movie, and they are, at least for me, excruciating to watch because of my ever-decreasing threshold for cringe.

I literally had to stop watching this flick 30 or 40 times. Admittedly, that doesn’t mean much when you’re streaming something: it’s not like I had to get up dozens of times to press ‘Stop’ on some outmoded VHS player without a remote control, or eject the tape and put it back in its plastic box. I just had to click the Pause icon. But I did it so many times, over so many days. Can I even really say that I’ve watched the movie, or would it be more accurate to say I watched a disconnected series of images to do with this movie, until I heard or saw something so disturbing I had to stop dozens of times over the course of a week? So my knowledge of what actually happens in this flick is spotty, to say the least.

The gist of it isn’t really beyond me, because it’s not that complicated. It sounds complicated, if you took the trouble to list the stuff that they pretend is the plot: Borat was imprisoned in Kazakhstan for bringing shame to the fatherland, and is released in order to give a monkey to Trump, or Michael Pence or any other random person, in order to make his country great again. The original flick came out in 2006, so it’s comforting to see, when Borat returns to his home, which if I recall was originally filmed somewhere in Romania, nothing has changed or improved in nearly two decades. If it’s not the same, awful place, then excellent work by the location scouts finding somewhere just as dismal from a few centuries ago to briefly film in. I wonder if they gave cigarettes or chocolate bars to the local children in payment?

Much to Borat’s horror, he discovers that he has a daughter, called Tutar (Maria Bakalova), who somehow lives in more squalor than the people around her. Through comedy and misadventure, she ends up in the States with Borat as he tries to implement his plan of giving something of value to the highest ranking monsters of the current administration.

Now, along with all the horrific racist and anti-Semitic stuff Borat is renowned for, and the ability he has to find terrible people who happily say horrible things on (hidden or obvious) camera, the ultimate story with Tutar is the gradual realisation, on both their parts, that she is not sub-human, and that she is as entitled to live and breath and walk around and drive and do all sorts of things just like everybody else. There is a manual of misinformation and medical mendacity that both read from like it’s gospel, and in truth it’s only marginally more repressive and misogynist than the actual gospels.

Rating:

The Outpost

The Outpost

I swear, honestly, the film is way better than what
this poster would seem to imply, which is that it's
a movie about soccer hooligans angry about a bad
call by the referees and their washing machine
being blown up by a rival team supporter. Grrr!

dir: Rod Lurie

2020

War is hell, war is dumb, but it’s really exciting to watch on television. Less enjoyable in person, one imagines.

The Outpost tries really hard to capture the experience of a number of soldiers in Afghanistan in 2009. It is very much based on a true story. The true story is this: at the height of their wisdom, the powers that be within the US hierarchy decided that there should be an outpost near the border with Pakistan whose purpose would be both to project power and encourage feelings of goodwill within the local Afghani community. So, look tough but also be friendly and hand out bribes whenever it seems like an opportune time. Goodwill among the locals would mean they’re less inclined to support or enable the Taliban, which is a win for everyone, except the Taliban, of course

With that intention, an outpost is set up, in probably the most exposed and vulnerable place in all of Afghanistan, so that the US’s commitment to peace in the region cannot be doubted. I mean, if you set up your camp in a place where anyone with a rifle or even a rock could potentially kill your guys from up on high, and you wouldn’t even see where the jerks were attacking you from, it shows how hardcore you are as a military and a nation. Probably.

I mean, tactically it looks insane, but maybe strategically? Who fucking knows? It is made to look insane to us, as viewers, as it is explained to the new soldiers rolling in, who look up at the mountains surrounding the post, wondering how such a terrible and isolated location was chosen, but it must have made sense to someone, at some point. No one in the flick takes credit for it, like, some white-glove wearing evil Colonel swirling a glass of brandy and smoking a Cuban cigar from the safety of his quarters back in the States, but someone somewhere thought it was a good idea.

These grunts, of course, aren’t there to reason why, theirs is just to do and die. And they will, in large numbers. Along the way, they’ll mock each other, question each other’s sexuality on a constant basis, describe each other as smelling like a “bag of dicks” and generally do a lot of idiotic things in between getting attacked by the faceless and ruthless enemy, who doesn’t want them there, for some reason.

Rating:

The Devil All The Time

The Devil All the Time

Sorry to disappoint you, but the Devil doesn't put in an
appearance. I think he refused to share screen time with
such an obvious hack like Robert Pattinson.

dir: Antonio Campos

2020

The Devil All the Time has a brutal story. It’s almost as if Nick Cave’s Murder Ballads album came to life in the form of a Netflix original movie. It’s mostly set in or around a place called Knockemstiff, Ohio, and mostly confines itself to the miserable lives of a number of people who live and wander around Ohio and West Virginia. And the place actually exists! Hopefully this laundry list of tragedy and awful luck didn’t happen to too many people the author knew, but you never know.

I have no knowledge of what life is actually like in those states, but, fucking hell, this is not a movie that’s going to inspire a lot of tourism. The author of the book this film is based on, being Donald Ray Pollock, also helps out by reading his own words in voiceover, telling us more about these sorry sons of bitches than we probably ever wanted to know, and even, in a moment that I’m ashamed to admit made me laugh out loud, calls one of the worst of them “the sick fuck”, with all the disgust he can muster, in case we had any doubts how he feels about his own creations.

Like God himself, Pollock knows what it is to become sick of one’s own creations, and devises often the cruellest ways for them to depart this mortal coil, only the most ironic of methods for his and our amusement. Underlying everything is a feeling of hopelessness, of everything being corrupt, that the good can’t last long in the face of evil, but that it’s really not God’s fault. Oh no.

Many characters have a deeply distorted idea of their Christian faith, one which they feel compels them to do a bunch of horrible stuff to themselves or each other, but the fault doesn’t seem to be with the faith itself, but in their twisted and selfish delusions. It is all well and good to decry the abuses of the clergy or the hypocrisy of the faithful doing evil and pretending it to be God’s will, but we are never really confused when a person does a horrible thing here: that ain’t Jesus telling you to murder a dog or stab your wife in the neck; that’s all on you, buddy.

There is a vast number of characters, and interlacing stories, but they manage to get pared down significantly. The story mostly starts just after World War II as a soldier (Bill Skarsgard, yep, one of Stellan Skarsgard’s hundreds of talented children) returns to his pokey Ohio town, but not before he meets the love of his life (Hayley Bennett) in a diner during the return journey. He sees her beauty and kindness to a disabled homeless chap, and is convinced his life can go no other way.

He carries with him not only the experiences of the war, but the specific experience of having seen a man crucified and skinned alive. The Christian cross has taken on a much darker significance for him. Plus, his character’s name is Willard, and nothing good ever comes of people being called that.

Rating:

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