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8 stars

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:

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 an 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:

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