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9 stars

Hamilton

Hamilton

He's pointing at where the price of the tickets for this
show are going to go, post-pandemic, if it ever goddamn
goes away

dir: Thomas Kail

2020

This is what we’re reduced to, in lockdown. Watching anything. Watching a recording of a play. Honest to god, a musical play.

Life has contracted thus. I’m making it sound like I was forced at gunpoint to watch this 2 hour and 40 minutes musical, but truth is no-one forced me to watch it. I was always Hamilton-curious, considering how there was a time a few years ago where every single American program or podcast you listened to that had nothing to do with the actual musical would be raving about it and Lin-Manuel Miranda endlessly, much to the mystification of people outside of that bubble.

And a couple of weeks ago I was watching the 7.30 Report, where musical tragic Leigh Sales interviewed the man Lin-Manuel himself about the upcoming release of this here thingie on Disney+, where neither Leigh nor a special guest kid video hook-in superfan could hide their joy when they heard this was being released 4th July, both fangirling out in the most absurdly joyous ways. Lin-Manuel must be used to people going gaga when they speak to him, so he took it with charm and grace.

So. A lot of us knew this was coming, and weren’t exactly sure why we should care. The majesty, the wonderfulness, the overarching importance of the Founding Fathers, as they are called, of those United States don’t really matter to anyone outside of the States. As one of the Founders that was lesser known, at least less than men like Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, it become incumbent upon Lin-Manuel to correct this gap in everyone’s knowledge.

To an Aussie audience, well, we’d be forgiven for not giving much of a damn about any of this. Musicals, too, I would argue, aren’t as much in the DNA of Aussies as they are in the American genome. Sure, we don’t mind a movie with a few lipsynched disco era or ABBA-adjacent songs, but we’re not that huge on the whole palaver. We don’t have multiple stage musicals about the founding of our great nation, because, let’s be honest, it’s not going to be a pretty story. But even worse, and even more humiliating is that, unlike the proud and feisty Americans, we never managed to cast off the colonial yoke of the Empire. We are, and our indigenous brothers and sisters, still under it.

Americans can forge a prouder path forward, ignoring all that pesky genocide and slavery, looking past all the unsavoury bits, in order to be able to construct something they can all mostly be proud of. The hardscrabble life of a young, scrappy and hungry man, just like the nation itself, who goes on to help fight off the British and forge a union of states like no other in human history. He inspires others to do their darndest to create a better form of government than most others were ever capable of, with an eye to the political and legal structures of the past, but with ideas about completely new ways of running things that would form what is often referred to as the American Experiment.

This kind of shit, let’s be honest, does not sound very interesting or entertaining. Anyone who’s heard any of the songs from the musical, though, or the various lines now quoted as scripture by those in the know, whether they’re mocking or saying them seriously, knows that where the joy is, is not in what the musical is about, but how it’s about it.

Rating:

Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Portrait de la jeune fille en feu

She burns, as one aflame laid bare by desire

(Portrait de la jeune fille en feu)

dir: Céline Sciamma

2019

What a beautiful film. It seems quite simple, really, but it is incredibly intricate and deceptively well done. It’s a lush, romantic story like a few I’ve seen before, but told in such a gentle, aching manner.

I won’t pretend to know anything about the era represented, or painting, or anything about French culture (it’s in French, with whatever subtitles you could possibly choose), but the fundamental elements are relatable to anyone not living on an island off the coast of Brittany. There’s class division, there’s fear of loss of self, the fear that one will never have any freedom to live and breath, the strictures and structures imposed upon women throughout the ages, the ways that society controls women in ways that are never of benefit to women themselves, and the ways in which when they band together, women can be indomitable.

There are very few men in this flick. We see a couple at the beginning, as they row Marianne (Noémie Merlant) to an isolated island, but they don’t play a large part in the proceedings. In trying to get to the island, a crate falls overboard, and Marianne has to jump in to save it, which she does, miraculously without drowning, considering the bulky dress she wears.

This is not the beginning of the film. There’s an opening scene where Marianne, presumably much older, issues instructions to young women drawing in her class. Behind their heads she spies a painting, unexpectedly, and the cool with which she was advising the class dissipates. When asked the title of this forbidden painting, she haltingly delivers the title of the film. You don’t get that every day. Even The Rock doesn’t usually utter the title of the flick in the opening moments of the film’s he’s in: “Looks Like Hobbs & Shaw are going to be kicking ass again!”

But I pointlessly digress. The opening tells us that the painting has some painful significance to the teacher, as she recalls the subject of the painting. That’s why it jumps to the past (Marianne, to be fair, looks no different, but we are to assume she is much younger) where Marianne is commissioned to paint a portrait of a young lady. The purpose of the portrait is for the painting to be sent to a nobleman in Milan who, if he likes what he sees, will wed the young lady.

By “wed” we might as well inscribe “purchase” upon the bill of sale. The large manor has a housekeeper, the young Sophie (Luàna Bajrami), who is quiet, but knows and sees all. She tells the painter, warily at first, what tensions there are in the house. The young lady in question, Hélöise (Adèle Haenel) had an older sister, who was the first choice of the Milanese gentleman, but the prospect of an arranged marriage compelled her to throw herself off of one of the conveniently located cliffs.

Rating:

Marriage Story

Marriage Story

They don't really like each other. None of them. Especially the kid

dir: Noah Baumbach

2019

I know. I KNOW. You don’t have to tell me how insufferable some of Noah Baumbach’s work is, or his ability to get actors to play the most insufferable versions of themselves imaginable. I sat through Greenberg, which starred someone who looked a lot like Ben Stiller, but couldn’t have been, because surely that actor was murdered, and Ben Stiller has been in stacks of films since then. But I don’t blame Ben Stiller’s doppelganger, you have to aim your praise / blame at Noah Baumbach for that.

For all the archness of much of the dialogue in his flicks, or the preciousness, there are times when it all clicks together. This is, at least for me, one of those times when the parts, pieces and performances cohere so well. It will stagger no one to find out that Marriage Story is really all about the seemingly amicable divorce between two people who don’t hate each other yet. They have a kid between them, so they are doing their best to be there for him and to act like it’s not all his fault (it totally is). And while it’s far more relevant to look at Baumbach trying to gently tell a story as common as any other experience in the States (apart from owning a gun and wanting to get the coronavirus, nothing seems more American than having at least one divorce under your belt), it’s personal for a lot of these people.

I’m also pretty sure he’s filtering the story through a 70s filmic lens, since there’s a lot that brings to mind Kramer versus Kramer and maybe Irreconcilable Differences, and a fair few others. On the other hand, it’s unfair to say he’s just referencing those kinds of films when virtually everyone involved in this production knows about divorce.

Noah Baumbach’s first movie The Squid and the Whale was all about the impact that divorce had on a bunch of pretentious and precocious kids, which itself was based on Baumbach’s life growing up. But more recently of course there’s the fact that he was married to Jennifer Jason Lee for crying out loud, and they got divorced. Scarlett Johansson’s on her third marriage I think, and Adam Driver’s parents got divorced. We could almost call it a universal experience.

Even those of us lucky enough to have avoided the formal and legal experience of divorce have experienced relationships falling apart, which is an actual universal human experience because how else would we truly know we are alive until we just fucking want to die from heartbreak?

That’s when we’ve TRULY lived, eh?

On the surface this is meant to be an amicable divorce. In fact, when the film starts, deceptively, we are hearing Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and Charlie (Adam Driver) testify as to each other’s best qualities.

The rug is firmly pulled out from under our feet when it’s revealed that it’s a trick: these statements are being read in front of a marriage counselor who Nicole does not take kindly to. Clearly, for a multitude of reasons we aren’t privy to as yet, this relationship is not for saving.

Rating:

Knives Out

Knives Out

Look at these rich arseholes. Who doesn't deserve to be stabbed?

dir: Rian Johnson

2019

Rian Johnson, as a writer and director, and probably in playing competitive boardgames and in the bedroom, is too clever for his own good. I acknowledge that it’s a meaningless phrase. I probably just mean he’s a smartarse.

Sometimes he pulls it off, sometimes it just doesn’t land, but often he’s a really keen director.

Kinda like an American version of Edgar Wright; another talented director whose love of film and love of being a clever fuck sometimes trips him up with his own ambitions.

Knives Out is a film that is plenty entertaining, so he probably got the balance right this time. Murder mysteries usually aren’t my thing, because there’s just so many shows and movies about people annihilating each other, but I’m here for clever stuff and decent performances.

This flick has like a dozen hams mostly restrained in the best of ways, in the service of a plot that is not so much a whodunit so much as a “what the hell happened and why, and how nasty is the central family, right?”

You’d also be surprised, considering how many well known faces are in this, as to who the main character is. You might think it’s the detective, Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), only because his craggy face is recognisable as the current incarnation of James Bond, or Chris Evans because Captain America. Or that it’s the elderly Captain Von Trapp (Christopher Plummer), just because he’s ancient and was there at the start of cinema cranking the … thing that made the first projector go and lighting the candle that shone through the first time they played a movie of a train to an audience and they all ran around screaming thinking it was real.

That was him. Check yer facts. He was there. But he’s not the main character . Or Jaime Lee Curtis or Don Johnson or perennial oddball Michael Shannon or Australia’s Own Toni Colette or Australia’s Other Own Katherine Langford (star of Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Kill Yourself Or Leave All These Tapes to Torture People With) or Lakeith Stanfield, star of Sorry to Trouble You, Atlanta and just generally being really weird.

No, it’s none of them. It’s actually one of the people on staff at the Thrombey Mansion, being Marta (Ana de Armas), a nurse to the elderly patriarch Harlan (Plummer). Harlan is a crime writer of much success, with a large family of hangers on and parasites (though not of the South Korean kind). He’s smart, very successful, and now he’s dead.

Rating:

A Quiet Place

A Quiet Place

You're trying to have a soothing bath and have a baby
at the same time, and some lousy bastard tries to kill you,
it's so not fair

dir: John Krasinski

2018

I kinda avoided seeing this at the time, and I regret it now, because it’s one of the better horror flicks I’ve seen in recent memory. And its sequel, which was about to be released now before the Coronapocalypse happened, might never see the light of day in a cinema, so there’s that, I guess.

I’m not sure that it’s the novelty of the premise, because it’s not that novel, or the complexity of the scenario, but whatever it is, the elements cohere and make this quite a terrifying / exhausting experience.

The enemy in this premise is some kind of monstrous creature. Don’t know where it came from, and it doesn’t really matter. These creatures are big, insect-like, covered in armour plating and they are blind. They are blind but they have exquisitely powerful hearing. So whatever happened in the initial stages of this invasion, the survivors know not to make noise by now.

Kids. It’s hard to convince small children about how serious a serious situation is. Very young boys in particular. One could almost say they’re pretty dumb, but that’s unfair. After the disaster strikes, and we start following one group of survivors, who happen to be a family, we see a boy wanting more than anything else, a space shuttle toy with flashing lights and whizz bang sounds. Despite understanding that Noise Equals Death in their brave new world, the boy don’t care, he wants his toy.

The family absolutely freak out, stop him from doing the inevitable, then take the batteries out of the toy, and admonish him not to get all of them killed.

Still, what’s a little idiot going to do other than the most obvious thing possible?

In a moment that emphasises to us that despite the fact that most of our protagonists are kids in a family, that no-one is safe, anyone can die, and the creatures hate everyone equally. It’s a gutting introduction into what this family (and we the viewers) are going to endure for the next hour and a half.

It makes for a very tense premise. They’re all not just tense when the creatures are around – they are constantly on guard, always trying to make the least amount of sound possible. The family recovers from what happened, but what happened reverberates throughout the family and within each character. They all feel a measure of guilt, or like they should have done something different in order to save their youngest.

Rating:

Captain Marvel

Captain Marvel

There is something about this image that makes it one of the
greatest images ever taken, but I'm not entirely sure what it is...

dir: Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck

2019

It was always going to be this great. I don’t know how I knew it, but there was always going to be something glorious about bringing this character to the big screen. She might not be as well-known as many other prominent female superheroes that all seem to be coming to the fore these days, now that Marvel and DC feel like the human cinema-going population of the world is suitably obedient and docile such that female or African-American leads aren’t seen as too much of a financial risk at the box office, but she’s definitely the one that gives the least fucks (being exactly zero, by film’s end), and that’s got to count for something.

Wonder Woman, for all her virtues as a character and as great as the film was, is still a problematic character, to some extent. The truly visionary and strange William Moulton Marston who, along with his wife Elizabeth and their girlfriend (!) Olive created Wonder Woman, very much wanted a character that was immensely strong, immensely powerful, but also an object of masturbatory bondage fetishism at the same time. It’s sort of like the idea that's plagued a lot of movies over the last 100 years that, whether a woman in a role is ‘empowered’ or completely downtrodden, the important thing is whether women wish they looked like her and men jerked off at the Betty Page-like cheesecake imagery.

Well, we’ve come too far for that bullshit now. None of Captain Marvel’s story arc, or representation, or purpose in this film has anything to do with achieving any of her desires while simultaneously conforming to the needs of her passive but needy hierarchy. She doesn’t have anything to prove to us. She is powerful, and she just has to accept it, and do what she needs to do without being hobbled and hampered by the controlling shitbirds in her life.

Like most women. I’m sure many of them can relate, I think, or at least close to 4 billion of them, considering how much this has earned thus far.

In that, this is something unique in terms of these here Marvel flicks, in that while it ties in effectively with the overall superstructure (leading, inevitably, into the position of being an explanation as to how and why she is going to turn up in Avengers: Endgame even though she’s not been mentioned in all of the other 2,021 Marvel movies). I care not about any of that. I love, utterly love Black Panther, and could not care less what eventually comes down the Disney pipe because I really, really enjoyed that film. Captain Marvel, I can honestly say, I loved (despite the 90s setting) regardless of what role she plays in Endgame, because it’s plenty good enough on its own.

Rating:

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

So many spiders, not enough giant boots hurtling down on them

dirs: Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman, Phil Lord & Christopher Miller

2018

Arguing about which of the Spider-Man movies are the ‘best’ is pointless, fruitless, demeaning, creepy and needlessly nerdy. After all, everyone knows Spider-Man 2 was the okayest, if not the best.

So it’s a settled argument. Phew. Now we can go back to arguing whether Nazis are really Nazis anymore or whether people need that much oxygen to breathe and whether Australia Day should be celebrated on April Fool’s Day or not.

And after that’s settled, maybe we get back to the new, real argument, which is: Which is the second-best Spider-Man flick?

Well, that argument has now also been settled with the release of this hilarious and utterly transcendent animated Spider-Man movie that artfully combines so many elements from the long and storied Spider-Man backstory, while also looking forward in gleeful and energetic ways.

Yes, okay, everything is superheroes these days and I’ve pretty much given up arguing against it, so now we’re just looking at the nuances and the ebbs and flows within the broader genre to see where the latest entries stack up. That’s all you can do. Twenty years ago the movies were mostly drama, a lot of action, some comedies and the occasional animated movie. Now it’s 90% superheroes, 5% shit blowing up, 4% people screaming at each other in place of drama and 1% whatever the hell is streaming on Netflix, mostly weak stand-up comedy. And most of that is older comics blaming the world for why we don't think they’re that funny anymore.

There’s something undeniably exuberant about this flick, something which this hero and his extended family is best known for, despite the dark turns the story might take. Visually it’s sublime and nuts, and it’s all in service of the story, insane as the story might be. But whoever Spider-Man is, the hero is always more like an actual person outside of the suit, brilliant but working class, highly functioning but ground down by life.

Miles Morales is a young teenager who really isn’t struggling with that much other than feelings of insecurity and imposter syndrome at the elitist school his hardworking parents have squirreled him into. There he is, existing quietly in his own universe, minding his own business, when he gets bitten by a genetically-engineered radioactive magic spider, don't you know.

Rating:

The Handmaiden

The Handmaiden

That's such...an accurate interpretation of how trapped the female
protagonists are. My compliments to the poster designer. Very creepy

(아가씨 Ah-ga-ssi)

dir: Park Chan-wook

2017

Goodness gracious me what nasty heroic stuff is delivered to my disbelieving eyeballs by this amazing film.

I shouldn’t really be surprised, should I? This South Korean director has been making stunning, lurid, incredibly violent films for decades, all of which I think I’ve seen, from Joint Security Area to the Vengeance trilogy to his American forays into creepy family dynamics (the little seen Stoker) and end of the world – late stage capitalism allegories (Snowpiercer).

The Handmaiden is no less perplexing / shocking / surprising, even if it technically qualifies as a period piece, and a very weird period piece at that. Lifted from the pages of a novel set in Victorian times (Fingersmith by Sarah Waters), the plot is very similar, but the outcome is vastly different. The setting in this flick is probably a bit hard to wrap one’s head around if you’re not Korean or don’t know much about World War II, but it’s not like it matters that much. It’s set during the occupation of Korea by the Japanese, which means these Korean characters are acting awfully Japanese a lot of the time.

It being a time of war, naturally the people that get by the ‘best’ are the grifters, the con artists, the black marketeers, thieves and forgers. Among them rises a jerk who styles himself a Count no less (Ha Jung-woo), with plans to make off with a rich Japanese woman’s fortune. To help him out he convinces another con artist, Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri), to pretend to be a maid, and to wheedle her way into the heiress’s house and heart. Then, once the jerk marries Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee), it’s off to the insane asylum with her, while he absconds with all the money.

The icy Lady Hideko lives with her uncle, who, this might come as something of a complete shock, is a terrible, terrible person. Just how terrible a person he is unfolds over the course of the movie, but at the very least we get the clear impression that he has creepy designs on his niece, not the least of which is the threat that he intends to marry her at some point.

Sook-hee, despite being a player herself, whose plan it is to get a percentage of that inheritance money, plays the naif fairly well in the domain of her aristocratic betters. She’s all wide-eyed and perplexed by all the mysteries of the stately manor and the enigmatically cool Hideko, but we’re not meant to forget that she’s planning a fate worse than death for the lady.

Rating:

Black Panther

Black Panther

I like that Martin goddamn Freeman is one of the token
white guys in this. Represent!

dir: Ryan Coogler

2018

That was incredible.

The Marvel movies have been a long and torturous rollercoaster ride for so long, but finally it’s delivered a strong film that could work almost perfectly fine outside of the Marvel milieu. I almost wish it didn’t have to dovetail into the broader franchise, because it’s something so special on its own.

Another thing – I will not miss Stan Lee’s cameos when he inevitably dies soon. I mean he’s in his 90s already, and that hairpiece seems like it’s starting to take over his entire head, and I don’t wish anyone ill, least of all a carnival barker of his longevity and shamelessness, but, honestly, come on.

There’s something so enjoyable about the creation of Wakanda. It’s not unique or original in the field of science fiction or comic books, but the very idea of a place hidden in plain sight in the middle of Africa that escapes the historical deprivations of slaughter, slavery and resource theft (and their contemporary repercussions) is appealing for a whole number of reasons. The absolute *greatest* thing about it is what they *don’t* do with it.

I am absolutely positive that there would have been some Marvel exec trying to argue that the “best” way to tell this story would “well, actually” be from the perspective of a white guy who stumbles across this technological Shangri-La – Xanadu – Brigadoon – or whatever the hell the magical Kathmandu place was called in Doctor Strange. Then the guy, treated with suspicion at first by the locals, eventually saves them and is treated like a god.

We’ve seen it many times before. Thank Christ – Loki – Satan that they didn’t go down this path. No, Wakanda is the point of the whole movie, both its isolation and the role it could potentially play in the world (like, the whole fictional Marvel world), for good or ill.

With no disrespect at all to Chadwick Boseman, who’s great here just as he was in Captain America: Civil War, it’s almost like this flick called Black Panther doesn’t really need the Black Panther in it that much. There is so much going on, and so many other interesting characters, that the Black Panther itself only becomes a symbol of what Wakanda should do with its place in the world.

Rating:

Arrival

Arrival

With hope and patience and open hearts, no matter the colour of blood they
might pump, perhaps we can figure this puzzle of our existence out.

dir: Denis Villeneuve

2016

There aren’t many science fiction films that leave me crying or thoughtful as I sit blubbing through the credits. The reason is this – most science fiction flicks aren’t really science fiction flicks. They’re action flicks with science fiction set dressing and costuming.

Arrival is definitely not an action flick masquerading as a science fiction flick. It is certainly about a first contact scenario with what we would call actual alien aliens, who appear on Earth without even the courtesy of an advance email or nothin’.

They just appear, and they don’t even seem to want anything. They don’t want our resources, or our women, or anything. They just sit there, in their ships, waiting.

This is enough to make the leaders of several countries think “We should be blowing the ever-living fuck out of them, because their very presence makes us uncomfortable”.

It’s frustrating to see, but when I look at the world we currently live in, it doesn’t seem that far fetched. When some ‘just listening to right-wing extremists on the internet’ Marines think, for no sensible reason “well, let’s just blow them up!”, it seems discordant, and arbitrary, but again, I look at Trump’s America, and I don’t think the naughty soldiers would have even been able to wait as long as they did.

Rating:

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