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9 stars

Sound of Metal

Sound of Metal

The Sound of Awesomeness, if you have ears to hear it

dir: Darius Marder

2020

This was a great film that I’d heard a lot about last year, but only just got to see. It’s on Amazon Prime, available for streaming, and I’m not going to pretend that I have a subscription to that as well as the other 4 thousand streaming services. I’m not made of bitcoin.

It’s even, and I’m not making this up, playing in Melbourne cinemas such as Nova in Carlton, the Lido in Hawthorn or the Westgarth in…I forget what that suburb is called. I don’t know who’s going to cinemas right now, but whoever they are, I salute you, you crazy bastards, as long as you’re not maskless anti-vaxxer morons, in which case fuck you and your dumb selfishness.

Ordinarily, in any given year where Daniel Day Lewis hasn’t made a movie, and Christian Bale or Mathew McConaghey haven’t starved themselves down to skeletons for a role, it would be hard to pick who gave the performance of the year. This isn’t necessarily the best movie I’ve seen in the last year (though it’s pretty close), but I reckon Riz Ahmed’s performance here as the main character Ruben is the best male performance I recall in 2020. And that’s saying something, because there were a lot of great performances last year, in films probably made before people realised what was going to happen to the world, or especially to the States, which has lost nearly half a million people to the virus thus far. When I look at all the films I saw in 2020, what most of them have in common is great performances mostly by women. For whatever reason 2020 was not the year of watching men do manly things.

No, Riz is the man for this performance. Give him the Oscar already, not that there’s going to be a ceremony this year (gods, I hope not, but who knows). Just send it to him in the mail, he can record a short message on Zoom thanking the Academy, and that will be it.

He plays Ruben, the drummer in a hardcore band, him and his girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke). The less said about the name of the band, being Blackgammon, the better. They are pretty noisy, and Ruben hits the skins pretty fucking hard. Based on the night we see, and the next morning, Ruben and Lou have a pretty tight schedule. They travel around a lot from gig to gig, always working, always trying to keep busy. Non-stop touring, something which they seem to have been doing for four years.

However. Ruben is starting to find it hard to hear anything. It first happens during a gig, but it keeps happening afterwards as well. He is scared and confused. Lou’s pretty confused as well.

This all starts happening fairly soon into the movie, so I don’t think it’s really that much of a spoiler to tell you, dear reader, that Ruben is losing his hearing, and it seems like it could be permanent.

Rating:

Promising Young Woman

Promising Young Woman

Hello, operator? I'd like to report a feminism.

dir: Emerald Fennell

2020

A young woman, very drunk, in a bar. Three work colleague jerks notice, the way pack predatory animals notice anyone falling behind from the herd. They see vulnerability, and opportunity. They don’t know her at all.

One steps forward, so gentlemanly. He offers to get her home. Then he suggests his place is just around the corner. Then he pours her a big fuming drink, and tries to rape her, essentially. He keeps telling her how pretty she is, how special.

What he doesn’t know, until she asks with a clear, steady voice “What do you think you’re doing?”, is that she’s not drunk at all.

This seems, especially since we see her walking away the next morning seemingly dripping with blood, to be a feminist revenge thriller about a woman fighting against the bullshit patriarchal system, and the opportunism of men, but it’s really about a woman fighting against the tide. The tide is grief, a vast ocean of it, brought about by the loss of her friend in college, being Nina.

The tide, which you can fight against all you want, but never stops coming in, is also the implacability of men’s selfishness, and the systems in place that defend their selfishness, protecting them from the consequences of their own actions, and punishing the women who seek justice.

Cassie (Carey Mulligan) knows all of that, but still needs to do something about it anyway. Since dropping out of medical school, she seems to have been frozen in place, like the décor in her parents’ house where she still lives, unable to move what the people around her think is “forwards”. They adjudge that what Cassie should want is marriage, a career, the 2.4 kids and an SUV. Let’s just say that doesn’t interest her. She desires societal change on two levels: on the broadest level she seeks to challenge and threaten the men who think they’re the “good” ones who nevertheless try to rape someone just because they’re drunk, and on the specific level, she needs to harm the people who hurt and let down Nina.

Cassie shows a level of disassociation, of emotional detachment staggering in anyone who’s not a contract killer or a CEO. She follows her path, does what she does, wreaks havoc (very correctly, in my opinion) on people who very much deserve it, but doesn’t seem to get much out of it beyond mild amusement. Also, and this works perhaps to show her as not being completely insane, the ‘revenge’ she mostly gets on people tends to seem far worse initially than it actually ends up being.

Rating:

Soul

Soul

Joe, you are rhythm, you are music, you are soul

dir: Peter Docter

2020

You don’t know how much of a relief this was. A good Pixar movie. Again. It’s been a while.

I did not love Onward, I guess because I’m not American, and the sight of grown people being obsessed with playing catch as the be and end all of parenting and fatherhood has never resonated with me the way I guess it resonates with Americans. And it was a very elaborate and colourful way to spend millions in the service of a story so simplistic and mundane that it should have been half an hour long, and delivered by a generic episode of Everybody Loves Raymond, or Two and a Half Men or something suitably banal. And in truth Soul is probably the Pixar flicked I’ve liked the most since Inside Out, which still holds up, but which was six long and lonely years ago.

At first it seemed surprising that anyone would devote Pixar / Disney levels of resources to telling a story with a middle-aged African American protagonist, this being the world we live in, but then I guess you remember that Pixar previously had an 80-year-old pensioner as the protagonist of Up. So they can basically do whatever the fuck they want. When work on this started as well, it would have been long before the coronavirus changed everything, but it is more than likely that it was finished with people working remotely or distanced at least, which I guess is less of a problem for an animated movie than one where crews and casts have to cluster together in a studio or on a set. And doubtless Disney never would have wanted to release this only on their streaming service, though I’m sure it’s playing in a bunch of cinemas where brave souls don’t fear the virus.

I wasn’t going to see this in a cinema. No way, no day. Too risky until enough of us have the vaccine in our sweaty, desperate clutches, and lord Satan knows when that will be. But I am happy to watch it streamed through that most diabolical of streaming services, being Disney +.

So even if Disney loses a bundle on this, I think Soul is a triumph, because it’s a very enjoyable and entertaining movie, its story isn’t completely familiar and overdone, even if there are elements recognisable from other Pixar flicks, but it’s also in the service of a pretty good message about Life, you know, that thing many of us take for granted because the reality of our daily existence can vary from excruciating to staggeringly mundane even when the plague apocalypse isn’t happening around us.

Rating:

Kajillionaire

Kajillionaire

I love when posters say nothing about a movie, but then
this movie is indescribable

dir: Miranda July

2020

I don’t get to feel surprise very often, but I’m glad to say that while rare it’s not impossible.

I liked Miranda July’s first film, being Me and You and Everyone We Know, didn’t at all like her 2nd film The Future, and remember little else other than one of the main characters fucking a couch, but this, her third flick, delighted me. Delighted me. No shit.

It's kind of hard to actually pinpoint why I found it so enjoyable, and why I had a goofy grin on my face for much of the film’s duration. There’s nothing in the description, or in any plot summary you might read, that would point to why either. But I did. You’re just going to have to come to terms with that.

Three low level grifters, two parents and their adult kid, grift, scam and skim their way around the less memorable parts of Los Angeles. They are certainly odd bods. The parents (Debra Winger and Richard Jenkins) have a certain paranoid energy, and the third member of their trio has her own goofy trajectory.

The first thing we see them do is conduct surveillance on a location, before the gawky daughter does some weird semi-acrobatic movements, before going into a post office, and opening a post office box with a key. She puts her arm through, and then tries to find anything, anything she can grasp, in the other PO boxes adjacent.

It’s the slimmest of slim pickings. Whatever she gets is split three ways between them, as is their wont in all their schemes, we are told later on. They only travel by bus, and when they return to the place where they live, they have to hide, or contort themselves to avoid being seen by the landlord, to whom they of course owe a lot of money.

The landlord runs a business called Bubbles Inc, where they presumably manufacture bubbles. These bubbles overflow over one of the walls into the dilapidated office that the three grifters call home. As a condition of their occupancy, they have to catch the bubbles that overflow the wall with buckets, and then wipe the wall down. To stop it from getting mouldy.

Despite their best contortionist efforts, the landlord sees them, and starts crying as he berates them for the outstanding rent. He is a man with no emotional filters, but that doesn’t predispose him towards letting them live in a toxic environment he leases out rent free. Oh no, that wouldn’t be right. They owe $1500, and need to deliver by Friday or they’re out.

They don’t seem too stressed about it, though. Their view of life, though their own lives seem to be dominated with the petty obsessions it seems to require, aspires to be a rejection of consumerism. A kajillionaire is someone out there, anyone, who aspires to have a job and possessions, and who does a different grift for a living, being the rat race the rest of us normals presumably adhere to.

Rating:

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:

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