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2019

Color Out of Space

Color Out of Space

Nice reality you have there. Be a shame if something bad
happened to it.

dir: Richard Stanley

2019

Color Out of Space is a title that probably doesn’t make a lot of sense. It doesn’t matter. The film itself is flat out fucking bonkers, so it’s perfectly appropriate to the title.

It’s based on a HP Lovecraft short story, with the fuller title of The Colour Out of Space, which is just as meaningless, but the importance of it is that whatever it is that is about to happen is otherworldly. As in, people will see things they should not see, which will leave them forever changed.

A witchy girl (Madeleine Arthur) conducts some kind of ceremony near a lake, and she is interrupted by a surveying hydrologist called Ward (Eliot Knight) who is, surveying something, presumably, other than the witchy girl and her witchy ways. He seems to be pretty familiar with magic ceremonies, and he wears a college t-shirt from, I’m guessing, the Miskatonic University, a common element in Lovecraft’s stuff, and plenty of other horror / fantasy stuff that’s been ripping off Lovecraft for nearly a century. He’s not really a protagonist in all of this, though he is a witness to it: cosmic weirdness is the main character. A family, one to which the witch belongs are the scenery upon which the colour, presumably from out of space, will wreak havoc.

I have pretty much avoided anything with Nicolas Cage in it for many years. As far as I know the last good performance he put in was in Adaptation. Since then I think he lost a lot of his money when some accountant / financial manager / astrologer ripped him off, so instead of being okay in a few good movies every now and then, he went to making as many terrible or pointless movies as possible in order to get some wealthiness back into his life. Again, it’s just what I heard.

Cage gives as awful a performance as we now expect from him, but it’s not inappropriate to the material. If anything, it makes what happens in the movie almost easier to handle. In a different kind of adaptation of this kind of story, we’d be introduced to a family that we came to care about, then they would be put under threat, and we would hope that they somehow find a way to survive.

This is not that kind of story. We are introduced to the family, their dog Sam and their alpacas, then a succession of terrible things happen to them, and then it ends, ominously implying that it will happen again to someone else. That kind of horror flick is usually hard to take.

I didn’t find it hard to take here. What happens to this family after a meteorite slams into the earth outside their house can be taken literally, can be taken figuratively, can be looked at as a commentary on environmental degradation, or people’s anxiety about clean water supply.

Rating:

The Farewell

The Farewell

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

dir: Lulu Wang

2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating:

How to Build a Girl

How to Build a Girl

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

dir: Coky Giedroyc

2019

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

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

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

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

Rating:

Harriet

Harriet

Coming to free the downtrodden in a town near you

dir: Kasi Lemmons

2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating:

Lucky Grandma

Lucky Grandma

She deserves every penny, you ageist bastards

dir: Sasie Sealy

2020

This movie, Lucky Grandma, is a pretty strange movie, in some very minor ways. It is strange in its relative simplicity. It might have a fair bit going on under the surface, or behind the actions of the main character, but it’s all played relatively straight. It’s mostly a very quiet film, which, with everything that’s going on at the moment, actually came as a bit of a relief while I was watching it.

The modesty of the movie’s ambitions don’t detract from its enjoyment, but neither does it make the experience an overly compelling one. It’s a hard movie to recommend, but not because it does anything wrong, or doesn’t succeed at what it tries to do.

The Grandma of the title, (Tsai Chin) is recently widowed. She is a Chinese woman living in New York’s Chinatown, which is a city within a city. She is almost exclusively referred to as Grandma, or Nai Nai, even by people who aren’t related to her. She is a tough old bird, who chainsmokes endlessly (though I have to admit, I found it amusing and worrying that they got her to smoke, when the actress clearly either doesn’t smoke now or have never been a smoker). I don’t know if the character is meant to be in her 80s, but the legendary actress playing Nai Nai certainly is, being 86.

Being an old Chinese woman, and not a wealthy one, she wastes time and money consulting a fortune teller / clairvoyant / luck consultant, who consults the I Ching, who draws out pieces of calligraphy paper and generally assures Nai Nai that her luck will soon turn around, and the 28th of October will be an especially lucky day for her.

I don’t want to appear racially insensitive, or insulting towards anyone’s culture or traditions, but I have a sneaking suspicion that Chinese forms of fortune telling are about as worthy or accurate as any of the other forms of fortune telling available around the world: ie. they’re all total bullshit. We’re not meant to think that there’s any reason why Nai Nai should be any luckier than anyone else on that auspicious day.

She believes it, though, and takes out of the bank the very little money she has left since her husband died. There’s a bus tour from their community to some casino 3 hours away, and she presses her luck there, convinced the universe owes her one.

Part of the delusion is believing that the number 8 is her talisman, so all her bets on all the games are on eight. And the wins start piling up, the money multiplies, and she seems vindicated. See her expression of contempt for the other players who view her behavior with incredulity and concern.

She blows smoke at their worries, mocks their judge-y expressions.

Rating:

Ready or Not

Ready or Not

Pretty great poster independent of the film, also misleading.
She doesn't hunt elephants, she's hunting rich bastards.

dirs.: Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillet

2019

Ready or Not isn’t deep, or profound, it’s not particularly scary or horrific or dramatically credible or in any way sensible. It’s a grotesque and macabre comedy masquerading as horror, with a sliver of class warfare at play, and it was exactly what I needed to see on a slow, cold, Thursday night.

Thursday nights are when I allow myself to have a modicum of medicinal alcohol, but not too much, because there’s work the next day, after five days of abstaining. No, please, hold your applause, I’m a humble wretch just like the rest of you, please, cease plans for the parade in my honour. My point is that on these particular Thursday nights, I’ll invariable enjoy a tipple, and invariably watch a somewhat trashy movie but be far more forgiving than, let’s say, a Sunday night. Sunday nights are for punishing Eastern European epics that make you wish the Black Plague had wiped out all life centuries ago, mostly because you have to work the next day, partly because you might be hungover from Saturday’s wretched excesses.

No, last night was the perfect time to watch this. A brave young woman (Samara Weaving) with very distinctive eyebrows is about to marry into a mega wealthy family. Not just comfortable, or rich, more like Queen of Versailles-levels of excess and Olympian remove from the concerns of general humanity. She has no idea what she’s getting in to. And nor should we, even as the film opens with a bunch of people in masks killing a guy in front of some kids.

Thirty years later is this massive wedding / undertaking, and the ominous promise that there is a game that is to be played at midnight. This is very unrealistic, unless extremely rich people are genuinely as different from the rest of humanity as they are depicted here. No-one except the staff are sober at midnight after a wedding, and usually the bride and groom have other matters to discuss in the sanctity of their marital boudoir.

This family, the Le Domases, have a central origin story to their wealth. Like Balzac said, behind every great fortune is a crime, but in this family’s case, there is a belief, or a pact, if you will, with some weird guy called Le Bail, in that the family occasionally has to sacrifice people in order to stay alive and mega-wealthy.

Sure, it seems absurd written down like that, but when you hear billionaires in our present reality urging people back to work in coronavirus times in order to safeguard their profits, and to hell with the lives of the impoverished scum, you realise “well, it’s not really that different from how capitalism works anyway.”

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 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:

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