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2019

Queen & Slim

Queen and Slim

Two films he's been in, both times outshone by Amazons, and
he's okay with that. I like that a lot.

dir: Melina Matsoukas

2019

Queen & Slim aims high. How do you encompass all of America’s issues with race, crime, justice, relationships in the Tinder age and parental difficulties in a two-hour film?

Well, you select two very attractive people and you make them the face of contemporary African-American Man and African-American Woman, then you put them through the ringer, and see if sexy results ensue.

Except…I dunno, I find it weird that neither of the leads is actually American. Both Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith as the Queen and Slim of the title, grew up in Britain, with Ugandan parent’s in Daniel’s case and Jamaican in Jodie’s case. It kind of implies no-one else in America could have filled the roles, and I can think of at least four, maybe five people.

I guess it’s not really that relevant a point. Having grown up in Britain, on a council estate, there’s no doubt Daniel knows a lot about casual racism and the institutional variety, and Jodie has lived in LA for over a decade after doing uni in Pennsylvania, which is the most racist of the Northern states, as everyone knows (I’m just kidding even though I know it’s not funny in the slightest). Plus Daniel stared in Jordan Peel’s flick Get Out and in Black Panther as one of T’Challa’s friends from childhood, so I think he’s earned his place at the table.

Speaking of Black Panther, they couldn’t even resist making a Black Panther reference, though at least they didn’t say Wakanda Forever at any point. That would have broken the fragile tension keeping this contemporary story current and believable. There’s nothing funny about what’s they’re living through, though there is a bit of humour to leaven the dread.

A lot of the flick seems to be about the tensions surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement, since the precipitating event involves a police officer. It expands out broadly to encompass issues to do with the justice system’s inherent biases against African-Americans, but also tries to capitalise on the status of the protagonists as proud counterculture symbols, which is a bit problematic. They become symbols to others, which obscures that they are people, with hopes and aspirations, as opposed to hollow Bonnie & Clyde surrogates, which is less than human.

It’s also about the growing relationship between the protagonists, who are unnamed for the majority of the flick. And because most scenes between them involve just the two of them, and that they’re mostly on what in any other context would be considered a road trip, they are getting to know each other as we’re getting to know them as well.

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:

The Rise of Skywalker

The Rise of Skywalker

Let's take a few years off before making the exact same movie again,
Okay?

dir: J.J. Abrams

2019

Skywalkers rise and Skywalkers fall. All we know for sure is that, like the waves on any ocean, they’ll keep rising and falling as long as there’s money in it. And since this still made over a billion dollars for Disney, it’s pretty clear they’ll never stop the Skywalkers.

Where something will always happen very similar to before, doo doo doo de doo.

Even with all the rancour and acrimony out there in the fandom, still angry about female characters getting too much agency, screen-time and dialogue in these latest three films, they still went to the cinemas late last year and early this year in order to make this succeed, gazing angrily through their tears of hatewatching.

The Rise of Skywalker pretty much could have started off where Return of the Jedi ended, because it kinda makes it seem like the other films really weren’t that necessary. Right off the bat, they bring Palpatine back (Ian McDiarmid), who admits he’s been pulling the strings of the First Order after all these years, and that Snoke was a puppet (does anyone fondly remember and miss Snoke?) He tells the moody Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) that he’ll get all the candy he ever wanted as long as he kills Rey (Daisy Ridley).

Let’s not skip over the insanity of where Palpatine is: I could be all sorts of wrong about this because maybe the imagery was a bit confusing, but after flying through a storm cloud that’s on fire, Kylo Ren walks in this dark place that has like this evil Sith pyramid or something suspended above the ground by the power of, evil, I guess, and then there’s the even creepier than before Emperor, who promises him a bunch of stuff just like the evillest Santa imaginable.

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:

Hobbs & Shaw

Hobbs & Shaw

There may be a more boring movie poster out there, but I
haven't found it yet

dir: David Leitch

2019

This is a gloriously stupid movie, and yet somehow that didn’t decrease my enjoyment of it not one whit.

If there are net negatives it’s that there is a certain amount of laziness involved in all the dick squeezing competitiveness of the two leads, one of whom is built like the proverbial brick shithouse, and the other being built like a pre-verbal shit brickhouse, only on a different scale, and yet much of the flick is watching them slap their metaphorical machismo all over each other in order to feel like the bigger man.

And there’s never a winner in those kinds of contests, except for the viewer in theory(?)

There’s a market for that, I guess. A lot of people like seeing men do manly things to each other. I’m not sure that’s the market this flick is aiming for, but it probably doesn’t hurt either.

Throw into the mix the self-titled Black Superman Idris Elba as the villain, with the unlikely name of Brixton Lore, and you have a very unlikely story about some people with very unlikely names doing very unlikely things that rarely involves cars. And it’s…okay.

It’s okay if you’re watching a flick with a premise whereby a baddie of some kind wants to release some kind of virus onto the world that will kill much of humanity. That bit seems a bit too close to home at the moment, but let’s ignore the fact that humanity is currently struggling with a virus, and all the efforts of The Rock, Jason Statham and Stringer Bell ain’t going to do diddly squat to help us, we’re on our own.

The last film, which I think had the even dumber name of Fate of the Furious in order to be able to incorporate an eight into its title, completed the trajectory of these films that started off being about, I kid you not, illegal drag racing, into now being sharper, shinier James Bond flicks. And for this one, the producers thought “those other characters are shit, people only care about the other people with shiny heads that aren’t Vin Diesel”, so they got rid of the plethora of C-list nobodies (no-one misses you Tyrese), and pared it down to an almost manageable amount of scenery chewers and people who yell stuff for expository reasons.

Rating:

It Chapter 2

It Chapter Two

Two balloons means twice as great and attractive as one

dir: Andy Muschietti

2019

The thing is, it’s not good, and in fact is fucking bonkers in a bad way, in a lot of ways. But it’s the ending we had to have. Because honestly…

So many jokes are made at Stephen King’s expense regarding the endings of his books or stories in this flick. It happens so frequently, and so mundanely, that when the actual Stephen King turns up in a cameo as a pawnshop owner joking about the terrible endings of his books (through another character, who effectively becomes the King stand-in), you start to wonder what they’re buttering us up for.

Because take it from me, and maybe from Maria Schneider from Last Tango in Paris; nothing good comes from being buttered up.

How you feel about this last epic Chapter 2 depends a lot on how you feel about the epic Chapter 1 and the epic book that both come from. Also, no-one is scared of Pennywise anymore. That ship sailed a long time ago. Over-exposure has kind of upped our immunity. Where one might have dreaded seeing the crazed clown peering out from a drain or the dark recesses of our minds, it’s been overdone, and he barely even eats anyone anymore. I guess being gone for 27 years will do that to someone’s rep.

I think it’s been 27 years since the events of the first film in a little shitty town called Derry. Most of the members of the Losers club have moved away and grown up to be fairly disappointed adults, pretty much like most adults. Beverly (now played by Jessica Chastain) was fleeing sexual abuse as a kid, and as an adult is in an abusive relationship. Bill (James McAvoy) has become a best selling author whose books are made into films, and though successful, no-one likes the shitty ends of his books. Richie (Bill Hader) has channelled his nasty mouth and acerbic hot takes on everything and everyone into a career as a stand-up, but he’s still a mess. Ben (Jay Ryan), graduating from being the token fat guy of the group, is a buff architect that wouldn’t be out of place in a Chippendales line up. And then there’s Eddie and Stanley and Mike.

Rating:

The Irishman

The Irishman

No leprechauns were harmed in the making of this documentary

dir: Martin Scorsese

2019

I don’t really have the reverence for Martin Scorsese that almost every other film critic and reviewer on this green but burning earth possesses, but that’s not the same as saying I don’t like him or like his movies. I like him well enough, as an old man, but especially as someone who loves movies. His series on film history is sublime, especially since it’s not about his movies.

In the discussion about this flick that I was having with a dear friend, I felt compelled to open up and admit that I’ve never really loved any of Scorsese’s films in the manner in which a lot of other people fall over themselves to admit. His films, to me, for the longest time, felt like homework, like you had to love them, or else people would frown upon you. Admitting you couldn’t stand Taxi Driver or Goodfellas could be enough to get you thrown out of a pub if the people you were arguing with were drunk enough.

There are dozens of reasons why much of his oeuvre hasn’t resonated with me, but I would never be foolish enough to pretend that he hasn't had an immense impact on the medium of film.

What’s ironic for me is that in this, his most recent film about the same shit he’s been making films about for decades, the element that disgusts me the most about his depiction of toxic masculinity here is transformed into something else entirely. Wow, what a convoluted fucking sentence. What I’m trying to say is that many of his other films depict the depths of toxic masculinity but also have their cake and eat it too by showing how much glorious fun can come from being the perpetrator of this mobbed up version of toxic masculinity. The Irishman lays bare that mentality, showing how completely it defeats itself over the longest term.

It’s really a film about old age and regret, made by an old Catholic man with regrets. The hushed tones and awards screeds pretend that it’s important because it reveals the “truth” about various chapters of American history. Honestly, give us a fucking break. This should be held up as a glowing beacon of truth and honesty the way Oliver Stone’s JFK is held up as a shocking film about what really happened: it’s isn’t, no one does, no-one mentions it any more.

Rating:

Joker

joker

Spare me those goddamn stairs. And don't take any candy
from him, kids, and definitely stay away from his van

dir: Todd Phillips

2019

Since, I think, Silence of the Lambs, there’s been this case to be made that we, as in audiences, are happy to make allowances for characters that do awful things on camera, as long as they’re compelling. Hannibal Lecter kept us hypnotised like the cliché about the cobra and the mongoose, trapped in his unblinking eyes, and we could not look away.

All these years later, and we’re still paying the price.

With that comes the argument about heroes, antiheroes, jerks and other lunatics, and it muddies the waters a bit. The Joker from the comics isn’t, at his base, a complex character. I know nerds nerdier than I can point to thousands of different versions of the Joker, each more demented than the last, but the basic fact is, when first created, he was someone ridiculous, camp and chaotic, and meant as the fundamental antithesis of the orderly, stoic, rich psychopath Batman.

He’s not a deep character. No amount of overwriting or depth of performance really makes up for that gaping lack. There’s a primary reason why the director and the production lean so heavily on the aesthetics of 1970s movies, because without it they’ve got nothing else. Joaquin Phoenix is a compelling actor, mesmerising, all those descriptive words, and he’s great as this character, honestly.

It’s just that there isn’t much there. It feels bad saying it, but there’s not as much ‘there’ as they would like us to think. Without the Scorsese ripoffs, the transparent Taxi Driver ‘homages’, the Death Wish / Bernard Goetz restaging, and the embarrassing Fight Club-lite insult to our intelligence, there’s just a creepy guy who laughs until it hurts, and who kills a few people.

The world of Gotham as conjured here has less to do with the comics, and more to do with the kind of New York that the movies tried to grasp in the 70s and 80s: a diseased, corrupt, heartsick and pungent place, where the great unwashed threaten to drown not only each other, but the wealthy as well. Social order is breaking down, the garbage isn’t being collected, services are being cut to those who need them most, and people dance on the stairs for no good reason. It’s purgatory.

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