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2020

The Outpost

The Outpost

I swear, honestly, the film is way better than what
this poster would seem to imply, which is that it's
a movie about soccer hooligans angry about a bad
call by the referees and their washing machine
being blown up by a rival team supporter. Grrr!

dir: Rod Lurie

2020

War is hell, war is dumb, but it’s really exciting to watch on television. Less enjoyable in person, one imagines.

The Outpost tries really hard to capture the experience of a number of soldiers in Afghanistan in 2009. It is very much based on a true story. The true story is this: at the height of their wisdom, the powers that be within the US hierarchy decided that there should be an outpost near the border with Pakistan whose purpose would be both to project power and encourage feelings of goodwill within the local Afghani community. So, look tough but also be friendly and hand out bribes whenever it seems like an opportune time. Goodwill among the locals would mean they’re less inclined to support or enable the Taliban, which is a win for everyone, except the Taliban, of course

With that intention, an outpost is set up, in probably the most exposed and vulnerable place in all of Afghanistan, so that the US’s commitment to peace in the region cannot be doubted. I mean, if you set up your camp in a place where anyone with a rifle or even a rock could potentially kill your guys from up on high, and you wouldn’t even see where the jerks were attacking you from, it shows how hardcore you are as a military and a nation. Probably.

I mean, tactically it looks insane, but maybe strategically? Who fucking knows? It is made to look insane to us, as viewers, as it is explained to the new soldiers rolling in, who look up at the mountains surrounding the post, wondering how such a terrible and isolated location was chosen, but it must have made sense to someone, at some point. No one in the flick takes credit for it, like, some white-glove wearing evil Colonel swirling a glass of brandy and smoking a Cuban cigar from the safety of his quarters back in the States, but someone somewhere thought it was a good idea.

These grunts, of course, aren’t there to reason why, theirs is just to do and die. And they will, in large numbers. Along the way, they’ll mock each other, question each other’s sexuality on a constant basis, describe each other as smelling like a “bag of dicks” and generally do a lot of idiotic things in between getting attacked by the faceless and ruthless enemy, who doesn’t want them there, for some reason.

Rating:

Antebellum

Antebellum

These butterflies have a lot to answer for, not least of
which is their abject racism.

dir: Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz

2020

Antebellum means ‘before the war’ in Latin, and it could mean before any war, but because Americans are Americans, antebellum is generally used to mean “before the Civil War”, like, for the losing side, meaning “weren’t things great before the Civil War?”

They weren’t, not at all, for too many, but for some people the struggle never ends. In this movie, we watch as a bunch of awful people imprison, torture and kill African-Americans, with the intention of proving their supremacy over them, based on skin colour alone.

But, you know, based on actual behaviour and lack of humanity, how is this superior to anything or anyone?

Janelle Monáe plays the lead character, and is in pretty much every scene. She carries the entire weight and freight of the film, for good and for ill. It’s a lot to carry.

She’s better known as a singer and crazily talented creator, but she’s put in some solid performances over the last few years, and she does well here with a very difficult role. A role that one wishes she didn’t have to take.

In the first 40 minutes of the film, we see life, brutal life, on a plantation. A woman is brutalised, and then killed. Southern gentlemen in the uniform of the Confederacy are the ones brutalising the slaves. A woman (Monáe) is told to respond to the name given her, and refuses, and is branded, with the initials BD.

For forty minutes this keeps up. There aren’t many details that give the game away. One of the slaves had a nose ring, a septum piercing. The slaves are made to pick cotton, at gunpoint, and then the cotton is burned. No-one gives the game away through speaking, but it should be pretty fucking obvious to anyone, no matter how little they know about the film, that this is not actually the South before or during the Civil War.

Of course the sounds of war persist in the distance, but we are told that the South is winning, and the cowardly North will soon be vanquished, so these awful people will get to continue their awful ways presumably for ever and ever.

Rating:

The Devil All The Time

The Devil All the Time

Sorry to disappoint you, but the Devil doesn't put in an
appearance. I think he refused to share screen time with
such an obvious hack like Robert Pattinson.

dir: Antonio Campos

2020

The Devil All the Time has a brutal story. It’s almost as if Nick Cave’s Murder Ballads album came to life in the form of a Netflix original movie. It’s mostly set in or around a place called Knockemstiff, Ohio, and mostly confines itself to the miserable lives of a number of people who live and wander around Ohio and West Virginia. And the place actually exists! Hopefully this laundry list of tragedy and awful luck didn’t happen to too many people the author knew, but you never know.

I have no knowledge of what life is actually like in those states, but, fucking hell, this is not a movie that’s going to inspire a lot of tourism. The author of the book this film is based on, being Donald Ray Pollock, also helps out by reading his own words in voiceover, telling us more about these sorry sons of bitches than we probably ever wanted to know, and even, in a moment that I’m ashamed to admit made me laugh out loud, calls one of the worst of them “the sick fuck”, with all the disgust he can muster, in case we had any doubts how he feels about his own creations.

Like God himself, Pollock knows what it is to become sick of one’s own creations, and devises often the cruellest ways for them to depart this mortal coil, only the most ironic of methods for his and our amusement. Underlying everything is a feeling of hopelessness, of everything being corrupt, that the good can’t last long in the face of evil, but that it’s really not God’s fault. Oh no.

Many characters have a deeply distorted idea of their Christian faith, one which they feel compels them to do a bunch of horrible stuff to themselves or each other, but the fault doesn’t seem to be with the faith itself, but in their twisted and selfish delusions. It is all well and good to decry the abuses of the clergy or the hypocrisy of the faithful doing evil and pretending it to be God’s will, but we are never really confused when a person does a horrible thing here: that ain’t Jesus telling you to murder a dog or stab your wife in the neck; that’s all on you, buddy.

There is a vast number of characters, and interlacing stories, but they manage to get pared down significantly. The story mostly starts just after World War II as a soldier (Bill Skarsgard, yep, one of Stellan Skarsgard’s hundreds of talented children) returns to his pokey Ohio town, but not before he meets the love of his life (Hayley Bennett) in a diner during the return journey. He sees her beauty and kindness to a disabled homeless chap, and is convinced his life can go no other way.

He carries with him not only the experiences of the war, but the specific experience of having seen a man crucified and skinned alive. The Christian cross has taken on a much darker significance for him. Plus, his character’s name is Willard, and nothing good ever comes of people being called that.

Rating:

Mulan

Mulan

She can enrol in the army in my place any time

dir: Niki Caro

2020

I am not embarrassed to admit that I have sat through and enjoyed the Disney animated movie Mulan a couple of times, in the same way that I’ve watched most of their cheesy products over the years, both with and without my daughter. But now that she’s too old for me to use her as an excuse when I want to watch something, the choice to watch a new version of this tale has to be a more conscious one.

Everything is so freighted and problematic these days. By watching Mulan, and enjoying the pretty visuals and the costumes and the performances, and tearing up a few times, am I supporting the genocide of the Uighur people by the one party totalitarian government of China? Well, probably, I don’t know. I’ve been watching Hong Kong and Chinese films for decades, and I’ve long known that now the government has to approve every script before it goes into production, and virtually every Chinese film, even ones made by Disney, have to toe the party line.

And, yes, the party line is a cruel, inhuman and brutal one. I don’t really have a justification beyond that. I have to hope that, at least from the perspective of the person playing the lead character, and the person directing, being Kiwi director Niki Caro, most famous for Whale Rider all those years ago, their intent with this film, with its predominantly Chinese-American cast (with some major exceptions, being legends like Gong Li, Jet Li and Donnie Yen), is to side-step the political stuff and to tell the ‘classic proto-feminist story of a girl who fights great pretending to be a boy in order to save her dear old dad, the emperor and all of China.

That it is all told within the context of a story that glorifies empires / totalitarian states, and emperors that rule by Divine Right, and obedience to patriarchal structures and such, well, as my daughter handily points out, this is Disney after all. What were we expecting?

This mostly sticks to the script set out by the ‘original’ animated version, doesn’t update it in any way, but wants to use the look and the tropes of wuxia epics to deliver something that looks like one thing but appeals to both a mass Chinese audience as well as a mass American audience.

When you try to make two different people happy, who have two completely different agendas, and you do it in the most ham-fisted and timid way, you’re not going to leave anyone happy.

Of the many names of people who ‘worked’ on the screenplay (the greater the number of names, the shittier the end product, quite often), there wasn’t an even vaguely Asian-sounding surname amongst them, let alone a Chinese or Chinese-American one. Sure, there are Chinese actors, but they are awkwardly singing to an American tune. Thankfully there is no singing in this flick, if that metaphor used in the previous sentence gave you the impression this was going to be a new Chinese Cats inflicted upon the world.

Rating:

The Burnt Orange Heresy

The Burnt Orange Heresy

Look at these serious people being all serious. This must
be seriously serious.

dir: Giuseppe Capotondi

2020

It’s… There’s… Hmmm.

I enjoyed most of this flick, and then it flies off the rails in a way that makes it overall less satisfying? I try to make the first sentence in a review punchy and eye catching, but it’s a bit of a catastrophe, this time. It’s hard to pin point exactly where things go wrong – actually, no, it’s not hard at all. There’s an exact moment where the audience has to say out loud “what bullshit”.

The Burnt Orange Heresy wants to be a good film. There’s a good film lurking under the surface. It certainly wants to be and look classy. It starts with a jerk (Claes Bang) practicing a speech that he’ll be delivering to a group of wealthy middle aged middle class American tourists, but in Milan, somewhere. There’s no suggestion that the main character is Italian. I mean, the main character’s name I’m guessing is Spanish, the lead actor is Danish, his love interest is played by an Australian, and it’s got Mick Fucking Jagger in it and Donald Sutherland. Who else could you possibly need?

The opening is incredibly successful. James delivers a speech to these tourists, upon which he takes them on an incredible journey, of not giving a fuck about something, about giving an incredible fuck about something, and then giving them a pointed lesson in both the power of an art critic and how you shouldn’t believe everything they say. It is an incredible opening scene, a perfect distillation of stating your film’s thesis (art critics are bad and desperate people), setting up the themes for the film, and within the span of exactly 8 minutes, you’ve gone from the opening image, had an entire marathon of emotional rollercoaster rides, been chastised for falling for it, then he’s face down giving a woman head back in his apartment, all in record time.

You have to appreciate such ruthless and effective efficiency. The rest of the flick isn’t paced so crackingly, but that’s okay.

Rating:

I'm Thinking of Ending Things

I'm Thinking of Ending Things

About the only thing I liked in this flick was the wallpaper

dir: Charlie Kaufman

2020

I think I used to prefer it when Charlie Kaufman wrote amazing screenplays and other people directed his movies. It’s not a controversial thing to say. I haven’t enjoyed any of the films he’s made as director. I tried getting through Synecdoche, NY, but never managed it, and thus never reviewed it. Anomalisa, the one with the puppets, left me pretty cold.

And I’m Thinking of Ending Things is his latest offering, and another flick that does very little for me. It’s not entirely from the fevered brain that brought us Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or Adaptation previously, because it’s based on what I feel must also be a very tedious book by Iain Reid. I will never read the book to find out if I am wrong (apologies to Mr Reid, who I’m sure poured his Canadian heart and soul into his novel).

When this glorious waste of 2 hours and 15 or so minutes starts, a character is sitting in a car pondering in voice over whether she should end the relationship she’s currently in, with the guy, Jake (Jesse Plemons) who happens to be driving the car. They are driving to the farm he grew up on in order to have dinner with his parents.

Wherever they usually live, this is far away, and it’s snowing, heavily. They engage mostly in tedious talk in the car. I cannot emphasise it enough: whenever they’re in the car, their talk is profoundly tedious. They are in the car for most of the film. At one point, she, being Lucy (Jessie Buckley), is goaded into reciting a poem she just wrote, and she does, and it’s about the bleakest thing you’ve ever heard. Jake thinks it’s wonderful, of course. Lucy is such a good poet.

But she also wants to get back tonight in order to start work on her essay about how the rabies virus attaches itself to the ganglia of an infected person. But she’s also a painter. And she also studies gerontology, and quantum physics, and her name changes a lot. People try to call her, and sometimes it’s her, apparently, trying to call herself.

Rating:

Tesla

Tesla

In movies like this, the moustache does most of the work

dir: Michael Almereyda

2020

This film… It’s genuinely taking the piss.

A flick about Nikola Tesla, that has a narrator wearing period costume talking about how many hits you get when you google Tesla or Thomas Edison, that has a scene where an actor playing Edison whips out a smartphone. People rollerskate for some reason, and Ethan Hawke, using what passes for his Serbian / Tesla accent, sings a karaoke version of Tears for Fears’ Everybody Wants to Rule the World to pad out the last minutes of the flick and get it up to the agreed upon running time of 100 or so minutes.

For some reason.

Is it funny? It’s funny in that it is deliberately odd, without actually being humorous. It treats its subject with abject seriousness, but the screenplay, I’m telling you, is as deep as the Wikipedia entry that it used to generate itself, like something the less responsible parts of the internet could spontaneously erupt forth with. It gives us a potted history of some of the stuff he did, some of the places he went and people he met, his rivalry with Edison, which wasn’t really a contest of equals, but more of one guy who dominated everything and another guy that didn’t like him much.

And a moustache, and a hairstyle. I’m starting to think that this is about as much as we can expect from biopics these days. It has the qualities and the feel of a high school play put on about a famous person, down to images projected onto screens to set the scene, leading to the memorable image of Nikola Tesla trying to feed an apple to the projected image of a horse. I use ‘memorable’ in the sense that, yes, this is what they spent their time doing, and ours, too.

In watching this, it made me have a greater appreciation for the other biopic I saw recently about a different scientific pioneer, being the Marie Curie biopic Radioactive. That, I dunno, at least made more of a case for itself and for Curie. I criticised the flick at the time because I thought it was a bit unnecessary to amp up the almost Asperger’s like tics and project them onto the actor just to give her something interesting / irritating to do that fits neatly into the stereotypes of scientists throughout the ages. This flick projects almost nothing onto Tesla, and makes him out to be a boring, broody and misunderstood emo kid from the 90s who people should have appreciated more, because reasons.

He is so boring that he can’t even supply any interest in his own story, which has to be narrated by someone else, who was, at least at some stage, more interested in Tesla than Tesla himself was. It is left to Anne Morgan (Eve Hewson) to carry the heavy burden of convincing us why we should keep watching.

Rating:

She Dies Tomorrow

She Dies Tomorrow

Amy doesn't seem like she's at peace with whatever's going on

dir: Amy Seimetz

2020

One of the stranger flicks to come out this year, in what is turning out to be the strangest year in living memory, She Dies Tomorrow almost seems prescient in its story about someone infecting everyone she comes in contact with over the course of a day/night.

No, none of them are wearing masks, though this is the one instance in which I don’t think masks would have helped. A young woman called Amy (Kate Lyn Shiel) seems to be dealing with the aftermath of a breakup, and also with moving in to a new house, which is its own ordeal. She will burst into tears every now and then, and compulsively play part of Mozart’s Requiem on her turntable, lie on the floor, rub her face on the wall.

She really does own a lot of vinyl for someone so young, but we don’t get to check out the rest of her collection because she keeps playing the same piece from the Requiem. Shame.

Eventually she speaks to a friend on the phone, and everything she says makes the other friend not want to come over that much, because she has a birthday party she doesn’t want to go to, so she reverts to drinking alcohol and using a leaf blower in the middle of the night. I guess we have the impression that she’s not coping well with whatever it is that she’s not coping well with. Or she’s just doing random pointless things because…

Rating:

Radioactive

Radioactive

Look at this, this thing I'm holding. How cool am I?

dir: Marjane Satrapi

2020

Radioactive, huh? You were waiting for a biopic of one of the most famous scientists of the last couple of centuries, like maybe to show kids in school, or, these days, tell kids to download themselves and watch in the privacy of their own bedrooms / juvenile delinquency cells.

You thought maybe Rosamund Pike, brilliant British actor, would make a decent go of the role (no pressure). After all, if she could play the real protagonist of Gone Girl, she could probably do all right with the Mother of Uranium Dragons, you thought.

But then you might not have realised that the way the script was going to be written, or the direction she’d be given, encouraged her to perform the character like every cliché of the mad scientist that I thought we gave up on when the Back to the Future films ended. I don’t actually have a good sense or picture in my head of what Madam Curie was actually like as a person, from either this movie (which I hope is either wrong or an exaggeration) or from the vast tranche of materials available about her life and her incredible achievements.

I just really wish that the flick hadn’t pursued the course of: brilliant female scientist probably somewhere on the spectrum meets male scientist who really “gets” her, then all her affectations and Tourette’s-like behavior fly out the window, because all she really needed was the love of a good man to settle her down. Sure, she’s brilliant at a time when society frowns at women being anything, including brilliant, but nevertheless she persisted and changed science / the world / had to be accepted despite her astonishing manner.

It would be just as annoying, and it is just as annoying, when they do the same with the genders reversed.

I also don’t know what the relationship between Marie and Pierre (here played by Sam Wiley) was like in real life, but I can console or comfort myself with the idea that much of what they do here together is pretty good, as in I eventually accepted that it was a believable (somehow) portrait of what these two brilliant people might have been like together. The most surprising part of the film is that after they choose to get married, in a flick which was mostly comprised of people pouring stuff into beakers or mortar and pestling rocks containing radioactive materials, and Marie usually squawking out her thoughts and what she imagines the other person is thinking, rather than waiting to hear them actually speak, was a quiet interlude in the country. Out of nowhere, in a film that thus far has been about Marie’s anger at not being taken seriously because of her gender, and dismissing everything anyone says or might say, in this bit out of nowhere, they ride bikes, swim in a lake, and lie on a blanket, naked, chatting amiably.

It's not a sex scene per se, but it will do. These are both young attractive people playing older than they are, so I guess they have to remind us they’re not just fusty old looking serious people from the olden days, they also like to laugh and fuck too.

Rating:

VFW

VFW

VFW, better known as Valiant Fighters Wassailing

dir: John Begos

2020

Damn, I guess I felt like watching some 80s trash, and I found the perfect neon and blood-drenched delivery device, so, really, I have nothing to complain about.

Except it’s not actually violent action trash from the 80s; it’s a recent flick mimicking and set in the 80s and with the complete disregard for decency, physics, budgets and believability that typifies that era’s highs and lows.

VFW is ridiculously violent, but in a cheap-rubber-mask-filled-with-fake-blood-exploding kind of way. This looks exceedingly cheap and seedy, but that is not a negative, necessarily. Of course people in reviews and comments keep referring to John Carpenter’s legendary Assault on Precinct 13, not only for the heroes under siege storyline, but the exceedingly Carpenter-esque soundtrack, which is all synthesizer keyboards whenever it’s not metal guitar chords all over the place.

Our assembled heroes are, mostly, Veterans of Foreign Wars, hence the acronymic title. That would make this place where most of the heads explode the equivalent of the Returned Servicemen Leagues, or RSLs that we have here in Australia, which are places mostly old people go for cheap buffet food and booze. In our RSLs the most that happens is a little annoyance when they force you at gunpoint to sign into the guest register, if you’re not a member. Very few heads explode, though there’s probably a fair bit of food poisoning, which is no less awful than mass murder, sometimes.

But the VFW this film is concerned with, seems to be located in the worst part of some alternate history America in the 80s where a drug called hype turns users into violent lunatic zombies, and members of gangs wear lots of leather with spikes coming out of them from wacky angles. Presumably, in all realities and timelines, leather is always the textile of choice of cool people, gangs, drug dealers and their lackeys for ever more.

Rating:

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