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:

Shirley

Shirley

She looks like she would be fun at parties

dir: Josephine Decker

2020

I only previously knew a tiny amount about Shirley Jackson, and all of that was solely about her short story The Lottery, which encompassed an idea, or a version of American society so powerful that it’s been ripped off or echoed in countless novels and movies as diverse as The Purge through Hunger Games through anything that critiques the mentality of American group psychology and its perpetual need for scapegoats.

I didn’t know much about her life, so that wasn’t what pulled my attention towards seeing this. Admittedly it was the fact that Elizabeth Moss was playing the main role. As far as I’m concerned that’s reason enough to watch any movie.

Having watched this I now feel like I know even less about her, because surely this can’t be a definitive portrayal. It felt like watching an assortment of affectations, a bunch of clichés about writers, and an opaque story about how domesticity robs women of more than their time and effort that could better be applied in other areas.

Shirley (Moss) is struggling with her latest novel, which will go on to be Hangsaman. But when the flick starts off she’s struggling with the fact that she’s not even the main character in her own movie, named after her and all. The ‘real’ main character would seem to be Rose (Odessa Young), the new bride of an ambitious young English professor (Logan Lerman), who feels the need to suck up to the old jerk who runs the English department at Bennington, Vermont. So, Stanley (Michael Stuhlbarg) wants to “help” out his wife’s writing by pretty much using Rosie as an unpaid servant, dangling the prospect of tenure for her husband, while having no intention of actually helping them out long term.

It doesn’t help that the flick is awkwardly and irritatingly filmed. Odd, obtrusively angled shots, repellent in their way, sometimes alternating between being too close to the subjects or off to the side to make everything feel off kilter. I’m sure it worked as intended.

The writer is housebound, agoraphobic, alcoholic and cannot stand people. She loves her appalling husband despite the fact that the old goat who is extremely full of himself keeps rubbing up against every female he can. What they make of Shirley’s various mental health issues the film reduces to Shirley’s resentments and insecurities arising from her husband’s numerous infidelities.

But that’s surely not going to happen to the young couple, surely? Rosie and Fred still have sex daily, all throughout her pregnancy too, so of course Fred isn’t going to follow in Stanley’s footsteps just to impress him, is he?

Is he fuck…

Stanley is a piece of work, but not much of an impressive one. He embodies all the worst qualities of an academic that one can imagine of the era, and though I have no doubt he was that much of a piece of shit, he’s not a particularly interesting piece of shit. His casual cruelty towards the young couple or his selfishness towards his wife under the guise of “looking after” her rings true but hollow as well.

Rating:

The Vast of Night

The Vast of Night

I think her awesome glasses are the third main character

dir: Andrew Patterson

2020

The Vast of Night is such a tiny, modest and strange little film, that you almost want to hold it in your hands like a hatchling that’s fallen out of its nest to protect it, and it’s like not much else that I’ve ever seen, at least not lately.

It’s set in the late 50s, and everyone’s talking in that gee golly gosh way that apparently they spoke after the war, and dressing like they’re all going to a sock hop or the drug store for a malt shake. But the movie is also bookended with strange television credits as if this is a lost episode of some Twilight Zone-like early television program called Paradox Theatre. Everyone smokes, including teenagers, but I guess that was just the style at the time. The town in which all of this happens is so tiny that the local high school basketball game consumes virtually the whole town. Everyone bar a couple of stragglers are at the pokey school stadium in anticipation of the game.

It’s not even a final or anything. It’s just a game, and these hicks have literally nothing better to do. There were a lot, and I mean a lot of Salvation Army and vintage stores raided to get the ugly ancient clothing necessary to clothe all these extras. None of it looks like fancy hipster costuming, not by a long shot. It’s all just quietly ugly, era appropriate clothing.

And that’s where the movie production’s entire budget possibly went. That and buying one drone with a camera, and probably a Go-Pro, and that’s about it. Just because this is an Amazon Original doesn’t mean Jeff Bezos, he of the costliest divorce settlement in human history, ponied up the cash for this flick. They made it on the scent remaining from the fumes exuded from an oily rag that was set on fire which wafted across to a third rag. But they do an incredible, flat out incredible job pulling something so small and strangely perfect, in its own way, which manages to be familiar but not formulaic in any way.

After all, this flick has a continuous at least ten minute scene where one of the protagonists (Sierra McCormick) does nothing but connect calls at one of those old timey switchboards, and yet the scene remains utterly riveting.

Rating:

The Lovebirds

The Lovebirds

Two attractive people, out for a fun night. What could go right?

dir: Michael Showalter

2020

I like me some Netflix romantic comedies. Honestly, the best, or should that be “best” Netflix produced or Netflix exclusive (this one more so because the plague interrupted its intended cinematic release) flicks that come out tend to be of the romantic comedy persuasion. Stakes are so low, budgets don’t need to be that high, it’s mostly (if we’re lucky) two or more charming people being charming for 90 or so minutes until it ends with a joke and a kiss and the implication that there’s a happily ever for at least the next few years after ending

The Lovebirds isn’t threatening to break any new ground. It’s not too dissimilar to a bunch of other flicks that has a bored or estranged couple go on a night of adventure that rekindles their love for each other and life in general. Date Night with Tina Fey and Steve Carrell, and the more recent Game Night with Justin Bateman were examples of this, and not only united by having “Night” in their titles.

The exotic twist, at least from an American perspective, is that the leads are an African-American and a Pakistani-American, in a flick that plays out exactly the same way as those kinds of flicks where two people who don’t like each other eventually do after adventures ensue.

But, c’mon. Kumail Nanjiani is generally pretty funny in everything he’s in and Issa Rae is glorious (best known for her tv series Insecure) in everything she does, so surely forcing them together towards a path that threatens mutually assured destruction is a recipe for success?

Well, kinda. They are individually great. I don’t know that I bought them as a couple, but that isn’t the only criteria. I never bought Harry and Sally as a couple in that classic whose name escapes me about when they meet each other, because Billy Crystal (ew) with Meg Ryan (ah) shouldn’t work in this or any other parallel universe, but that was part of the fun.

This doesn’t have those same obstacles, but it does have its own unique obstacles. When the flick starts we’re seeing these people after their first night together, so, The Day After, which is kinda sweet and kinda awkward, and we see them fumble towards some kind of happy amazement. They really go all out to convince us that these people are amazed / fuckstruck by each other after one night. All this happens just over the opening credits.

Then it cuts to four years later, where they are sick to fucking death of each other.

I guess to some people four years would seem like a lot, and to others it seems awfully brief. All we can see with this couple is that either tedium has accumulated over the years, or maybe that they weren’t really compatible in the first place. The man in the couple, Jibran, seems persnickety, fussy and whiny. Leilani (Issa Rae) seems exasperated with his persnickety fussiness and irritated by his constant criticisms and corrections, like he’s so fucking great. They’re about to go to some dinner party, but they’re fighting about a) their relationship or their individual perceived limitations (or each others), b) reality television in general, and whether they’d be a couple with a chance on The Amazing Race and c), whether Jibran is a shitty documentary maker, or whether Leilani’s co-workers are shitty.

Really, they’re fighting like people who have no affection left for each other. In the middle of driving to a dinner party, they ask each other if maybe they should separate. And they both agree.

That’s when, as is without doubt the most perfect moment, Jibran hits a guy on his bike with their car.

At first you’re thinking “wait, are they fucking with the conventions of a romantic comedy by making us somehow still care about a couple who commits a hit-and-run but doesn’t seem too fazed by it?” but when a cop forces his way in to their car and urges them to pursue the escaping guy on the bike, you might feel relieved for a second.

Rating:

Onward

Onward

No, not Onwards, backwards. Upwards, not forwards, and always
twirling twirling towards freedom

dir: Dan Scanlon

2020

I’ll be the first to admit my own potential to devolve into repetitive hackery. In this instance, what I mean is, sure, there are probably plenty of times where I rely on stock standard phrases and repeat myself in reviews. In some instances, you could probably change the name of the movie being reviewed, and insert any random other movie title into the body of the review or the title, and it would be indistinguishable from another review. It’s perhaps the result of laziness, or of forgetfulness, but either way if a reader started reading an old review, and it started sounding like a lot of other reviews, you’d have good reason to be miffed, Dear Reader. You wouldn’t be getting value for money.

That whole paragraph was purest preamble. The thing I’m going to repeat here is the thing (admittedly lazy) I seem to be finding myself saying whenever a new Pixar flick comes out, which is “Do you remember when you used to care that a new Pixar flick was coming out?” Like, it used to be an event, of sorts. It was something to look forward to.

Of course you can just as easily say the same about the overabundance of Marvel movies, or Star Wars movies, or James Bond movies, or anything else that we’ve been programmed to see every couple of years as the next instalment of a production line that will never seemingly stop producing instalments.

That question is one I posed out loud to my family about half an hour into watching this, it wasn’t just something I whispered into a guinea pig’s ear hoping for answers. The two responses I got back were “Eh” and “It’s Disney, what do you expect?” Both responses are probably right. It’s unreasonable for me to expect something that isn’t sustainable.

The ratio of mediocre to great flicks to come out of the brains and computers at Pixar is ever growing. The exceptional flicks are still exceptional, but they are getting lonelier. The ranks of the shitty ones just keep expanding.

Onward is staggeringly mediocre. It’s, like, embarrassing stuff, actively painful stuff with little if anything to say about anything. It’s so probably amazing from a technical perspective, but it has the heart and soul of an insurance ad. It’s so seeped in banality, and the laziest forms of sentiment that it did not elicit even the tiniest amount of emotion from me, and I’m the sort of soft touch that tears up at insurance commercials.

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:

Vivarium

Vivarium

It's like something unpleasant, only not enjoyable either

dir: Lorcan Finnegan

2020

Vivarium is an unpleasant and disturbing movie with little point that I could discern. I’m not sure if it was intended as satire, or a cautionary tale, but in the end, it really didn’t feel like it justified its own existence.

It’s not painful to watch or actively stupid. Neither is it offputting or horrific enough to have that going for it. It feels like a Black Mirror episode which forgot to have a vicious punchline that illuminates just how terrible people are. All it illuminates is that if there was some mysterious creature that looked vaguely human but wasn’t, that could kidnap people and put them somewhere they couldn’t escape from, it would be bad.

If it’s point is that something like what happens to the two protagonists here would be terrible to endure, well, derr fred, no doubt. Most stories usually need something more than that. Chopping my toe off with an axe would be bad, but I don’t think I should get to make a film about it (though Zuckerberg / Eisenberg is welcome to play my big toe any time).

A young couple (Imogen Poots and everyone’s favourite Zuckerberg Jesse Eisenberg) are looking for a place to live. She’s a primary teacher, he’s a, I dunno, groundskeeper Willy or something. It’s not clear where they are, but it’s not going to matter anyway. They wander into a storefront that we assume was a real estate agent or something. A really creepy looking guy called Martin promises them that the place they’re looking for is in a planned community called Yonder.

When they travel to Yonder, they find a place of thousands of identical houses. There is no one else around. Martin shows them No. 9, and literally disappears. Gemma and Tom try to drive away and keep turning up at 9. Whatever they do, they can’t leave.

The next night Tom burns the house down. The house reappears, and a box, also. There is a baby in the box. On the box is printed “Raise the child and you shall be released”.

O-kay. So they’re trapped in suburbia, with a child they don’t want, and for invisible reasons they can’t leave.

Does that even qualify as satire?

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:

Terminator: Dark Fate

Terminator: Dark Fate

The future is female, which is fine by me

dir: Tim Miller

2019

And thus completes my recent trip down Nostalgia Lane. Of the two recent reiterations of venerable franchises, being the very dumb Predator movies and the slightly less dumb Terminator movies, the thing they have in common is Arnie. The Predator franchise felt no need to involve Arnie in any of its movies past the first one, and they were right, because he had better things to do, and they were only going to be shit (he must have known).

The Terminator flicks have always been indebted to him, because he is the Terminator of the title, after all, and only one of the flicks thus far didn’t have him in it (though it had a CGI version of him, because he was busy being Governor of California, after all). In a strange new trend, this is not a reboot or a continuation from the last flick Terminator: Genisys, but instead argues that everything after Terminator 2: Judgement Day never happened, so this is a direct sequel to T2.

It’s…a strange thing to do, isn’t it? It’s not unheard of, because different people work on stuff over years, and either new people want to go in other directions without being handcuffed, or the original people come back in, think everything they weren’t involved with is shit, so they revert the story back to where they’re comfortable with.

I can’t help but think that real world issues impacted on many choices in these movies over the years. I’m not going to use the words “artistic choices”, because let’s not pretend franchises are art. They’re product, and we know it. No, I mean stuff like Sarah Connor being written out after T2 mostly because James Cameron dumped her for someone he met making Titanic. And while the John Connor character kept popping up in T3: Rise of the Machines, Terminator: Salvation and Genysis, they were never going to bring back Edward Furlong, considering his addiction and legal troubles over the last 20+ years.

Rating:

The Predator

The Predator 2018

Yes, it's evolved, into Something Even Dumber!

dir: Shane Black

2018

So. What with all the plague happening everywhere, I’ve been watching a lot of movies lately, far more so than usual. It has been pretty much the only positive to arise out of this dreadful crisis that has killed so many people and revealed the stupidity and selfishness of so many who profit from the labour of us lower order types and the minimum wage expendable / “essential” services provided by those who have no other choice anyway.

Lest you think I lump myself into that group, oh no, it’s not true. My services to the world are very inessential, which is why I can happily work from home, sip lattes, watch movies and then pontificate about them for no money and to no end other than my own amusement / bemusement.

In that spirit, the films I’ve been watching lately have been great. Thoughtful, intelligent, well-made, reminding us of the links between people across this world and through time; the elements that unite us, the dangers we face, the aches we all feel.

I’ve had enough. I can’t take it any more. I need a break, emotionally and intellectually.

In the same way that we take a break from preparing and eating food that’s nurturing and healthy for us and the people in our lives, and seek the convenience of food that’s not only crap but is actively bad for us, I need to occasionally watch shitty movies in order to have some perspective, and also to replenish my store of tears. Not only did I gorge on cinematic junk food, but it involved a buffet of two recentish movies that stand as squalid sequels to action franchises that started in the 1980s: The Predator and Terminator: Dark Fate, for the people playing at home. Both peaked a long time ago; both keep being resurrected to increasingly diminished returns.

The Predator does not inspire tears, it does not provoke emotions other than whatever emotions scorn and contempt are most aligned with, and it has nothing to do with my favourite Ice Cube album of all time of the same name. It is the hackneyed work of people who don’t give a shit about anything but love pretending they’re having fun, so we should too.

When Predator came out in 1987, it was a minor hit. It sustained the upward trajectory of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s action movie career, and never resulted in another movie that really justified its existence as a franchise. One of the people in the original movie, as a soon-killed army jerk called Hawkins, was Shane Black. Literally the only thing Hawkins does in the movie is tell a horribly misogynistic joke and then die.

Rating:

Atlantics

Atlantique

Who ever thought dancing in a disco could be so sad...

(French title: Atlantique)

dir: Mati Diop

2019

Atlantics is a slow, strange, moody piece; a supernatural slice-of-life covering a few days in the life of a Senegalese girl called Ada (Mame Bineta Sane), living her best life. But before we get to her, we watch a bunch of young Senegalese chaps working at a building site, working for a long time.

A real long time. And at the end of their shift, the guys are like “where is our pay from the last three months?” and no satisfying answers are offered. The tower they are working on looks like something for the Avengers, as their new Senegalese headquarters, maybe, and yet these workers live in tiny homes made of breeze blocks with no windows, and haven’t gotten paid for months. One of them, Souleiman (Ibrahima Traoré) yells that he’s in so much debt with not getting paid by their bastard boss, that he avoids going home until it’s dark, so he doesn’t get chased by creditors.

Souleiman rides home in the back of a truck with his mates, and though we don’t know it yet, they have hatched a plan. He visits his girlfriend Ada, and they try to get it on but are interrupted, and she tells him to cool his boots, as they will be meeting again later that night.

When she sees some of her girlfriends, they taunt her about a few things, but she has friends from different walks of life, it appears, and not all of them are trash. She has a religious friend Mariama (Mariama Gassama), always wearing the hijab, who scolds her for her wicked ways and reminds her that God is testing her with temptation, since she’s meant to be marrying some jerk called Omar in a number of days, and not swanning about with the far more handsome and likable Souleiman.

Her other friends, who Mariama doesn’t like, routinely give her the kind of bad advice that good friends who don’t care if you fuck up all the time would give. They’re materialist and selfish, but they’re not wrong. Like Ada, many of them have boyfriends or brothers who worked at the construction site with Souleiman.

But, that same night, when Ada goes to their local bar on the beach, looking out as it does across the Atlantic Ocean (Senegal is a West African country), all of the girls are there, but neither Souleiman nor any of the other guys are present. They have, apparently, commandeered a boat and decided to sail to Spain, to Europe and towards the promise of a better life.

Rating:

Underwater

Underwater

Streamlined for maximum speed at the bottom of the ocean

dir: William Eubank

2020

It’s…hmm. So, well, people put a bunch of money together and thought that making an updated version of Aliens without having to pay whoever owns that franchise any money was a good idea.

And, it’s fine, I mean, as an idea, it’s fine. They also set this deep underwater on our actual planet, which means everything basically functions the same than as if they were in outer space or on some inhospitable planet: go outside the walls or outside of your suit, and you’re dead.

And they got Kristen Stewart to essentially play Ripley, but, it’s Kristen Stewart, so it’s her playing Kristen Stewart playing Ripley, with a shaved blonde head an all. She is quite striking, admittedly, and yet the hardest ask is us believing that she is an engineer. They never show her binge-drinking, not once.

An engineer, mind you, located in a facility 6 miles underwater in the Mariana Trench, literally the deepest point known of any part of the planet. I can believe the engineer bit, but the other bit is too fanciful, even for a sci-fi movie. There’s a massive main facility, and a bunch of other ones as well, all having been constructed with concrete and metal and stuff, and you just think: How? The pressure at those depths would crush almost any materials of any thickness like a hand crushing a can, and yet for this story to work we have to believe that somehow a bunch of people in high-vis built all this stuff just so our heroes can run around and die, one after the other.

It's an environment so dangerous that tiny flaws in equipment will implode people with a second’s notice. The survival of the bunch of people we see is so unlikely that they have to indulge in way riskier activities in order to go from a slim chance of survival to a slight chance of survival. And Norah (Kristen Stewart) is along for the ride, using her working-around skills whenever she can to find solutions to the cascade of errors going on around her.

But this isn’t enough. I mean, if the remaining crew can’t get to yadda yadda before a deadline, then they’re all going to die, if they stay in place, the facility will be destroyed and kill them, and there’s no safe way to get to the surface without using escape pods because of the bends etc. And yet all these dangers aren’t enough.

Rating:

The Platform

El Hoyo

Trickledown economics in its purest and prettiest form

(Spanish title: El Hoyo)

dir: Galder Gaztelu-Urrutria

2019

There’s…there’s never going to be a more obvious film about capitalism, the distribution of wealth, and the pressures involved in keeping people fearful, selfish and in conflict with those around them. And you thought Animal Farm as an allegory for the Russian Revolution was over the top with its pig called Napoleon, and its “all animals being equal, but some animals being more equal than others” line.

Orwell would probably hurl in disgust watching The Platform, but he’d nod his head in recognition.

What The Platform lacks in subtlety it more than makes up for with horrific depictions of how selfish the system needs to keep people, and that’s not even just to keep it functioning. The system works completely independently of what the people trapped on the many levels of the Vertical Self-Management Centre do to themselves or each other. And that the cruelty is very much the point.

The people trapped here are situated two to a level. The rooms cannot be escaped from. There is a hole in the centre of the room. Once a day, a platform lowers, and on it is food. It is the only source of food these prisoners can have. They can only eat what’s in front of them, not being allowed to hoard any of the food for later, which is enforced with lethal temperature controls. But whether there is any food on the platform depends on two mains factors: what floor you happen to be on, and the generosity of the people above you.

A high floor (as in 1 to 10) means you get heaps of untainted food. Floors below the 20s mean you’re eating scraps, plus the people above have no qualms about tainting the food for no good reason. 50 and beyond, well, it’s barely the aroma of food remaining.

Thing is, there’s hundreds of floors.

Further thing is, each month the prisoners are seemingly randomly moved from floor to floor.

When our main character awakes, he has the rules of the place, the lethal schematics explained to him by someone who has obviously been there a while. So our main guy Goreng (Ivàn Massagué) clutching his book (Don Quixote, naturally) needs to be schooled. He’s awakened on level 48, and when the platform arrives, mid explanation from Trimagasi (Zorion Eguileor) there are slim pickings.

Turns out that Goreng volunteered to enter this bizarre place deliberately. Like, he chose to be there, for six months, at the end of which he’ll have some kind of degree. How prestigious, to have graduated from the Vertical Self-Management Centre Academy. That’s Ivy League shit right there. Would open a lot of doors for you, doubtless. All entrants are allowed to bring one thing with them, and this guy chose Cervantes's epic about a lunatic who tilts at windmills.

Rating:

1917

1917

Nine nine nine nineteen. Seventeen. Nineteen Seventeen.
Should catch on

dir: Sam Mendes

2019

1917 is a well-choreographed, well-shot film about that minor skirmish that used to be called The Great War, until the unending War on Christmas began. It says nothing new about war, or new about anything other than on the technical level (of what’s achievable with a massive budget and the latest in filming tech), because we already knew war sucked.

But for the director, Sam Mendes, who based this movie on a story his grandfather told him, it’s personal. It’s not biographical, but it’s possibly about the images imagined and the feelings engendered within a young Sam upon hearing his pop talk about what it was like to live through such a hell and survive.

World War II flicks are usually about, at least the American ones, how war is hell but at least the Americans won, because they were the toughest and the bravest. World War I flicks, because of the nature of the pointlessness of it all, with its imagery of trenches, mustard gas, barren no man’s lands surrounded by walls of barbed wire, mud and corpses, of soldiers going over the top and dying in their droves, aren’t as conducive to the idea of visceral, exciting cinema that is the cinematic ideal for action set pieces. What might have worked with a goddess in Wonder Woman, where she fights against the very embodiment of War, doesn’t work as neatly with mere mortals when it’s treated realistically. The very nature of it not only obliterated so many people, it obliterated the illusion that any one individual could make a difference. Films depend on that illusion. A lot of films don’t work without that illusion.

Not to say that any of this is realistic, but it is meant to give us a taste for what it might have been like over two crazy days in April of 1917 for two desperate soldiers. Or at least how a child listening to his granddad talk about the war imagined what he was hearing. No matter how much of it was bullshit.

Two mere mortals, or more accurately, two British lance corporals, are tasked with running across an area that until that very morning was controlled by the Germans, in the French countryside. They carry orders to a specific Colonel, who thinks the Germans are retreating, even though he’s planning a counterattack with which to cover himself with glory.

Rating:

Extraction

Extraction

What gets blood out of shagpile carpets again?

dir: Sam Hargrave

2020

Extraction. It’s like John Wick, except in Bangladesh, and with a Hemsworth, not a Keanu.

And it’s the good Hemsworth (not Larry), as in, one of the biggest current film stars in the world.

When you’re a star of his magnitude, people don’t watch a film you’re in because of the character you play or because of the premise: they are watching you because you’re in it.

So it must have been the easiest of all sells for Netflix to greenlight this, especially now when the cinemas are closed and the Netflixes are open 24 hours a day.

Like most action movies, this is constructed from the most cliché components that have comprised "action movies" for at least the last 40 years. The lead character is suicidal and an alcoholic because of something that happened in their past (check). He’s willing to do any job that pays well, because he doesn’t care if he lives or dies (check). Though he seems like a complete psychopath, he’ll build a connection with someone (child or dog) that keeps him connected to humanity but also justifies killing thousands of people (check).

Arnie did it for 20 or so films. Keanu as John Wick killed more people in New York than the coronavirus over 3 films. And the Chrisest of Chrises, Chris Hemsworth, kills most of Bangladesh here, all justified, because a young Indian kid called Ovi reminds him of the son he lost to lymphoma several years ago.

Wait, does that constitute a spoiler in this day and age? Surely you jest. I cannot recall the last time I watched a violent action flick where the death of someone close to the protagonist, child or otherwise, wasn’t the pretext for going on a kill crazy rampage against some nebulous enemy.

Rating:

The Lighthouse

The Lighthouse

They make a very handsome couple, don't you think?

dir: Robert Eggers

2019

The Lighthouse is not a fun flick to sit through. Almost every visual image and moment of sound design imbues everything with the feeling of overwhelming dread, so much so that it almost becomes comical.

Is it entertaining? If it is, it’s a strange form of entertainment perhaps made for some alien species.

If it has to be pigeonholed, and it doesn’t, it probably fits neatest into the horror genre, what with all the horrifying imagery and all the constant, relentless feeling of menace. Really, even if they want to claim it’s based on a real story about how two guys in a Welsh lighthouse went fucking nuts, it comes down to being a drama about two men trapped in a loveless relationship from which neither can escape.

One of them is old with a beard (Willem Dafoe), one of them is young, but has a moustache (Robert Pattinson). The two of them tend to a lighthouse off the cost of New England, which is a phrase Americans use all the time like the rest of us always know what they’re talking about. Oi, we have a New England region in Australia, too, but you don’t hear us always bragging about it. Like ours, it’s on their eastern coast. Unlike ours, it seems to bring out the monsters that lurk within all men’s hearts.

It’s not clear that the isolation or the drinking brings out the worst in these men alone. The old man speaks like a briny salty sea dog straight out of Moby Dick, with all the poise and drama of a preacher yelling “REPENT! REPENT ALL YE BEFORE IT TURNETH TOO LATE” from the pulpit of a wooden Nantucket church. Plus he looks like both the very definition of a crusty sea captain, and the living embodiment of the Michelangelo statue of Moses from the church of San Pietro in Rome (especially in one terrifying, brain-melting scene late in the flick).

Rating:

Yesterday

Yesterday

I'm shocked too that they couldn't do more with the idea

dir: Danny Boyle

2019

Danny Boyle has made some surprising flicks in his day, but this has to be one of the most surprising, mostly because it’s such a tame grandmother-pleasing flick from the guy that once made Trainspotting.

Of course he also made Trainspotting 2, but that wasn’t surprising, just depressing. In terms of crowd pleasing fare, this is probably closest to something like Billions (not the series, a movie about a boy who finds a bag full of cash), which was as G rated a film as humanly possible by someone renowned for so, so much filth.

This has a novel premise, but one so fundamentally out there, that you wonder if it resulted among a group of people who were smoking dope together, so impressed were they with this brilliant idea. However, before they could pool their enhanced inspiration together and come up with a plot and an ending, they sobered up, ran out of substances, and were left cold, sad and a little bit hungry.

Maybe it’s a great premise. I don’t know. It’s such a ridiculous premise that the fact they don’t do much with it doesn’t really register until the very end where you wonder how it all got this far without someone saying “Hang on a second – we didn’t give the film a point!”

It’s a stealth way of doing a biopic without the messiness and cost of having to get the consent of the various real people or their estates involved, or having to wrangle the egos of famous-ish people playing people even more famous than themselves. There were scenes in this which were pretty much identical to stuff from Rocketman, the Elton John biopic, where someone sits at a piano and belts out a song as everyone stands around them in awe, and you think “that’s nice, but” because, really, they’re just covers.

Covers of songs that are familiar, well known or beloved by many. Obviously, the original is the preferred version. A decent cover can sometimes be nice, but they’re generally superfluous. A transformative cover sometimes unearths a completely different way of experiencing something we thought we knew, revealed to us in a wholly different form.

Most often the best they can do is get us to remember the past.

This flick hinges on the premise that what if something happened, like, a giant purple dude with a gaudy glove covered in gems snapped his fingers, but instead of wiping out half the life in the universe, he decided to erase the existence of The Beatles from everyone’s minds like they never existed.

But. There’s one guy who remembers most of their songs. What do you think would happen then?

Rating:

The Gentlemen

The Gentlemen

This is one of the most awkwardly arranged group shots
I've ever seen. It's like something out of the Royal family

dir: Guy Ritchie

2019

I don’t know what Guy Ritchie’s deal is, and I’m pretty sure he’s not going to see things this way, but when you make a flick that seems like it’s all about getting revenge on those dastardly tabloid editors and jerk – crim reporters, it seems a bit personal.

And when one of the main characters you have in the film is Hugh Grant, playing the sleaziest version of the kinds of slimy paparazzi / private detectives / tabloid reporters that made his life a living hell for decades, again, you seem to be making a statement.

Statements are all well and good, but they don’t always make for entertaining cinema. This film here, The Gentlemen, goes out of its way to be entertaining. Perhaps almost even too entertaining. It flirts with breaking the fourth wall plenty of times, with Grant practically winking at us as he refers to camera lenses and anamorphic aspect ratios and fade outs and other narrative / stylistic techniques as he tells his barely believable tale to a captive audience.

There is even a scene involving Guy Ritchie playing a very Weinstein-esque looking exec at Miramax’s offices. You remember Miramax, don’t you? They made all these great movies, and ruined all these women’s lives?

If we’re all really honest, no Guy Ritchie flick has been as outright enjoyable as Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels in all these years. Some of his other flicks have come pretty close (maybe Snatch, maybe RocknRolla, maybe the first Sherlock Holmes flick), some have been meh, and some are flat out dumb. His flicks are only getting more convoluted in their plots, with that frustrating proviso that any situation faced by a character can be gotten out of because of something else we didn’t see happen beforehand done by someone we didn’t know was around.

That might seem like an artless way to describe the complicated plotting on display here, but in some ways this kind of overwrought overwriting is really underwriting. It’s the equivalent of someone with little to say who tries to hide the fact by yelling the little they have to say very loudly and with different phrasing a lot of times, and occasionally backwards.

Rating:

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:

Swallow

Swallow

This is going to hurt her more than it's going to hurt our eyeballs

dir: Carlo Mirabella-Davis

2020

This film. Was deeply disturbing. To watch. And harrowing, too!

I warn you now, it’s not for the squeamish, oh no.

Haley Bennett, who probably to her professional detriment looks a lot like Jennifer Lawrence, puts in a performance for the ages in this gutting, in many senses of the word, character study.

In the beginning she is the very image of the perfect 1950s Stepford wife so we already know something terrible is going to happen (it’s not set in the 50s). Her perfect coiffure, her perfect clothing, the overly fussy nature of that multi-million dollar house that overlooks the Hudson River, the perfect hunky husband with his mega-wealthy parents, it’s like, what do you get the woman that seemingly has everything?

Well, you give her a crippling compulsion to eat stuff that is inedible. I’m not talking McDonalds or the fried chicken in bain maries at roadside truck stops.

No, Hunter, as she is known, swallows things. At first, or at least the first thing we see her swallow, is a marble. You’d think, well, that’s a bad idea.

And you would be right. In the times leading up to this, we see Hunter being belittled, minimised, mocked and generally disregarded. It’s not loudly dramatic, it’s just in virtually everything her parents-in-law do and say, and her husband’s jerky self-centredness. We get the strong sense that Hunter is striving mightily to be the perfect wife that these rich bastards demand, but that level of struggle is too much for everyone in general, and not just her.

Lest you think this is going to be anything like the Maggie Gyllenhaal flick from ages ago called Secretary, about a woman who compulsively self-mutilates until she gets her happily ever after in a sadomasochistic relationship with James fucking Spader, it’s nothing like that. No, Hunter’s compulsion to mutilate her insides is not played for sexy laughs at all.

It’s taken very seriously, and it’s also not meant to be a coincidence that this compulsion is escalating just as Hunter finds she is pregnant.

This is a very discrete kind of body horror. Generally in horror flicks we’re worried on behalf of characters (if we care about them at all, which is not a given) that are threatened with torment or death because we either feel for them or imagine ourselves in their place. If this is a kind of horror flick, which I’m not completely convinced it falls into the category of, the horror perhaps is imagining either what these increasingly dangerous objects are doing to her insides, or imagine how it would feel if it was happening to us.

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 Hunt

The Hunt

And this little piggy murdered all the left wing arseholes,
all the way home

dir: Craig Zobel

2020

Now, The Hunt was meant to come out some time last year. But there had been a mass shooting somewhere in the States, as these things rarely happen, and morons, including the orange emperor of the morons, made some moronic statements about the film, so it was shelved.

Jump forward to a time when mass shootings have lowered, what with people wanting to stay safe and all, and The Hunt finally sees its “controversial” release, mostly on streaming services, as far as I can tell. It was shown for only a week in cinemas before being released digitally and before the cinemas were all closed forever thanks to a different kind of plague compared to the one Americans usually face.

So one could be tempted to start a review with something like: was it worth the wait? Is it as damning a piece of cinema as was threatened or implied by the clueless and the feckless?

Well, probably no on both counts. People took umbrage with the premise because they’d heard that what starts off as a horror flick and degenerates / improves into an action flick celebrates the murdering of innocent conservatives by a collection of wealthy liberal elitists.

Dumb people who thrive on outrage don’t need reasons or accuracy to impact their decisions.

They ignored from the start that the hero in these kinds of flicks is the one left standing – the villains are the ones slaughtering innocents for no good reason. Such a premise doesn’t allow for the nuances of ideology even if they shift around the origins of the participants. Humans hunting humans always looks pretty nasty, so having rich people hunt poor and homeless people (Hard Target, Turkey Shoot, The Most Dangerous Game, The Purge) or liberals murdering conservatives for no good reason (The Last Supper, and only this, as far as I can remember) doesn’t make the murderers look good.

In fact, it emphasises that it is the murderers who are, in fact, bad.

When I say that this starts off as a horror film, and then improves, I mean it starts off looking very cheap and nasty, and then gets marginally better once it works up some momentum and once they let Betty Gilpin shine.

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:

Birds of Prey

Birds of Prey

Birds of Prey and Other Opportunities Wasted Incorporated

dir: Cathy Yan

2020

Let’s not sleep on the whole title: Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of one Harley Quinn. If you saw that on a poster and had never heard of The Birds of Prey or Harley Quinn, would it induce you to brave a virus-filled world and venture forth into a cinema to watch it?

In a Simpsons episode from what feels like a century ago, Hollywood has-been Troy McClure has a brief renaissance professionally when he pretends to be heteronormative for a while by dint of marrying Marge’s sister Selma. When the sham falls apart, despite the best efforts of Troy’s agent MacArthur Parker, instead of going with the part of McBain’s sidekick in McBain IV: Fatal Discharge, he elects to star in The Contrabulous Fabtraption of Professor Horatio Hufnagel. Perhaps only time will tell which would have been the better choice.

Every time I saw mention made of Birds of Prey and the Contrabulous Fabtraption of Harley Hufnagel, I wondered what the fuck they were thinking. To me it seems like less a failure of ambition and more a failure of marketing – they didn’t have enough confidence that people would go see a flick with the Birds of Prey without a playfully shoehorned reference to the actual main character, one Harleen Quinzel. But then why not call it Harley Quinn and the Birds of Prey without the other semi-embarrassed bullshit in between?

Now I’m all for Emancipation, whether it’s from slavery or from toxic relationships with genocidal maniacs, but the flick is, and this hurts to say, a mess, regardless of whether anyone gets emancipated or not.

It’s a fucking mess. At its core it has good intentions, but then they say the Good Intentions Paving Company also does its best building those roads that lead straight to hell.

Rating:

The Invisible Man

The Invisible Man

We all now know what it's like being afraid of something
invisible in 2020.

dir: Leigh Whannell

2020

The Invisible Man is a pretty great film about something terrible, being intimate partner violence, or domestic violence, as it used to be more commonly known. Domestic violence, a horror of a concept and a reality for those who live through it (even worse from those who die from it), almost sounds so quaint: the “domestic” part of it binds it to the house, but the sadism, the control, the unwillingness to allow someone to leave a relationship means this form of terrorism extends to anywhere.

Cecilia (the almost always great in absolutely everything she does Elizabeth Moss) wakes up in the middle of the night, someone slumbers next to her. She looks afraid but determined to do something. Since she’s got things packed, and she’s being extra careful, we know she can’t afford to wake up the sleeping jerk. With how afraid she appears we sense that this isn’t someone reluctantly leaving someone she cares about for…reasons and such: We sense that she is terrified of him, to the point where she had to drug him to make sure he doesn’t wake up, with the terrible repercussions that could follow.

The best laid plans of mice, men and women trying to flee abusive, controlling relationships always have to confront the random events that cause everything to fall over, but Cecilia barely gets away regardless. There is no long, drawn out sigh of relief. She pretty much holds her breath for the rest of the film, and only breaths out in the way that I mean at the very end.

Because, you see, some people cannot tolerate being left by someone. Their narcissistic egos won’t allow it, their absolute need for control won’t allow it, and the jerk here, Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) will spend his every waking moment trying to force Cecilia to change her mind and come back to him.

The method, you would think, considering the title, would involve some kind of magic, technology or, I dunno, malicious prayers answered by a vengeful patriarchal god. But the tack that this film takes is to apply something out of the ordinary (invisibility) to an all too common purpose; that of tormenting and isolating Cecilia while making everyone else think she’s nuts. And also, the classic, making her doubt her own sanity.

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:

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