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Drama

Night of the Kings

La Nuit des rois

Most people have to lie just to avoid facing up to their
responsibilities or the repercussions of their own actions.
He has to lie just to stay alive! No pressure, you go, king

La Nuit des Rois

dir: Philippe Lacôte

2021

I had heard this film was good, but even I’m a bit surprised.

I know what the flick sounds like – young chap turns up to prison in the middle of a jungle in the tiny African nation of Cote d’Ivoire, also known as the Ivory Coast, and looks pretty scared.

He should be. It’s like no other prison I’ve ever seen.

I’m going to indulge in what seems like a bit of fat-shaming, but that’s not really what it is. Especially since I look like Jack Black before he found fame and fortune and personal trainers. There are only two overweight chaps in this whole prison: the warden Nivaquine (Issaka Sawadogo) and Barbè Noire (Steve Tientcheu). Both are big men, both are older, but only one is considered the king of MACA prison. Barbè Noire, despite that being a nickname, and French for Blackbeard, as in the pirate, is just as much called his other title, being Dangôro.

This prison has rules. Every prison has rules, but this one’s rules are tinged with the vaguely mystical: if its ailing king grows weak, he is obligated to top himself, so that a new king can take his place. Except when there is a red moon. If a red moon is to appear, the Dangôro can choose a Roman, as in, a storyteller, to tell a story on that night, thus buying himself some more time.

It is very unclear what the rules are around the telling of the story, or what the storyteller is meant to do. If the crowd doesn’t like the story, presumably the storytelling can come to a premature end. If the crowd are entranced by it, the storyteller gets more time to tell more of a story. But if they run out of story before the sun rises, they will end up on a metal hook, up a flight of stairs, and it looks like a painful way to die.

Again, I know what a story set in a prison sounds like, murder everywhere, abuse by prisoners and guards alike, brutality and sadism and hypermasculinity and all that, and while elements of that appear here, they’re not the bread and butter of the story. It’s really about watching the terrified and desperate Roman (Bakary Koné) try to spin a tale, as many tales, as many versions of tales as he can before he loses the crowd and before the night ends.

No one is really on his side, and everything seems stacked against him, and I’m sure most of the prison don’t care whether he lives or dies, but I guess we care. The sole non-Ivory Coast person in the prison, called Silence (legendary brutish looking French actor Denis Lavant) breaks his silence in order to tell the kid that he has to play for time and stretch out what little material he has. Everyone else, including the ailing king, want to see him fail, because sacrificing him gives the king another day.

Rating:

The Killing of Two Lovers

Killing of Two Lovers

I'm glad they got a good night's sleep, even if it's their last

dir: Robert Machoian

2021

The Killing of Two Lovers, as a title, doesn’t sound that ambiguous. I mean, any reasonable person with eyeballs who reads English would read that title and assume that this film has a story about the killing of two lovers.

It is not, however, the whole sentence. It is somewhat deceptive. It is the beginning of a sentence, rather than the end of a sentence. But it’s still not clear whether it’s the beginning of a story or the end of one.

When the film begins, a bearded distraught chap (Clayne Crawford) with a gun, stands in a bedroom. We see two sleeping people’s feet poking out of the bed. He raises the gun towards them, but then stops when he hears a toilet flushing in the house. He retreats, sneaks out a window, and runs to a pick up truck, hides the gun, drives about a block away to another house.

At that house, an aged dad struggles to breath and drink water from a cup, but he’s okay, in the way of all old men. He is father to this angry son, but the son puts on a veneer of normality when speaking with him, doing chores around the place, doting on him. It’s a kind of weary friendliness, concern, all mixed in together.

But only we know apparently that it’s a veneer. When he ventures out again, it’s in pursuit of the other newer, shinier pick up truck that was parked in front of the house he was standing in with murderous intent. The male that was on the bed drives away, and our bearded jerk follows him. The camera, in long takes, focuses solely on the driver, so we are seeing little of the world but much of it from his perspective. It is a very small town, the kind small enough where everyone must know each other or else.

The guy stops for a percolated coffee, so our guy stops for a percolated coffee, forced to interact with him in the process, then he follows him again on the road, seemingly with the intent of shooting him as they’re driving, but he’s foiled, again.

These scenes, these tense scenes of potential violence, only we see them. No one else has seen them at this stage, so the world chugs along as it did before.

The distraught chap goes back to the house from the beginning, and we find out that it’s the house he used to live in with his wife and kids, who still live there. He, being David, shepherds his younger kids to the school bus, and eventually sees his daughter walking in the opposite direction to the school. That daughter, Jess (Avery Pizzuto), is very angry, at her parents in general, for separating, but especially angry at her father, for not being able to keep his marriage together, because he is a loser.

Rating:

Our Friend

Our Friend

Friend doesn't seem like enough of a word to describe him

dir: Gabriela Cowperthwaite

2021

Because of…because of a lot of stuff happening at the moment, I couldn’t bring myself to watch something violent or action-y, nor could I stomach horror or anything else, so I really wanted to watch some deeply felt human drama.

Not drama in the sense of people yelling at each other or throwing glasses of wine at their frenemies, but something about human stuff, and how humans deal with it all.

I remembered having read the article this was based on, or at least a part of the story a year or two ago, and I thought “this looks like a bundle of laughs”, so I gave it a go.

It served its purpose. It’s on the surface a story about a couple where one of them is diagnosed with cancer, and the friend that comes to help and stays over during the difficult days, weeks and months. But, really, it’s called Our Friend for a reason.

The reason seems to be the incredulity with which people confront Dane’s choices and existence. No-one, other than the primary couple of Nicole (Dakota Johnson) and Matt (Casey Affleck), seems to understand why Dane (Jason Segal) would do what he does. He and his choices are viewed almost with suspicion, but at least in general with head-shaking wonder. “I wouldn’t do that for someone if I didn’t have to” seems to be the refrain, but in another case it’s viewed mostly as proof positive of what a total fucking loser Dane is.

It’s profoundly unfair. I have no doubt that Dane’s story is a complex one. It’s not really gone into here with any great depth. It’s implied that he struggles with depression, and that at one point he’s perhaps suicidal. But much more of this is indicated by other people’s perceptions, rather than anything Dane himself expresses.

Is it more about men? Men’s inarticulateness in terms of expressing their emotions? You could see the whole article being about Matt wanting to say thank you to Dane for helping his family out during a terrible time, one which did not have a happy ending for Nicole, obviously. And so the film by extension becomes an extended thank you to Dane for being there, for helping where he could, where many others clearly think they wouldn’t have.

You know, you could have just said something more than “thanks doesn’t seem like enough”.

It doesn’t really seem to be about Nicole. She’s the one dying, but mostly the film flicks around (with its very disjointed timeline) showing that Matt and Nicole were very happy together, except when they weren’t, and that Matt spent a lot of time away from his family working as a war-torn, battle-hardened war correspondent, and more importantly once had the opportunity to cheat but didn’t, and Nicole, upset about being virtually a single-parent to two daughters, does cheat.

C’mon, man, you didn’t need to go there. Nicole sings and dances in musical theatre, but that’s no reason to malign her further. The only reason I think you’d go there (other than just telling the “true” story of their lives together), is that it makes Matt look like even more of a saint.

Rating:

The Father

The Father

Love doesn't save any of us at these times, but it still must
mean something. Mustn't it?

dir: Florian Zeller

2020

Oh, what a heartbreaking film. The whole thing is… almost too much for my poor soul.

The Father, based on the play of the same name, written by the chap who directs here as well, is staged as a mystery. The main character of Anthony (Anthony Hopkins) is watching as things go on around him, as people come and go, with certainty about many facts about his life.

It’s not really a mystery, though. Not to us. We know pretty soon what’s going on and why. But he doesn’t. So as confusing issue pops up after confusing issue, we see more pieces of the puzzle, but he sees and remembers even less the further it goes on.

This is what he has certainty about: he lives in his own lovely, well-appointed flat. He has a daughter Anne (played by Olivia Colman some of the time, and Olivia Williams some other of the time), but there’s another daughter he keeps talking about, Laura or Lucy, who never seems to be around. She is his favourite, you see, and a very talented painter. Look here at her painting above the mantle, wait, where did it go?

Anne has a husband, or a boyfriend, or she’s soon moving to Paris to be with her new partner, or she’s already living with her husband (Rufus Sewell and Mark Gatiss), who doesn’t take too kindly to Anthony always being around. He’s either openly hostile, intending to steal Anthony’s flat and watch, or has already stolen it, or pretends to be supportive, waiting for a chance to lash out at the poor old man. He is also entirely supportive of Anne’s efforts in looking after her dad, or he is undermining her under the pretense of worrying about her well-being, and he’s either going to stay with her or he’s already left.

Stuff goes missing. A woman who had been hired previously to help look after the old man left because Anthony’s behavior scared her away, which has happened a number of times. But anyway, he doesn’t need anyone’s help, does he? He can look after himself. If only everything would stay in the right spot, and if strange people wouldn’t be popping up all the time, he would be all right.

But stuff, parts of the flat, parts of his life keep disappearing, reflected in the changes in the flat, which isn’t his flat anyway; it’s Anne’s. He’s been living with Anne for a while, and she’s been trying to introduce him to a new girl who’s going to help look after him, and she’s the spitting image of his other daughter Laura or Lucy, and she’s very nice, and he’s so charming to her, until he lashes out, thinking, wishing that he didn’t need any help and that things would stay in their right place.

Rating:

On the Rocks

On the Rocks

Some movies I watch just for the wallpaper

dir: Sofia Coppola

2020

I was kinda excited to see this. Lost in Translation has played an outsized role in my life for many years, and at least 2 of the people responsible for it are here again.

Yeah, I know, parts of Lost in Translation are a bit problematic, which is a euphemism for straight out racist, but it did have a great soundtrack? And it looked great, and made Japan look great?

Bill Murray dominated that film, and he dominates this film too, even with less screen time. Like either the shark in Jaws or the giant gorilla in King Kong, when he’s not around, everyone’s still talking about him until he turns up.

The protagonist here, really, is Laura (Rashida Jones), and Murray plays her father. She has two young kids, seems checked out, is trying to write something, and her husband (Marlon Wayons) is often away on work trips.

That’s pretty much the whole film. I don’t mean that’s the premise, or how it starts, I mean that’s the entire film. I haven’t gone out of my way to make it sound simplistic or off-putting – I’ve left those bits out. I guess I’m trying to say there’s not a lot going on here.

When she starts suspecting that maybe her husband is cheating on her with a lady at work, that gives her something to do with her dad. You see, her dad, is a terrible piece of shit. But he is an immensely successful and charismatic piece of shit. His relentless womanising and contempt for women immediately makes him certain that Laura’s husband must definitely be cheating on her, because, hey, all men are dogs, right?

In a very weak, wan fashion, this gives father and daughter something to do, and something to talk about, until the grand revelation at the end: I’m not going to spoil shit about this flick, because then there’d be even less reason to potentially watch it, and it’s not my business trying to dissuade people from watching flicks made by Sofia Coppola. I think Sofia Coppola is a great director, better than her more famous father, that’s for sure. But as good as she is, some days it must be hard to have Francis Ford Coppola as a father.

Rating:

The Climb

Climb

Biking in your 40s and beyond should be a criminal offence

dir: Michael Angelo Covino

2020

The Climb is about friendship.

It’s not about the friends we make along the way in this crazy journey we call life. It’s about the friends we drag with us, or drag us back, stopping us from growing or changing for a multitude of reasons throughout our lives.

I mean, this is not Sisters of the Travelling Pants. This is The Climb, and it is about two adult male friends who’ve known each other since childhood, Mike and Kyle. ‘Mike’ is also the director. Kyle Marvin plays Kyle. They clearly made the film together. Do you see where I’m going with this?

I don’t know if they’re actual lifelong frenemies in real life, but surely they’re bringing something to this too.

I hesitate to call it a comedy, because comedy, as a genre, implies laughter, chuckling, giggling and so forth. It’s funny, but there aren’t jokes. The whole film is immensely funny, in that it’s suffused with irony, and very cleverly done. But it’s not immediately apparent, it’s not showy, really, though it’s very well crafted.

And though I’ve said it’s not showy, that’s a lie, because there’s a section which is one long shot without edits which is incredibly well done, and would have been a nightmare to coordinate and get right, and both the filming and the way it’s put together are phenomenal for a film made with such a tiny budget.

Rating:

Music

Musique

Music brings the party people together

dir: Sia Furler

2021

I have to admit, I’m a fan of disaster cinema. I’m not talking about disaster movies per se, though those can be entertaining as well. I mean movies that come out that capture the imagination of the critics or the public because of, not in spite of, the fact that they are branded absolutely screaming apocalyptic dumpster fires right from the get go.

The people who greenlit this at Warner Brothers in order to keep Sia happy are probably happy that they haven’t been arrested yet, that the opprobrium has dissipated somewhat, and that Music has been pretty much forgotten about, about a month after its expectant mother, Sia, brought it forth into an uncaring and unsuspecting world.

Depending on which articles you read about it, Music was either the worst movie ever made to do with a character living with autism, or the worst movie ever conceived independent of whether autism is accurately or fairly depicted. That it was just a supremely wrong-headed project from conception to realisation is probably unfair to say out loud.

But while more complex questions come to mind, the far simpler one that perhaps captures the essence of the problem from the start is this one: what the fuck were they thinking?

Could no one say to Sia that this was a bad idea? Is she so far gone in her stardom that when people start shaking their heads at something she says they are fired immediately or catapulted out of a building?

Rating:

Malcolm & Marie

Malcolm and Marie

These people are pretty but shouldn't be together, nuh uh

dir: Sam Levinson

2021

Pandemic filmmaking. It’s a genre unto itself. You could argue it’s a product of necessity and invention, or you could say “there’s something more helpful or vital that you could be doing with your time.”

Truth be told, you could have said that at any time in the past and there would have been some truth to it.

So. A director / writer, in the form of Sam Levinson, and two actors, and a crew, put together a movie during the coronapocalypse that has engulfed the States and killed half a million people to date. Minimal crew, only two actors, shot mostly at night, all at one location, in gorgeous black and white.

Malcolm (John David Washington, who’s having the year of his life) is a director, and he’s just had a film premiere, and it’s been a triumph. Marie (Zendaya) is seething from beginning to end, and goes outside of their remarkable house somewhere in Carmel-by-the-Sea to smoke.

What is Carmel-by-the-Sea? The only thing I know about it is that I remember way back in the day that Clint Eastwood decided he wanted to be the mayor of the place, which is a town in California, presumably by the sea. And it happened. And then he got bored of doing that and went back to making movies.

Malcolm is pacing and ranting, high on life, but mostly adrenalin, yelling a mile a minute about his triumph, about his conversation with a critic from the LA Times, and about the ignorance of most people about the important milestones in film, being Citizen Kane and the work of Billy Wilder, and how he hates having to be compared only to other African-American directors.

He’s ranting and raving, and drinking a lot, but he’s not drunk, other than on his own smug sense of self-satisfaction.

And that is some powerful stuff.

Marie is, strangely enough, making mac and cheese, though not for herself, at one in the morning. Strange thing to be doing while you’re wearing a spangly dress in high heels, but who am I to question someone else’s choices?

You see, clearly there’s something bugging her, or at least, there are a lot of things bugging her. No doubt it’s because of something Malcolm did or didn’t do. But she doesn’t volunteer the information until it’s demanded, and from then on it’s on for young and old.

And by “young” I mean Zendaya, and by “old” I mean John David Washington.

Rating:

The White Tiger

White Tiger

Eat the Rich, kill kill kill kill kill kill the poor: I don't know who
out of Aerosmith, Motorhead and the Dead Kennedys had it right

dir: Ramin Bahrani

2021

Right from the start, right off the bat, let me tell you something for free: This is the best movie about murdering someone in order to become a successful businessman that I have ever seen.

Any other movies that you’ve seen where someone murders people in order to become successful, they are but as ants at the feet of Alexander the Great.

The great trick that The White Tiger pulls off, that in my eyes Parasite didn’t quite pull off, is that not only is it as good if not better than the novel it is based on by Aravind Adiga that won the Booker Prize in 2008, it makes you almost accept without having too many qualms about it, that the scum of the lower orders sometimes are almost justified in killing their oppressors. That the people at the top of the hierarchy are awful and do awful things, especially to the lower orders, and actively maintain the system which keeps people down. Thus social and societal mobility depends on killing one’s betters, taking their place, and hopefully being kinder to the people below you.

It probably sounds like I’m being sarcastic, but honestly, I’m not. I’m pretty sure neither the main character of Balram (Adarsh Gourav) nor the author are actually advocating that every poor person should rise up and kill the rich. If they were, that would be sweet. The broader societal implications of what Balram is saying only really apply to him. There is no self-help manual on getting out of The Darkness, as he calls it, or, alternately, the rooster coop, other than desperately fighting your way out.

One of the more shocking aspects of the novel, for me, someone who knows little about India and its multitudes, is just what an appalling picture it paints of Indian society, and the prevalent system apportioning personal worth we refer to as the caste system. They don’t call it that, because ‘caste’ isn’t a Hindi word. But there are moments in the film where Balram is asked what his caste is, in order for the asker to know whether Balram is a higher order of scum or a lower order of scum.

He takes a while to answer. He is of the Halwei cast, the sweet maker caste, which is considered one of the lower castes. Boo, hiss you lower orders, get back to your awful villages and make sweets for us, you presumptuous scum!

In stories like this, and there are millions of them, life in the village is sometimes depicted as idyllic, as pure and wonderful, with the main character being forced to travel to the big city in order to learn valuable lessons about what matters, and how the simple life is better than aspiring towards wealth and power.

Rating:

Black Bear

Black Bear

What's she building in there? Is it plans to rule the world or
eat a cookie?

dir: Lawrence Michael Levine

2020

How lucky for us: two movies for the price of one.

Aubrey Plaza stars as Allison, a director / actor who stays in an Airbnb with a couple she doesn’t know in the Adirondack Mountains, in upstate New York. She seems a bit anxious to be there, and the couple she’s staying with seem like they have their own problems.

Blair (Sarah Gadon) is pregnant, and her jerk of a boyfriend Gabe (Christopher Abbot) doesn’t seem too happy about it, and neither of them really seems like they can stand the other. Bringing Allison into the middle of this feels like dropping someone into the middle of a Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? rehearsal. Everyone is overacting like it’s their last chance before the virus destroys the film industry.

I don’t know how much of this is “real”. I mean, it’s easy enough to suspect that it’s all bullshit, but when you have an actor being asked by another actor as to why she stopped getting jobs, and maybe it was because she was “difficult”, you have to wonder what they’re getting at. I don’t know if Aubrey Plaza has been referred to as “difficult”, which is usually the kiss of death of your career. “Difficult” can mean an actress refused to be violated by a Weinstein or didn’t put up with someone else’s predatory bullshit, or thought she should get paid as much as someone else.

You know, grave crimes like that.

Aubrey Plaza has been in a bunch of films, so hopefully it’s not coming from her personal experiences, but then she’s a woman who works in movies and teev, so, yeah, more than likely, she’s been through some shit.

But there are multiple ways to look at the stories the flick is telling. The stories themselves aren’t that complicated beyond the dramatic. I mean, if we divide the film in two halves, and we call the first half “black bear in the road” and the second half “black bear near the boat house”, we would call the first half trashy melodrama, and the second half a behind the scenes look at what awful people directors are and the shit they put actors through.

And even then that could be simplistic.

Rating:

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