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Drama

Nomadland

Nomadland

Life is brief and all too long, together or apart

dir: Chloe Zhao

2020

Nomadland is a beautiful, sad film. I have no doubt it’s about something to the people that made it, but mostly, it just seems to be about a woman with no home who drives around, does odd jobs, and meets a few people.

Imagine trying to sell that idea to a studio, to get them to make your film.

Well, it helps if the person is Frances McDormand who read the book by Jessica Bruder, and thought “this would be a good movie with me in it”, and she was not wrong, because she’s rarely wrong. She’s been a tremendous actor for decades, but she’s not as beloved by the media as the Streeps and, I dunno, the Cate Blanchetts of the world because she doesn’t seem to give as much of a shit about the fanciful stuff around the movies versus the movies themselves.

If a person was being uncharitable one could argue being married to a Coen Brother is an incredible advantage in such a ruthless world of cinematic shenanigans. You might argue that’s how she got her first Oscar, but that doesn’t explain the other two, or all the great roles she’s assayed, in pretty much everything she’s ever done. Plus she was great in Fargo independent of who directed it.

The keen intensity she brings to most of her roles is directed elsewhere here. Her character of Fern exists, does things, has a backstory, but she’s not really the protagonist of this story. This story doesn’t need or have a singular protagonist. She does things, a bunch of things, and talks to a bunch of people, but she underplays everything in a way that people confuse with naturalism or underacting, which, if ever you’ve seen non-actors act whenever a camera is on, we should know is anything but easy.

Her character has lost her husband of however many years, but she’s also lost her home, her sense of place, any feeling of a safe harbor in the world. The town she lived in disappeared not because of her husband’s death, but because the town itself died when the one business shut down. The town of Empire, Nevada, is a real place, and all that’s referred to actually happened. A town with a population of 750 fell to zero when US Gypsum closed the mine. No mine, no reason for the town to exist.

Rating:

Lorelei

Lorelei

Young love, ages like a poisonous wine

dir: Sabrina Doyle

2021

I did not know what to except with this movie, and it totally delivered on that uncertainty.

Set mostly in a tiny town in the Pacific North West, this is a fairly grim story about people who had hopes and dreams when they were young, but life came along and crushed them, but they kept on living, so, now what do we do?

People on the lowest rungs of society, especially in gleefully capitalistic wonderlands like the States, don’t really have as much of a chance to pursue their “dreams” as all the motivational self-help boilerplate statements would lead us to believe. Working hard and making sacrifices doesn’t make you Jeffrey Bezos. Jeffrey Bezos could sit in the corner of a darkened room motionless, unblinking all day long and still “makes” millions per second, more than any of his employees who could work twenty four hours a day and never take a bathroom break could make over their entire lives.

Those who grow up in a small Oregon town, who get involved with drugs, crime from a young age, having kids way too early, well, the system isn’t designed to let them get anywhere with all the will and hard work in the world. The system needs them to stay isolated and desperate so there’s no upward pressure on wages, and they’ll work themselves to death for peanuts, and that there proves how well the system works.

Wayland (a phenomenal Pablo Schreiber) has just been released from prison. He’s done hard time for 15 years. He wasn’t unfairly or unjustly incarcerated. He isn’t vowing revenge on the cops or on some criminal enemy. He committed a serious crime, got caught, kept his mouth shut, and that was that. His crew, his family, a bikie gang called The Night Horsemen, as in, presumably, the Night Horsemen of the Apocalypse (unless they all met at pony club at a very young age, brought together by their love of all things equestrian), are there to greet him and welcome him home.

Rating:

The Card Counter

Card Counter

So broody and intense, you can fill up two hours with it

dir: Paul Schrader

2021

Yeesh. Like, I’m sure a lot of other directors fuck up the endings of their films, but holy fuck does this go off the rails.

Although, being honest, it’s not really on decent rails before it falls off of them and into a ravine abundant with mediocrity and yet somehow still empty.

It’s such a shame, because I love Oscar Isaac. He’s usually dependably great in what he does. He does okay for much of the flick, but the film feels so flimsy after a while, giving him a heavily weighted and freighted character who doesn’t really have anything to do and to whom nothing believable happens.

And then he flies back to his home planet, never to be seen or heard from again.

It’s that abrupt. Either they completely ran out of money or they just didn’t know how to end things.

That in itself would be fascinating, in terms of how you can run out of money when your budget is probably miniscule as it is. There are times when Isaac’s character is wearing what I’m pretty sure is Target brand clothing, and there’s no real story reason for it, so the times when he’s wearing decent clothing I’m assuming he’s wearing his own stuff.

There is something serious, something important the flick is trying to do, or at least it’s pretending it’s about serious and weighty subjects. The main character, who tells people his name is William Tell, is a very cold, very robotic person who counts cards at low rent casinos. He’s not trying to make a bundle; he’s just trying to make modest winnings, and then move on.

He doles out his story to us, the audience, by writing in a journal and then telling us things in voice over. His writing is neither profound nor overly revealing, and all it does is imply to us that this very shut down man still has thoughts percolating in that noggin of his.

The weight that he carries is that he was in the military, and was stationed at some place like Abu Ghraib where US personnel, contractors or otherwise, tortured and tormented people for intel, for revenge, for shits and giggles.

He wasn’t one of the victims – he was one of the torturers.

But I guess there’s the argument that torturers can also carry the burden of the trauma they inflicted. There are other flicks, even ones I’ve seen recently, which look at what impact execution has on people, not just the victims, but on society, including those who the state compels to end the lives of others. The Iranian flick I’m thinking of, There Is No Evil, was a brilliant and affecting examination of the topic.

The Card Counter isn’t even vaguely in the same ballpark, at least, not to me. William Tell was jailed for his crimes. He lives a life that seems strange to the observer, but we never really get a sense of why he lives like this, what it means to him, until a character sees one of the odd things he does, being, that he travels from cheap motel to cheap motel and brings his own sheets.

That bit makes perfect sense. But what he does is wrap those sheets around the furniture, and it’s not because of germophobia, which I would otherwise completely understand, but because he needs the space to be monochromatic, to perhaps make him feel like he’s back in jail.

Okay, so he doesn’t feel like he has paid enough for what he did, he needs to suffer more.

Rating:

Pig

Pig

It's true that there are few real things for us to care about in
this life. But why oh why, for me, did it have to be movies?

dir: Michael Sarnoski

2021

Pig is an amazing film, in that it’s amazing to believe that of the twenty or so movies Nicolas Cage still makes a year, very occasionally there will be an okay one, an almost better than okay one. Pig is surprising for that reason, if no other.

It’s a simple enough premise, but it’s the same premise taken to absurd lengths that underpins other far more violent flicks where the death of a pet or the loss of an animal is an excuse to kill a bunch of people. The action in John Wick kicks off with the shooting of a dog. The Rover with Guy Pearce has a man kill a whole bunch of people in a post-collapse landscape because he wants to get his dead dog back.

Pig has a guy searching for his pig, which has been stolen. But it’s not used as an excuse to kill a whole bunch of people. While there is a small amount of violence in the film, it is visited upon the protagonist, rather than him visiting righteous vengeance upon others. It subverts not only the expected path for these kinds of films, but for Nicolas Cage films in general.

I’ve heard tell, quite often, that Portland, Oregon is an odd place, and this film doesn’t make it seem any less weird. The main character, Rob (Cage) and his odyssey through the curious culinary underworld of Portland is a journey of a broken, barely speaking man who looks like he’s been destroyed by life. The pig was his only companion, and with whom he sought out truffles, which he gave to Amir (Alex Wolff) in exchange for food basics. They lived in a shack in the woods, somewhere near the Willamette River. How do I know it’s the Willamette River? They talk about the Willamette all the fucking time. Considering that I even know about the Willamette River mostly due to the Wildwood novels written by Colin Meloy of The Decemberists fame, I get the feeling there’s not much else going on there other than the river and rare culinary treats.

Rob, as he’s known, takes a beating from two shady characters who pilfer the pig. Rob then embarks on his journey to getting the pig back by going towards a place he has avoided for over a decade. He only goes to the kinds of places that are somehow tied to the food services industry, but more on the exotic produce and ingredients side. In such an imagined world, a truffle finding pig of high quality would be extremely valuable, and everyone would somehow know about it.

Where I live, if I had a pig, and someone stole it, and then I wandered around the local restaurants and markets grunting about my pig, most likely I wouldn’t find the pig, and people wouldn’t answer my questions, and I’d probably get arrested. There isn’t much visual disparity between how I generally appear at my best and Cage’s character appears at his worst, but my name doesn’t carry the weight that his character’s does here.

Rating:

Supernova

Supernova

Who wouldn't want to be cuddled by these wonderful old men?

dir: Harry Macqueen

2021

Oh boy. I felt like watching something human and intimate after enduring the shitshow that was Annette a couple of nights ago, and so I chose to watch this, knowing full well what it was about.

Let’s just say I got what I wanted, in spades and truckloads.

It’s a really simple story. No bells and whistles. If you can watch an old gay couple squabbling about minor things at first, poking fun gently the way two old curmudgeons who still love each other might, and travelling around the English countryside, then this could be your jam.

At least for about half an hour.

Tusker (Stanley Tucci) and Sam (Colin Firth) have been together for decades, and, no, this isn’t a flick about past infidelities or heartbreak; one of them is a bit ill, and so there’s a bit of a victory lap feel to their travels. Tusker, being an American writer, is still working on a novel. Sam is a former concert pianist, and this trip is a prelude to him taking to the stage again after many years off of it.

They have an RV, and are meandering their way through what I’m guessing is the Lake District, but Tusker, despite his wry humour, is struggling with dementia. Neither Tusker nor Sam are that old (both actors are 60, but that doesn’t mean their characters are meant to be the same age), but dementia doesn’t see a number: it just sees an opportunity to ruins many people’s lives.

He hasn’t lost all his words yet or motor function skills, but he feels its breath on his shoulder, and dreads what’s to come. Sam is cheery, and prefers not to face it at first, but also thinks / feels / hopes he’s prepared for what’s coming.

He knows, and some of us know, that it is difficult to look after someone whose body and mind betraying them, but in this case it’s also going to be coupled with the fact that Tusker will eventually not recognise his beloved anymore, let alone himself. Tusker is still a fucking smartarse, though. There’s a brief bit early on where he deliberately and gratingly embarrasses Sam when a waitress seems to recognise him from the telly, and Tusker adamantly insists that Same has to give her an autograph.

At this stage of the flick, because we have no idea who “Sam” is in the scheme of things, I wasn’t really sure what was going on, on the off chance that the waitress was a real waitress, and maybe wondered if “Sam” was that actor who played the brooding Mr Darcy a bunch of times.

But nah. Under questioning from a mortified Sam, Tusker admits that when he does it, it’s probably supremely irritating to Sam, but at least half the time he finds it immensely funny.

Well, that makes it all right then.

It’s only after that point that they explain (to us) through dialogue that Sam is a pianist of some renown, and that their trip together will culminate in a concert. Although, really, it’s not the concert Sam is concerned with, it’s the plan he has for how the two of them are to live afterwards.

He has one plan, being something like assisted living, with Sam doing the bulk of the high level care, as it’s called, with some help as well.

Tusker has his own plan, but hasn’t shared it as yet, but it’s there, sitting patiently like a hidden blade.

Rating:

Minari

Minari

Here's one I prepared for you earlier

dir: Lee Isaac Chung

2020

The Immigrant Song. It’s an old tale, told very differently, country to country. Especially when it’s Led Zeppelin, which is I guess about singing about Vikings or something?

Anyway, Minari is a version of the immigrant story, the ‘new’ American version of that story told more with an eye towards depicting a family’s remembrances growing up, rather than talking up the American Dream.

The American Dream had long asserted that if the tired, the hungry, the poor huddled masses of the world’s wretched refuse just got to the country’s shores, and worked monstrously hard for less than minimum wage for several decades, not only would they eventually prosper, but they would get so successful their kids would grow up pudgy, lazy and entitled. In recent years that’s changed to “fuck off we’re closed”, build this wall, build that wall, buy more guns, dying on the job for peanuts is noble, and the virus isn’t real.

This story is unusual in that it’s not about the success that comes from working hard, taking risks, having good luck but grit and determination as well. It’s not a parable or a cautionary tale. It’s the story of a person born into a Korean-American family in California, and the family moves to rural Arkansas because of the father’s dream of a more meaningful life.

I have no doubt that, over the long term, the family survived and thrived, through hard work and sacrifice and all of that, because the little boy depicted here clearly grew up to become the person who wrote and directed this movie, since while it’s semi-autobiographical it’s also clearly, deeply personal. Plus the “David” here went on to study biology at Yale, but chose not to enter medicine and instead became a film director.

That must have taken a lot of hard work, on everyone’s part. But that is not what the flick is about, almost perversely. You can imagine producers, or studio people, hearing early versions of the script saying “yeah, well, you’d get more arses on seats if we can sell it as ‘hard-working immigrants deal with racism and eventually shut up their detractors by opening franchise Korean barbecue company and swimming in pools of money’, don’t you think?”

Because this flick is from the perspective of the family’s youngest member, the immigrant struggle and yearning for success and credibility means little compared to the a) restrictions David lives under because of problems with his heart, and more importantly b) the incredible stress the family was under as the father tried to achieve his goals while they lived like trolls under a bridge.

Rating:

Shiva Baby

Shiva Baby

Healthy and empowering all at once, naturally

dir: Emma Seligman

2021

Films can be funny and excruciating: It’s a whole sub-genre of comedy, sometimes called cringe comedy. I am not so great with it, because movies about the comedy of social awkwardness / the cringe can render me contorted and tormented and incapable of appreciating any aspects of the production if I’m twitching on the ground with my fingers over my eyes.

Shiva Baby isn’t cringe-comedy per se, but it is fucking excruciating in ways that are sometimes pretty funny. What’s funniest for me is not the film itself, but what prompted me to watch and review it.

I had already heard about the flick when it had played festivals and received some pretty positive reviews. One thing that stuck out to me, that gave me a bit of pause, is that there were a fair few male reviewers making the case that the film’s “sex positive” main character was a refreshing change (not entirely clear from what), and that they appreciated the nuanced take on millennials and their approach towards the contemporary complexity of sex and relationships in this brave new digital age.

That kind of shit rings all sorts of alarm bells for me.

In a different context, I was reading a review not just of this movie, but of another, in an actual, physical magazine. You remember them? They had glossy photos and rectangular pages and you had to sit there and absorb the words instead of scrolling to the end for the “too long, didn’t read” summary.

In this magazine the reviewer, also male, lamented the existence of, and the job requirement for them to review, the latest Fast and Furious 9 movie. In this contemporary world where millions have lost their lives to a virus, millions more have lost their livelihoods and safety, lamenting the fact you have to sit there for a couple of hours and watch some nonsense, and then write about it, is the height, the very fucking pinnacle of privileged luxury.

Beyond that he lamented living in a world where FF9 is vastly more popular, more enjoyed by the filthy masses than, you guessed it, films like Shiva Baby.

That Shiva Baby exists in the same kind of world that can also produce Fast and Furious films is why this world is such a rich tapestry of different experiences and ideas. That less than 1% of the same people that will see FF9 will ever see a flick like Shiva Baby is perhaps sad, but more people perhaps can relate to the adventures of lunatics with cars in space than with a young Jewish woman in New York who doesn’t know what to do with her life and who thinks extracting cash from a sugardaddy is empowering and a path to self-knowledge.

Which is sad, I guess, and probably what that reviewer was getting at, since most of us probably have more in common with the main character here than we do with Vin Diesel or John Cena and whatever characters they might play.

Rating:

Another Round

Druk

To alcohol - the cause of, and almost never the solution to,
all of life's problems

dir: Thomas Vinterberg

2020

One could think that alcohol has had a good enough run for long enough that it wouldn’t really need to be celebrated in cinematic form, but Danish director Thomas Vinterberg and his cast of Danish legends (well, at least Mads Mikkelsen is well known) choose to highlight the many highs and precious few lows of drinking in this here cinematical enterprise.

I am very conflicted about this flick. I get that it’s not really about drinking, or alcohol, per se. It’s more about the malaise of middle-age, of not being present to the people around you, of feeling bored and disconnected. But it also presents the consumption of alcohol as a mostly joyous experience with very few side-effects beyond greatness.

Drinking in Danish culture seems bonkers, as depicted here. The film starts with a huge bunch of what I assumed were uni kids, but they’re actually in high school, lugging around crates of beer and playing yacht race-type games which involve sculling booze and running, two things that shouldn’t really go together. The high energy raucous start, which involves the kids carrying on like pork chops on public transport and handcuffing a transport guard to a railing, makes underage drinking look like a lot of fun.

That is strongly contrasted with the energy exhibited by their teachers. Martin (the magnificent Mads Mikkelsen) is so listless and drained of interest in his own subject, which is history, that he cannot maintain the thread of his thoughts, or give a shit about what the kids are learning from him. He brings this same energy to every other aspect of his life. He’s checked out from his kids, he’s checked out from his wife, and seems to have no interest in anything other than continuing the drudgery of daily doleful domestics and doing the bare minimum in the classroom.

A co-worker called Nikolaj (Magnus Milang) has a birthday dinner planned, so Martin and two other colleagues, Peter (Lars Ranthe) and Tommy (Thomas B Larsen) go to a fancy shmancy restaurant where they give you shots of vodka with your caviar and perfectly paired wines with your meal.

Martin is polite, but not really connecting, he’s also not drinking because…it’s a school night? The other guys drink heartily, feast and carouse. Nikolaj, whose birthday it is, and who I think teaches psychology, proposes two things. One, that Martin is lacking in self-confidence and joy, which he makes some noises about but basically accepts, and two, that deliberately misinterpreting a joke from someone who actually exists, being Norwegian psychiatrist Finn Skarderud, who suggested that people have a 0.05 blood alcohol deficiency which needs to be corrected by drinking small amounts of booze regularly, should be their role model.

Rating:

Zola

@Zola

I regret saying yes now too

dir: Janicza Bravo

2021

I think Zola could be the most stressful film I’ve watched all year. I’m not that keen on stressful movies at the moment, and had I known I probably wouldn’t have submitted myself to this kind of scuzzy rollercoaster ride through what could be the dumbest state in all of the US.

But I guess it has other virtues, too.

You haven’t seen many films based on a string of 148 tweets, but if you have, here is another one. The point of this story is that a woman had a terrible experience trusting some dingbats, and this is the story that unfolded. She at least lived to tweet about the ordeal, some others weren’t as lucky.

Taylour Paige stars as the Zola of the title. Instead of playing French writer Emil Zola, author of classic novel Germinal outlining the misery of poor coal miners and their miserable families, she instead plays a waitress who is befriended by someone she possibly shouldn’t have befriended. Stefani (Riley Keough) is a white sex worker chaperoned around by her pimp X (Colman Domingo), whose technique in bringing Zola into their orbit consists of calling her “bitch” affectionately at either the beginning of or end of each sentence that she speaks. For lack of a better descriptor, Stefani talks “black”, and somehow that isn’t a red flag to Zola, who’s African-American.

Almost everything Zola says, either out loud or in voice over narration to us, is taken from the tweet storm originally birthed out into the world back in 2015. Paige delivers all this truncated dialogue with minimum inflection and maximum venom.

She has been friends with Stefani for about a day before she is lured into travelling a long way to Florida from Detroit. I don’t know heaps about US geography, but I know enough to know that Detroit is in Michigan, and borders Canada, and Florida is at the other end of the map, dangling its way into the Gulf of Mexico. That’s a long-arsed car ride.

What’s worse is that, as sketchy as this all seems, and as mistrustful as Zola seems right from the start, none of that stops her from getting sucked into a maelstrom of bad decisions and worse intentions. Nominally it’s about earning some money, making bank, but Zola doesn’t even seem to be that interested in that.

Some of us, in our youth, have experiences that we had with people we barely knew but thought we connected with, people you’ve met at a bar or club or night out. Substances might have been involved. Anyway, against your better judgement, you find yourself on the other side of town in a car full of people you know nothing about, and you might have that moment like “what the fuck am I doing here?”, and that can be before the driver hits 200km per hour or someone drops a gun out of the sunroof and before the cops get involved.

Rating:

Ema

Ema

Just pray that none of her plans include you, even if you
die happy

dir: Pablo Larraín

2020

This film…is definitely something.

I am guessing this was filmed way, way before the coronavirus was on the horizon. The main reason for this is while I don’t know how Chile has fared over the last couple of years with the pandemic, I’m assuming having this many scenes of stacks of people dancing together, or, alternately, this many simulated lesbian orgies probably is pretty difficult these days under covid-worksafe protocols.

Ema is the main character here, which is pretty obvious I guess since the film is called Ema. As played by Mariana Di Girolamo, Ema is a sociopath who is very determined to get her way in life. She seems, from beginning to end, to really want a certain outcome to occur, and also that she is capable of bending everything around her into a particular shape through sheer force of will.

And through the power of dance. And, um, probably sex.

Right at the start the flick is calculated to make the audience loathe Ema and her husband Gaston (Gael García Bernal: Mexico’s greatest export other than cocaine). See, there are often dramas about people trying to have kids, or adopt kids, or save kids etc. Few dramas start with a tremendously fucked up couple who’ve just GIVEN BACK a kid they had previously adopted.

The kid, Polo (Christían Suárez), doesn’t play much of a part in the actual film, but it is his absence that fuels all the terrible things Ema does over the course of the movie. Wait, that’s not accurate. Ema fuels all the terrible things she does during the course of the movie because she is Ema. There are a bunch of things with flamethrowers and fire hoses that she does as well that I’m pretty sure have nothing to do with Polo, but you never know.

Ema is married to Gaston, and they tear strips off of each other about giving the kid up, each blaming the other. Ema may be a sociopath, but giving the kid up seems upsetting to her. She might actually care about the kid, but the way she mostly treats people implies they are all pawns on a chessboard, and she’s a queen, so when something she once wanted and then briefly didn’t want is taken away from her, the infantile mind demands the toy be returned.

Rating:

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