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6 stars

Mortal Kombat

Mortal Kombat 2021

And you know, it ain't fiction, just a natural fact
We come together 'cause opposites attract

dir: Simon McQuoid

2021

I was wrong. I am often wrong, it’s not that big a deal, or that rare.

But in this instance what I was supremely wrong about is that I thought Godzilla Versus Kong was going to be the biggest, utterly fucking dumbest big budget flick of this year. For some reason I was convinced that, because we were going to be seeing flicks produced before 2020, that they were going to run out at some point, and plus a sense of proportion or shame was going to predominate in the minds of studio executives and producers.

They were going to look at the 3 million plus people who have died from the virus, and the many more whose lives have irrevocably changed, and they were going to think “Oo, should do something more respectful with our existences, and our privileges / wealth, shouldn’t we?”

How fucking wrong was I? The way forward, like it’s always been, even more so now, is to keep doubling down.

Mortal Kombat makes Godzilla versus Kong look like a Shakespearean play written by Professor Stephen Hawking produced by John Bell and starring Dame Judi Dench and even more of a Dame Maggie Smith duking it out over the neon-lit skies of Hong Kong in comparison.

It is so fucking dumb. But, and here’s where I do a heel turn so abrupt it brings whiplash even to me, which is only fair, Mortal Kombat movies have to be fucking dumb, because there is no other way to do them.

The “original” flick from the 90s was utter trash, the sequel Annihilation was somehow even more terrible, and this is the best of the lot, but they are all levels of potent trashy trash. Trash, and I’m ashamed of myself for what I’m going to write next, can still be plenty enjoyable.

This new Mortal Kombat is trash, but I enjoyed it anyway.

Rating:

Nobody

Nobody

Ouch looks painful zero stars

dir: Ilya Naishuller

2021

Who doesn’t feel like a nobody? Drowning in quiet desperation in the suburbs, repeating the same movements, actions and gestures every day, so deep in the ruts that constitute a life that even the people around you who you endure all this for barely seem to be able to see you anymore. And if they do, it’s with contempt, with a bit of loathing.

What to do, what to do…

Well, the average American has the options of : doing the hard work to develop one’s inner qualities, to expand one’s notion of the self and its place in the universe; devoting one’s life to helping others, or fighting for causes bigger than oneself.

Or, they could just get a gun and shoot people maybe?

The premise of this flick is the premise of a lot of flicks, it’s just that it doesn’t usually result in someone killing thousands of people. Killing people in order to feel alive again used to be frowned upon. Now it just seems like another path to self-fulfillment.

This is not a revenge thriller, nor is it Death Wish, where a wronged architect starts walking around New York killing ethnically diverse minorities for revenge and shits and giggles (three for the price of one). The John Wick comparison isn’t valid either. Wick was a retired assassin. Some jerk kills his dog and steals his car, so he gets to work. He kinda wants his car back and revenge for killing the dog, but mostly they just won’t leave the guy alone. He didn’t ask for this shit, but he will finish it over the course of 3 movies and a 4th installment for some insane reason.

The Nobody at the core of this flick did ask for this shit. A break-in at his home, where he lives with his wife who does not like him, if she ever did, and his kids, is the start of something big. As home invasions go, this one isn’t too horrific, especially since no-one dies, thankfully. But what it unearths is the seething contempt of his family against him, and his neighbours. Even the cops are like “why didn’t you even take a swing, bro?”

Everyone’s against him. But he’ll show them, won’t he? He’ll show them all that he’s a man to be feared.

Maybe it helps, maybe it doesn’t, but for many of us the lead here Bob Odenkirk is best known for his character of Jimmy McGill / Saul Goodman from Better Call Saul, but even more so for Breaking Bad. Breaking Bad is a testament, an absolute bedrock example of a show created with the premise of a middle-aged middle-class white guy feeling like life has passed him by, wishing he could do something extraordinary in order to feel alive again. It helps, for shows like that, that they cater mostly to whole multitudes of white, middle-aged, middle-class white guys who feel like life has passed them by and like if they did something violent and criminal, they’d be really good at it, not like those other lowlives…

Breaking Bad Saul is amoral, not particularly vicious, but without any moral compunctions about doing or saying anything no matter how awful. Better Call Saul Saul / Jimmy is desperate, hopeful, sweating, clinging to some vestige of credibility, fated to be morally destroyed.

He brings those same energies here, but the character is a bit hard to wrap one’s head around. I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler, because otherwise it doesn’t make a lot of sense why any of this would be happening: this guy here called Hutch, used to be a hardcore assassin for the agencies known by their three-letter acronyms. He would kill the kinds of people too hard to kill legally, or too hard for the local police to pull over and shoot for no reason other than the car freshener hanging from the rear view mirror or something equally implausible. He chose to try the happy, sedate life of a suburban shmoe, but it does not sit well with his ego.

Rating:

Baby Done

Baby Done

Having babies is dumb and terribly inefficient but it
gets the job done

dir: Curtis Vowell

2020

Babies, huh? Who’d have them, if we knew what a hassle they’d be?

No-one, if movies are to be believed. If you switch off or stop streaming these types of movies 10 minutes before they end, you would be convinced no-one will ever have babies ever again.

I mean, they’re so noisy and needy. And they ruin your life, or at least the perfect life you had constructed for yourself. Just when everything was perfect, some jerk comes along and impregnates you, and then your life totally turns to shit.

New Zealand, especially under the leadership of its (third) female Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, has this reputation for sane people in power and progressive politics, and general wonderfulness. Sure, so they handled their response to the coronavirus better that most other countries. But it’s bullshit. Utter bullshit. I mean, Jacinda Ardern is a wonderful leader, but I mean New Zealand is nowhere near as progressive as people might think.

Here’s my proof: This flick could have been 15 minutes long. A young woman called Zoe (the most excellent and incredibly funny Rose Matafeo) is an arborist and really good at her job. She has a partner she lives with, friends, loving family etc. She unexpectedly gets pregnant. She books an appointment at her local qualified medical practitioner, and gets an abortion. Life carries on. Maybe later in life she decides to actually have a child, when the joy of climbing trees professionally starts to wane, maybe not. Maybe she decides she doesn’t really want to be a parent, or that her partner is a bit of a dingbat. Up to her. Either way, we wouldn’t have watched the movie that I just watched.

Zoe finds out she’s pregnant, and is angry. She does not want to become a mum yet. Also, she qualified for the International Tree Climbing championships in Canada, so there’s that to look forward to. So instead of dealing with it, like, medically, or coming to terms with the impact it’s going to have on her and her partner’s lives, she pretends like it ain’t no thing, and that she can pretty much ignore it until the kid arrives, but none of the process of pregnancy should really stop her from doing the things she might want to do.

Rating:

The Night

The Night

Because the night belongs to lovers, because the night
belongs to the two of you

dir: Kourosh Ahari

2021

This film is scary, especially for anyone who’s ever tried to stay in a hotel with a newborn baby.

I mean, how guilty do you feel when the kid starts bawling, and it’s the middle of the night, and you’re worried that they’ve just woken everyone next to you, below you and above you? Oh man, how bad would you feel.

Hopefully you get them back to sleep okay. Shh, shh, it’s okay, I know it’s an unfamiliar environment, but everything’s going to be okay, I promise.

Of course it helps if you’re not staying in a Hotel, in California, which you apparently can’t ever leave.

I can’t claim entirely to understand the foundations of what this story is trying to say outside of the set-up of a Iranian-American couple with a baby, in a hotel where weird shit is happening around them. I mean on a metaphysical or supernatural level. Nothing is explained, no wise person comes along to explain everything in a massive exposition dump upon the audience’s ears and patience. Just – what happens happens, and our main characters react in an increasingly freaked out manner.

These characters being Iranian, and the film itself being a collaboration between Iranian and American producers, I would have to assume on some level that it hints at concepts of guilt, of sin, of unexpiated wrongs but from an Islamic perspective, or at least from a Persian perspective. I can’t claim to be an expert on Iranian film, or contemporary culture, but if this is the first American flick to be allowed to screen in Iran since 1979, then you’d have to assume certain things to be true. Iran still jails directors and filmmakers if the regime feels their work somehow insults the mullahs in charge, the Revolutionary Guard or the horrible authoritarian state that reigns.

So the films that come out of there are generally dramas, or deceptively simple stories about women trying to get into a soccer game, or children wanting to ride a bike, or a couple separating because of unspoken resentments and aspirations for their children.

The Night might have been filmed in LA, but it still has to please the censors, I imagine. Although, now that I think about it, doesn’t the hotel itself become a metaphor for the police state that is Iran since the Revolution? Random bad shit happens to you for reasons you don’t understand, and getting out or away is almost impossible?

Maybe Kourosh Ahari knows what he’s doing, the sly fuck.

Rating:

Shadow in the Cloud

Shadow in the Cloud

She is ready to win this war, so get out of her way, scum

dir: Roseanne Liang

2020

So. This movie exists. It was made. And released. Kinda.

And what a bonkers movie it is. When I started watching it initially, and I saw the name “Max Landis” in the credits, I thought, eh. Landis is not best known for being the son of legendary director John Landis, who is not best known for making legendary films like Animal House, The Blues Brothers or An American Werewolf in London – he’s best known for getting Vic Morrow and two child actors killed on the set of The Twilight Zone movie due to unsafe filming practices.

And Landis junior isn’t best known now for writing the decent script for found footage superhero flick Chronicle, or American Ultra with Jesse Eisenberg as a stoner Jason Bourne / super assassin, he’s best known for multiple accusations of sexual assault and harassment.

So now that I know that, I’ll never watch anything new he’s involved with. I am assured by Wikipedia and multiple interviews online that while Max Landis wrote some script initially, it was completely re-written by Roseanne Liang, but his name still appears because of Writers Guild of America requirements.

Whatever. I think it’s very weird that an essential element of this flick, being some kind of gremlin that lives to destroy planes, is straight out of one of the segments from The Twilight Zone movie, which involved John Lithgow going more and more insane while seeing something on the wing of a plane destroying an engine, with no-one believing him. A movie, though not that segment, that his dad directed and nearly went to jail because of.

The difference here is that the lead character no-one believes at first is a woman (Chloë Grace Moretz), and it’s set during World War II in the Pacific, and she is the living embodiment of Rosie the Riveter, and her fighting a gremlin or bunch of gremlins on a B-17 bomber is the least implausible part of the script.

I don’t know exactly when this was made, but for most of the film her character of Flight Officer Maud Garrett is trapped in the turret underneath the bomber as it flies towards Guam, or somewhere else, hard to keep track. It’s almost as if the flick was trying to find cute work-arounds on how to make a flick during quarantine in a way that doesn’t make it obvious that everyone has to be kept away from everyone else. Or, since it seems like it was probably mostly made in June 2019, maybe it looks like a flick made in quarantine, but really it’s a flick made with a tiny budget.

Rating:

Saint Maud

St Maud

She's not even a redhead in the film. That's it, I'm going
to complain to Maud's manager

dir: Rose Glass

2020

Saint Maud is called, being reviewed as, categorised as, a horror film.

I’m not 100 per cent sure it is a horror film. It could be because I’m fairly jaded, or it could be because as a character study, it’s more depressing than shocking. The flick also isn’t scary in any sense, other than in the sense that it can be scary to watch someone harm others, harm themselves.

For me, in this instance, it was more unpleasant to watch, rather than scary. There are definitely horrible things that happen in the flick, all done by Maud (Morfydd Clark), and mostly to herself.

So for me it’s not horror. It’s disturbing, but most of all it made me feel tremendous sadness for the main character.

And by sadness I don’t mean my usual default setting of bursting into tears every time someone says something supportive towards someone, or the string section swells, or a puppy is saved, or any number of tear-jerking moments. I just feel really sad for her, is all.

While I find much of what happens in the flick disturbing or upsetting, what discomforts me the most is the difficulty I have separating what happens in the flick from what I feel like they’re saying about mental illness. The main character, I don’t think it’s any spoiler to point out, is profoundly mentally ill.

If she’s not profoundly mentally ill, then what she’s experiencing is something supernatural. Any time someone starts looking at the drawings of William Blake, either someone turns into a serial killer or they’re going to set fire to something big.

God, or Jesus or someone talks to her, occasionally. She feels the presence of the Lord, inside of her, sometimes. She sometimes feels moved to an almost religious level of ecstasy.

But it doesn’t last.

Rating:

Outside the Wire

Outside the Wire

Outside of the wire is a world of pure imagination, one which
the screenwriters had no access to

dir: Mikael Håfström

2021

Outside the Wire feels like it should be more memorable. It also feels like it should have a less generic title. It also feels like it shouldn’t have characters saying the phrase “outside the wire” every five minutes or so. I exaggerate often, and not only for the purposes of humour, but there are a ton of instances where someone says “so, have you been outside the wire?” or “It’s his first time outside the wire”, or “What do you mean, you’ve never been Outside the Wire?”

How can you live with yourself? Especially when you’ve never been outside the wire, nor watched The Wire in its entirety? So the phrases “Where’s Wallace, String, where the fuck is Wallace?” or “Omar coming!” mean nothing to you?

It’s…it’s not great when that happens, when people say the title of a film in a movie’s dialogue. It’s kinda cringy. What else is an audience going to do other than roll their eyes when they hear that past the fourteenth instance?

I don’t know whether anyone intended for this to ever get a theatrical release, but this is the perfectly appropriate kind of thing that is produced whenever I hear that Netflix has a new action-y flick coming out. I already know what it’s going to look and feel like. This, Extraction with the good Hemsworth, and a couple of heist movies called something like 999 or Triple Frontier or something equally generic, all basically feel the same and have a similar level of action and interest. There’s lots of guys shooting other guys in the head, so it feels like a mid-budget John Wick situation as well.

And there’s also some kind of premise which is usually overblown, and it’s set in a country where the local government doesn’t mind too many of its locals being blown way, probably for reals.

The difference between Outside the Wire and the other stock standard Netflix action-y flicks is that this has a harder sci-fi plot to itself, buried under what would otherwise be a standard shoot shoot punch punch movie. It’s also so extreme in its sci-fi premise that I’d argue it’s a bit hard to believe.

Staggering, I know. I mean, Extraction had Hemsworth take on all of Bangladesh and win, but this flick is the unbelievable one.

Rating:

Wild Mountain Thyme

Wild Mountain Thyme

You've got something on yer face. Definitely Something Face.

dir: John Patrick Shanley

2020

Confession time: When I hear about something being almost supernaturally awful, I feel obligated to search it out and watch it. No-one who saw Cats last year could have expected or wanted anything less than a trainwreck when they voluntarily downloaded or streamed it after all those appalling reviews. Anyone who heard about the reviews for this film had to be expecting something so bad it makes the Potato Famine look like a day at Luna Park in comparison.

What I got was a pleasant surprise, in that Wild Mountain Thyme is not the worst film in Irish history, probably. It is a strange and slightly surreal experience, though, and I am sometimes a fan of surreal and strange experiences.

For such a quintessentially Irish story, they had to get that famous Irish actor of longstanding prowess and acclaim, being Christopher Walken. Christopher Walken? Yes, Christopher Fucking Walken, playing an old Irish farmer. Walken I think for the last decade has appeared in any movie anyone has asked him to appear in. I don’t think he even wants money to turn up, either. He just wants to get out of the house, stay active. It’s good, for chaps his age, to keep moving.

The problem with setting a story in Ireland with Irish characters is that people are expected to speak with Irish accents. I mean, it would be unusual to set the story in County Mayo and not have people speaking at least vaguely with an accent people associate with The Troubles and leprechauns and such. I think of the actors here there’s one who’s Irish, through and through. The other was born in Ireland, but didn’t grow up there, so it’s an Acting Exercise for them too.

Elsewhere, really, they could have had me playing some of these roles, because my Irish accent, though terrible, would have been indistinguishable from the rest.

Rating:

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

Ma Rainey

It's a dance. It's not specifically her butt that they're talking about.
I swear it's a dance

dir: George C. Wolfe

2020

It’s not fair, I know, but this is the 11,780th time where I’m going to do a very annoying thing I often do, which is talk about movies other than the one being reviewed, and I have no shame about it. Well, shame enough to mention it, but not enough to do anything about it.

When I watched Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods last year, I thought, damn, Chadwick Boseman is great in this like he is in everything, but the film is a bit of a shitty chore to sit through.

And then, in the worst year of living memory for most of the world, Chadwick Boseman died, taking most of us other than Chadwick Boseman by surprise. He knew, though, that he was going out at 42.

Black Panther is dead. King T’Challa, of the great Afrofuturist country of Wakanda, is dead.

I felt like an absolute ungrateful goblin for saying anything bad ever about anything he was ever in, especially Da 5 Bloods, which I now have to pretend is a better film than it is in order to not look churlish.

And so, with an actor I absolutely adore having died, and having the opportunity to see his last ever performance, it puts me in just as much of a bind. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is less about Ma Rainey, despite the fact that she was a living and breathing person, nicknamed the Mother of the Blues, but most of the flick is about Levee, Boseman’s character, his hopes, dreams and demons. He certainly gets the majority of the dialogue. And he gets as much screen time as you would hope in this very wordy drama (based on the play by August Wilson).

Problem is, damn it, it’s based on a play.

Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) is something of a grotesque figure. I don’t just mean her appearance, which is a lot of work, a lot of body suit stuff, a lot of garish makeup, with a tremendous actress underneath all of it. She is kind of a prototypical diva before such was fashionable. Her records sell, at this time in 1927. The Great Migration has been happening since Reconstruction, and a lot of people, meaning African-Americans, have been moving north in pursuit of jobs.

And she is their queen, of entertainment, at least. Her records sell not only in the South, but in the big northern cities too, so she needs must travel to Chicago to record another album.

The length of the film mostly covers a day at the studio as all and sundry await Ma Rainey’s arrival. Her band consists of three old timers who know how to play how she wants and keep their heads down, a young upstart trumpet player recently joined with delusions of grandeur (that would be Levee, Chadwick’s character) and the two brothers who run the studio and sell the records.

This is an era where they pay you for your singing and playing to be recorded, and then you’re out the door. If the recording works out, Ma will make $25 dollars for her time, and for the theft of her voice and talent. I mean, I know the studios have been exploiting the talent for a century, but, honestly, did things ever really improve. And when African-American entrepreneurs opened their own studios and produced their own records, did they exploit the ‘talent’ any less. Were Suge Knight or Berry Gordy Jnr any kinder or gentler to any of the people they ruthlessly tormented on their rosters at Motown and Death Row Records respectively just because they happened to be African-American?

Rating:

Hillbilly Elegy

Hillbilly Elegy

What an inspiring poster for such an inspiring and true story

dir: Ron Howard

2020

When a movie calls itself Hillbilly Elegy, I at least expect it to have some hillbillies in it. Some twangs of a banjo at least. There’s not much in this two-hour memoir about a kid growing up in the suburbs of Middletown, Ohio in the 90s that justifies such a title, but it hardly matters.

No hillbillies were harmed in the making of this moviefilm. Probably because they couldn’t find any, which is a shame.

J.D. Vance, through the success of his book of the same name as this movie, somehow became the voice of poor White America, most keenly during the last dire 4 years where he’d be trotted out on cable news and interview programs to explain why white poor people support political leaders who clearly despise them and do nothing to help them or anyone other than their own corporate interests. For whatever reason he was seen as offering some keen insight into the plight of the poor and disadvantaged, but only if they were white. It’s a heavy mantle to put on anyone’s shoulders, but it’s one he volunteered for and encouraged.

The purpose of the book wasn’t just to say ‘being poor sucks, and here is how I survived my family’, it was ‘being poor sucks, being a poor hillbilly sucks, and making bad choices means you’re fucked, but if you only make Good Choices and take Personal Responsibility for everything, then good things come to those who wait.” There was a sociological and political aspect to the book; a set of arguments that walk right up to the line of actually explaining something important (being the connection between the economic decline of these areas with jobs moving overseas, to vast unemployment, to the pipeline between legal opioid over-prescription and addiction). But he totally stuffs up the dismount.

There are important conversations to be had about people becoming disconnected from the community around them, having or at least feeling like they have limited agency in their lives, about the vast impact that casual decisions at corporate headquarters have over the lives of millions of people, and losing hope, giving in to despair. But you’re not going to hear anything new on the topic here.

Because all J.D. has are these bog standard conservative boilerplate arguments (pull yourself up from your bootstraps, work hard, be heteronormative, get married and have 2.4, pay the mortgage, be aspirational and consume, consume, consume) that ignore the fact that these “jobs” disappeared overseas a long time ago because businesses noticed they didn’t like paying people a living wage, and successive governments did what they could to destroy the union movement. Opposing unions and the minimum wage have been cornerstone conservative arguments for decades, and suppressing wages and eliminating secure jobs is what they do in practice, across the States. But you’re not going to hear this hack say anything about that.

Rating:

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