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6 stars

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:

Tenet

Tenet

Backwards or forwards, it still runs out of steam

dir: Christopher Nolan

2020

The word Tenet is a palindrome. That’s the only reason people keep saying “tenet!” in this really mysterious way, and why it’s the title of the film. The word is a palindrome, and the film is a palindrome, meaning it’s the same backwards going forwards.

Like most of Nolan’s films, it’s incredibly intricate and bombastic, and it has serious people being serious as they go about their serious job of exposition. There are set pieces interspersed between people valiantly trying to explain whatever the fuck is going on to the protagonist.

The protagonist in this film is called, within the film, The Protagonist. I am not making this shit up. At one point he even says to someone “But I’m The Protagonist” with a tone that implies “Do you know who the fuck I am? How dare you bring me a lukewarm latte?”, only to be told, in a bit that made me smile, “You’re – A - protagonist”, implying there are more people getting to make choices in the story than just this guy. Yeah. This Guy. Over Here.

Honestly, I watched the movie carefully, listened to all the dialogue people said they couldn’t hear, mostly understood the premise, at least the main threat, which is the end of the world etc etc, but as to what was actually going on at some points, I honestly had no fucking idea. As in, okay I accept that I understand that some people were moving backwards in time, as others went forwards, and others went backwards for a while before going forwards again, but what that meant at a lot of moments, especially in some of the action sequences towards the end, means I’ve got no fucking idea what was actually happening. Not the “why” of it, not even the “how”, but mostly the “What?”

But it looked impressive, and the soundtrack and the propulsive editing had me excited and revved up for most of the film’s length. And it is a long arse film, make no mistake. It’s 2 hours and 40 minutes you’d otherwise have spent pickling stuff from your garden, dreading the coming of the virus or counting the ways in which you should have done things differently twenty years ago. Speaking of the virus, man, Christopher Nolan can’t catch a break. Of all the people that have suffered in 2020, surely the one to suffer most is the chap whose studio, being Warner Brothers, decided to release a film just as the epidemic was poised to infect so many millions. Imagine trying to entice people into the ideal environment from which they could catch this fucking plague from some random stranger: Come one come all to the latest IMAX extravaganza! Complimentary death for you or someone close to you with each ticket sold! Maybe you’ll even get a handjob from that guy in Marketing or that lady from Auditing who’s just depressed enough to go on a date with you!

Either way, what a hard sell. Going to the movies was becoming hard even before what happened this year happened. Risking infection just to watch Nolan basically jerk himself off to his own greatest hits makes even less sense this year than it ever did before.

I’m sure whatever money they lost through making this very expensive looking movie, and marketing a film they couldn’t force people to go and see even at gunpoint, they’ll make up in tax breaks or, I dunno, donations to Trump’s reelection campaign or something. I’m sure Nolan will get more work down the track. He can’t be hurting for beer money, surely. He’s probably made enough money by now to buy Cornwall, and I don’t mean some nice house down in Cornwall. Those Batman flicks alone probably earned most of the UK’s GDP for those years, but of course that was before Brexit. Now he’ll be lucky to make thruppence ha’penny for his next gig.

Our protagonist might have a name you don’t recognise. He’s a pretty cool customer. The glare in his eye could be genetic. He doesn’t look that much like his dad, but he sure as shit sounds like him. John David Washington has the unenviable career of someone genetically related to, I shit you not, Denzel Washington. Holy shit. Like, how courageous do you have to be to chose to be an actor when your dad is one of the greatest and most famous actors the States has ever produced? People give Clint Eastwood’s kids crap for daring to be in movies, but imagine if Denzel was your goddamned dad! Honestly, I wouldn’t be able to say line one in anything ever if I felt like people were constantly going to compare me to a titan, a colossus, a goddamn Thanos of actoring like Denzel.

Rating:

Antebellum

Antebellum

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

dir: Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz

2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating:

Color Out of Space

Color Out of Space

Nice reality you have there. Be a shame if something bad
happened to it.

dir: Richard Stanley

2019

Color Out of Space is a title that probably doesn’t make a lot of sense. It doesn’t matter. The film itself is flat out fucking bonkers, so it’s perfectly appropriate to the title.

It’s based on a HP Lovecraft short story, with the fuller title of The Colour Out of Space, which is just as meaningless, but the importance of it is that whatever it is that is about to happen is otherworldly. As in, people will see things they should not see, which will leave them forever changed.

A witchy girl (Madeleine Arthur) conducts some kind of ceremony near a lake, and she is interrupted by a surveying hydrologist called Ward (Eliot Knight) who is, surveying something, presumably, other than the witchy girl and her witchy ways. He seems to be pretty familiar with magic ceremonies, and he wears a college t-shirt from, I’m guessing, the Miskatonic University, a common element in Lovecraft’s stuff, and plenty of other horror / fantasy stuff that’s been ripping off Lovecraft for nearly a century. He’s not really a protagonist in all of this, though he is a witness to it: cosmic weirdness is the main character. A family, one to which the witch belongs are the scenery upon which the colour, presumably from out of space, will wreak havoc.

I have pretty much avoided anything with Nicolas Cage in it for many years. As far as I know the last good performance he put in was in Adaptation. Since then I think he lost a lot of his money when some accountant / financial manager / astrologer ripped him off, so instead of being okay in a few good movies every now and then, he went to making as many terrible or pointless movies as possible in order to get some wealthiness back into his life. Again, it’s just what I heard.

Cage gives as awful a performance as we now expect from him, but it’s not inappropriate to the material. If anything, it makes what happens in the movie almost easier to handle. In a different kind of adaptation of this kind of story, we’d be introduced to a family that we came to care about, then they would be put under threat, and we would hope that they somehow find a way to survive.

This is not that kind of story. We are introduced to the family, their dog Sam and their alpacas, then a succession of terrible things happen to them, and then it ends, ominously implying that it will happen again to someone else. That kind of horror flick is usually hard to take.

I didn’t find it hard to take here. What happens to this family after a meteorite slams into the earth outside their house can be taken literally, can be taken figuratively, can be looked at as a commentary on environmental degradation, or people’s anxiety about clean water supply.

Rating:

Radioactive

Radioactive

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

dir: Marjane Satrapi

2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating:

Lucky Grandma

Lucky Grandma

She deserves every penny, you ageist bastards

dir: Sasie Sealy

2020

This movie, Lucky Grandma, is a pretty strange movie, in some very minor ways. It is strange in its relative simplicity. It might have a fair bit going on under the surface, or behind the actions of the main character, but it’s all played relatively straight. It’s mostly a very quiet film, which, with everything that’s going on at the moment, actually came as a bit of a relief while I was watching it.

The modesty of the movie’s ambitions don’t detract from its enjoyment, but neither does it make the experience an overly compelling one. It’s a hard movie to recommend, but not because it does anything wrong, or doesn’t succeed at what it tries to do.

The Grandma of the title, (Tsai Chin) is recently widowed. She is a Chinese woman living in New York’s Chinatown, which is a city within a city. She is almost exclusively referred to as Grandma, or Nai Nai, even by people who aren’t related to her. She is a tough old bird, who chainsmokes endlessly (though I have to admit, I found it amusing and worrying that they got her to smoke, when the actress clearly either doesn’t smoke now or have never been a smoker). I don’t know if the character is meant to be in her 80s, but the legendary actress playing Nai Nai certainly is, being 86.

Being an old Chinese woman, and not a wealthy one, she wastes time and money consulting a fortune teller / clairvoyant / luck consultant, who consults the I Ching, who draws out pieces of calligraphy paper and generally assures Nai Nai that her luck will soon turn around, and the 28th of October will be an especially lucky day for her.

I don’t want to appear racially insensitive, or insulting towards anyone’s culture or traditions, but I have a sneaking suspicion that Chinese forms of fortune telling are about as worthy or accurate as any of the other forms of fortune telling available around the world: ie. they’re all total bullshit. We’re not meant to think that there’s any reason why Nai Nai should be any luckier than anyone else on that auspicious day.

She believes it, though, and takes out of the bank the very little money she has left since her husband died. There’s a bus tour from their community to some casino 3 hours away, and she presses her luck there, convinced the universe owes her one.

Part of the delusion is believing that the number 8 is her talisman, so all her bets on all the games are on eight. And the wins start piling up, the money multiplies, and she seems vindicated. See her expression of contempt for the other players who view her behavior with incredulity and concern.

She blows smoke at their worries, mocks their judge-y expressions.

Rating:

Da 5 Bloods

Da 5 Bloods

War is hell, but at least the good guys got paid, right?

dir: Spike Lee

2020

It’s what the world needed right now: A film about four African-American Vietnam veterans returning to the scene of the crime, like, 50 years later, in order to honour their fallen comrade Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman), but really they’re there to get some gold they buried back in the day.

Not, just, like a little bit of gold, but a whole shitload of CIA gold, which is the worst kind.

The men are old but not completely broken down. Paul (Delroy Lindo) wears a MAGA hat and is generally paranoid, aggressive and annoying. Otis (Clarke Peters) is calm and charming, and somehow has a pony tail. Melvin (Isaiah Whitlock Jnr) is like a cuddly teddy bear who can draw out saying “Shiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiit” longer than anyone else in human history. Eddie (Norm Lewis) is just there. I have no opinion about Eddie.

1 of the so called 5 Bloods is clearly missing, and clearly died all those years ago, his life and his death having cast a pall over these men’s lives. They are getting together again presumably for the first time in a long time, in a city that had another name when they fought in the country. They fought in a country that didn’t really want them there, sent by a country at the time that clearly didn’t want them home either. It sent as many as it could to fight and die in a pointless war, and was brutalising the ones back home who were fighting for the civil rights of their brothers and sisters.

Rating:

We Summon the Darkness

We Summon the Darkness

The title, though entirely inaccurate, feels like it should
have an exclamation mark or two, and at least one umlaut

dir: Marc Meyers

2020

Set in Indiana in the 1980s, you would be forgiven for thinking that they’re jumping onto some kind of Stranger Things bandwagon with this satanic panic horror flick We Summon the Darkness, what with the promotional poster and all.

It sounds so nasty and metal-y, doesn’t it? Like some bad people are going to do bad things at a metal gig in order to, um, summon the, uh, darkness?

It’s not as convoluted as it might seem. No actual darkness was summoned, harmed or pursued by the makers or participants of this movie. Some bad stuff happens, as in, people are killed (not really, I mean they pretend to kill people, this being a ‘horror’ movie and not reality television after all), but it has less to do with His Satanic Majesty, who thought it would be better to rule in hell than serve in heaven or at a fancy ice cream place, and more to do with three crazy kids who think it would be cool to kill a bunch of other kids and make it look like people are doing Satan’s bidding all over the place.

We watch as three girls get ready for and drive to a gig somewhere in Indiana. It could be some bar, or a barn, or a haystack for all I know. It reminded me of travelling out to suburbs like Croydon to watch gigs at The Hull, which was kind of like travelling back through time to Indiana. The rural sectors of Indiana are not ones I profess to know anything about. To be sure it just looks like a bunch of kids having fun. On the way to the gig, which is of a metal band called Soldiers of Satan or Satanic Pride or Merciful Pancakes or something suitably metal sounding, someone throws a milkshake at their car, which Isn’t Very Insurance-y. Alexis has to clean the windshield. It’s very inconsiderate. It could almost make you want to kill the people that did it, but not quite. And Val, who I’ll get to, has to pee all the time.

The gig is…funny. But to these kids it’s the real deal, I guess, and they’re super into it, kinda. Alexis (Alexandra Daddario) doesn’t know much about these bands of the day that the other ‘kids’ are talking about, like the minutiae of Sabbath and Metallica and Megadeth, and fakes her way through these conversation. If you were ever in a group of friends who were way into music, there was always someone like that in the group. Of course, you could have been that person in the group, that pretended to know all the connections, and to have gone to gigs you couldn’t possibly have gone to, and gotten back stage with whoever.

Rating:

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