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7 stars

Lucky

Lucky

Luck ain't got nothing to do with it

dir: Natasha Kermani

2021

I have, this past year, sat through so many takes on Groundhog Day that it was inevitable that there would be a horror take on it as well, and here it is.

May (Brea Grant) is a self-help author whose books seem to have the message that you’re on your own, no-one else is going to help you (including her) so get your shit together and look after yourself.

Why anyone would need to buy multiple books to realise such an obvious but cold fact is the only real mystery here. Her books don’t seem to be selling that well anymore, which, granted, means she needs to shift her message. She takes her box of remaindered copies to her car in some underground garage, and something happens, but the camera cuts away.

Later on, in the middle of the night she awakes to noises downstairs. Some man appears from nowhere and attacks her and her husband. She is really freaked out, her husband less so, who bizarrely seems to think this has happened forever, and will happen again. People are hurt. The assailant disappears. The cops are…unhelpful.

And the whole process repeats itself again and again.

Is it a loop? Is some supernatural force at play? Is May hallucinating everything? Is someone terrorising her, gaslighting her? It seems like people are dying, like people are being severely hurt. There’s blood on the carpets and the walls. But no bodies. Whenever she is lucky enough to stab, bash, throw down the stairs or otherwise do stuff to The Man (Hunter C. Smith) that would otherwise kill a mortal human being, no body is ever left behind.

It’s…perplexing. She is convinced something terrible and strange is happening to her, but the world doesn’t seem to agree. The cops especially are baffling. They return, every day and night, to the same house where windows have been smashed in and blood has splashed all over the place, and they seek to placate the alleged victim without believing or helping her in any way.

Cops can’t help you; you’ve got to help yourself.

May’s husband goes missing, for a long period of time, and most of the cops’ questions align around “So did you husband do it, why would your husband do it, what did you do to make your husband do it, it’s your fault your husband did it” etc. The disappearance is…strange. It points to something that happened, something that either May feels guilty about or that someone should feel guilty about.

Rating:

Naked Singularity

A Naked Singularity

Just to reassure you, there's no nakedness in the flick, which
is a shame for John Boyega fans, but he's definitely singular

dir: Chase Palmer

2021

This film was actually made. I cannot believe it. Few books have ever looked less likely to end up as movies.

When I first heard A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava was going to be made into a movie starring John Boyega, I thought, no fucking way. I should probably phrase that a bit more elegantly – I thought – that sounds unlikely.

This isn’t to brag, but I’ve read the book, and it was quite a memorable book. It is also a massive fucking book. It’s 864 pages. It’s the kind of book you would use to kill a giant Galapagos tortoise with if you really needed to, for whatever reason. One of the most memorable, mainly because it had so little to do with anything else that happened in the story, sections was the feverish writing about boxer Wilfred Benitez. People in the boxer’s life, who like him, probably never will write as much about him as Sergio De La Pava did.

It was insane, the book was insane. He didn’t just throw in the kitchen sink, he threw in thousands of kitchen sinks, of all different shapes, sizes and qualities. Since it was initially self-published, there was no editor to tell him not to put in every single thing he’d ever thought of and written down.

I read it at a time when it seemed important to read these massive American novels because reading is like lifting weights, as in, if you’re not reading hefty tomes like Infinite Jest or The Recognitions or Mason & Dixon, or Underworld or Atlas Shrugged, do you even read, bro? Now I can happily let these monstrosities slide by me, because perversely I don’t have as much time to read books working from home.

For the screenplay here they’ve lifted the bare bones of the plot from two things: Casi’s work as a public defender in New York, which are soul-crushing excerpts and absurd experiences from the life of the author himself who’s done the job, and a surreal crime heist plot that came across as something fantastical even within the confines of the book.

Also, the protagonist of the book, I’m pretty sure, had been rendered completely insane. The protagonist of the film, ably played by John Boyega as a somehow still idealistic lawyer fighting for the rights of people the legal system is designed to crush, is not anywhere near as insane as the one in the book. Much of the book has an air of unreality, in that unlikely or impossible things happen, and we’re not entirely sure whether the protagonist is just hallucinating them. For most of the book I was convinced that Casi’s friend / fiend Dane (played in the film by Bill Skarsgard) was a Tyler Durdan alter ego delusion of Casi’s, a shadow self who followed Casi’s urges in directions he couldn’t consciously allow himself to go.

There’s none of that high falutin’ crap here. There’s Casi, there’s Dane, there’s an ex-con called Leah (Olivia Cooke) who works at the Dept of Motor Vehicles, there’s a bunch of salty crims, and there’s a massive stash of heroin that everyone wants, including the Mexican cartels and a crime organization run by Hasidic Jews, headed by The Gollum (Kyle Mooney).

I mean, that perhaps sounds insane on paper, but that is so reduced, so minimal compared to the maximalist insanity of the novel. In the book the fear induced by an almost mythical Mexican enforcer called Ballena, or The Whale, is such that his very massive presence is enough to warp space and time around him. I guess that sounds a bit like a “yo mama” joke.

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:

The Greenhouse

Greenhouse 2021

It's all ever so mysterious! Until it's not

dir: Thomas Wilson-White

2021

The Greenhouse is a beautiful, loving, lyrical, melancholy flick for much of its running time. When it’s working, it works beautifully. When it falls apart, it hurts.

It’s one thing to have a metaphorical concept that illuminates the way in which some people become trapped in their own pasts, in their memories, in their grief and regrets. It’s another to make it literal, and turn it into a pretty silly reverse-Narnia type situation where people are randomly jumping into and out of doors and car boots.

I don’t want to emphasise the silly aspects, because then this review would ignore all the elements of the story and performances that work so very well in this movie.

The first plus is filming the majority of this flick at some amazing country property in Jervis Bay, which seems to have everything you could ever hope for (from a gorgeous rural scenery perspective at least), and more. This house contained a big family, of two mums and a bunch of kids, and grand views.

One of the mums, and one of the kids, still live there, but in some painful ways they are ghosts haunting their own house. Beth (phenomenal Jane Watt) is the kid who stayed behind, who didn’t move to the big smoke, who resents her other siblings for having moved on and embiggened their lives. There is a 60th birthday party for their mum coming up, and as always Beth feels like she needs to organise everything and control everything, because that’s her appointed role.

Even though, amongst the siblings, there is little obvious difference in age between them, I’m guessing Beth is the eldest (which brings its own pressures), then Raf (Joel Horwood) is second, and is a nurse or a doctor, I think, then Drew (Shiv Palekar) and Doonie (Kirsty Marillier) who’s some kind of TV star in the Big Smoke. All three have something going on in their lives.

Doonie, much to the ridicule of the others, is on some cheesy and crappy cop drama where every line of dialogue is a one liner, and it’s called Jurisdiction. The rest of the family, even the mum, mock it mercilessly, but they still feel obligated to watch it.

Whether the other siblings are successful or not is not really the lens through which to look at things, at least from Beth’s perspective. That they have lives or relationships or meaning is irrelevant. Even if they sit on a couch somewhere watching repeats of Bachelor episodes in between smoking menthol cigarettes, the important thing (to resent) is that they got out.

Only Beth stayed behind, with the remaining mum (Camilla Ah Kin). You see, these kids grew up with 2 mums, both of whom they loved, but one of whom died a couple of years ago. That mum, Lillian (Rhondda Findleton), and more importantly, her absence creates a wound in the landscape and in the lives of the two left behind.

Grief is vast. It’s not for me to put limits on it, or borders. For Beth it seems to be all consuming, but no emotion that complex can ever just be about losing someone. It takes a while to see the enormity of why the wound is so deep in Beth’s life.

In the process of trying to insist to her brother Drew that he is NOT to bring his new boyfriend to the 60th, Beth bumps into an old friend briefly in town, Lauren (Harriet Gordon-Anderson). When she sees her, though, while on her phone with Drew, she practically leaps behind her car to not be seen.

I can relate to that. Hate bumping into people unexpectedly. It’s the worst thing in the world, and, back when it used to happen, back when I walked around in a world where people bumped into people they knew by accident in a city or a town, I would sometimes stand there with my mouth opening and closing being unable to form words or sentences in a coherent manner, at least for several minutes or hours.

But Beth seems even less happy to see Lauren than that. Ouch, clearly some complicated history there. Beth’s relationship with everyone seems pretty complicated, but it makes it even less easy for us that the flick jumps around in time so much.

And yet even then I wasn’t ready for how much it was going to mess with a narrative fractured in time. Holy shit how it messes with it.

Rating:

Gaia

Gaia

Gaia's back, and she wants that $20 you owe her

dir: Jaco Bouwer

2021

Last year I watched a documentary about fungi and mushrooms, and about something called the mycelial network, and about how extraordinary these organisms are, and how interlinked. Other than stunning visuals, it also implied mushrooms etc are the solution to pretty much all of life’s problems.

I think the people behind this flick also saw the same documentary, but they came away with a completely different impression and motivation: sure, the mycelial network is cool and all, but what if it hated humanity and technology, and could make people into weird mushroom / human hybrids?

Now that’s a quality premise. Two rangers, Gabi and Winston (Monique Rockman and Anthony Oseyemi) canoe deeper into a forest. Gabi has a drone she operates to buzz around and do stuff. Someone attacks the drone, and she determines that she has to go get it, which is the first and last mistake.

Clearly these people have never seen Apocalypse Now, because it’s underlined that whenever you’re in a jungle or forest, don’t ever get off the boat.

Because you will probably die, and probably also suffer a lot before hand. On her travels to retrieve her tech, Gabi steps on a trap and gets a stake staked through her foot.

This is painful, and a further lesson to not get off the boat. Winston, despite the fact that it’s night time now, also gets off the boat and searches for Gabi when he hears her scream.

He is doomed almost immediately, because there’s something in this forest, something not quite right.

There are two other people that we glimpse, very skinny, almost emaciated, covered in mud. Loincloths, too. They have bows and arrows, and they’re the ones who set the trap that hit Gabi.

When Gabi crawls to the shack these goons live in, you think at first – she’s in trouble, because she’s Goldilocks, and they’re clearly two of the bears. The third bear, being the mama bear, is missing, ironically enough.

She’s dead, but she’s still around.

Rating:

This is Not a Burial, It's a Resurrection

Burial Resurrection

Why can't it be both, when it's more likely to be neither?

dir: Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese

2020

People live and do stuff in places you’ve never heard of and never imagined. Films are a reminder of that fact, occasionally. This is also the exact kind of flick I used to go to the Melbourne International Film Festival to see – something you’d never get anywhere else. And since this year’s festival, like last years, is completely digital and online, I thought I’d avail myself of some of its treasures.

This is Not a Burial, It's a Resurrection is probably the first film from Lesotho that you may have heard of. I can’t recall ever seeing another film made or set there. And, for some people, this could be the first time they’ve heard of a place called Lesotho.

I’m not pretending I’m a geography nerd, but I have heard of the place before. It’s entirely enclosed by South Africa, but it’s its own nation, or kingdom or something. Unlike the Vatican it doesn’t have a pope, but it probably has a king, which is like a pope, just less preachy.

But this flick isn’t really about Lesotho. It’s about a woman who loses her faith in (the Christian) God, and does not regain it. She loses her faith in the idea that life has meaning, or that suffering has a purpose.

And, above all else, she refuses.

Mantoa (Mary Twala, who died soon after making the film, which is surprisingly fitting) has not lived an easy life. She is old, and has lost husband, sons, daughters and even grandchildren to death. She had a son left, and she waits for him to return home just before Christmas, from the mines where he works, but we never get to meet him, for he is now dead, too.

He was the last thread connecting her to the world. The consolations of pious words from the local priest, the support of the other villagers don’t really give her anything. She has, in her view, nothing left to live for. So she puts on her fanciest dress, and waits for Death.

Death refuses to take her, in a final irony. So she waits, and waits, with nothing to do.

The village chief, who, unsurprisingly, is a large, well-fed, comfortable-looking man surrounded by people who look like they’ve been starving most of their lives, tells everyone that the government will soon be flooding the valley in which they live; the valley in which their dead are buried. That they will have to leave the only homes they have ever known, and move to the city, and they’re not going to get a cent for their troubles, because they never owned the land they lived on, because it was the king’s land anyway.

Ah, progress. For the good of the nation, for progress to happen, people’s lives have to be erased, to make way for the new. One of Mantoa’s neighbours speaks of something his father once said about progress: Whenever man says the word, they point an accusatory finger at Nature, claiming that the only way forward is through dominating it.

Rating:

Those Who Wish Me Dead

Those Who Wish Me Dead

Those who wish to see performances with lead characters
who don't have lips that look inflated beyond safe levels
should look elsewhere for their entertainment

dir: Taylor Sheridan

2021

This film… makes no sense. Angelina Jolie being in this film makes not much sense at all.

She is there, as in, you can’t miss the fact that she’s in the film, but she doesn’t really do much of anything. And there’s so much else happening around her, and being done by other people, that you wonder why we’re spending any time with her and her weird feline features.

So, wow, what a title. Those Who Wish Me Dead seems like it’s been truncated, like it’s missing Can Go Fuck Themselves or something similar. The “Those” of the title are two lethal hitmen played by Aidan Gillen (of Lord Bailish / Littlefinger in Game of Thrones fame) and Nicholas Hoult (of, uh, About a Boy fame?) Both have played monsters in other flicks or shows, but here they play cold government goon sociopaths that have no problems murdering entire families, torturing pregnant women or starting fires that can kill any number of people.

In some ways, because we spend so much time watching them work, it’s like they’re the main characters, it’s just that we really don’t want them to succeed. After killing whole bunches of people, their objective ultimately is to kill a kid that’s running around a forest in Montana.

And if they can kill a whole bunch of other people along the way, they’re cool with that.

They don’t start the fire in the forest to kill the kid, but to distract law enforcement, which, I dunno, doesn’t seem very bright. Almost everything they do, which is intended to cover up some government shenanigans, makes it seem like it would just make government shenanigans even more obvious. The fire, I would have thought, would just bring more attention to what they’re doing. Killing all these people in ultra-professional-killer ways would just make it look like a bunch of government goons killed a bunch of people to cover something up, not, like, the opposite of that.

But what would I know. The fire at least gives Angelina Jolie an excuse to shout “Fire, Fire!” in a not-at-all crowded theatre, and to point her pouty lips at the conflagration’s wall of flame.

Rating:

Gunpowder Milkshake

Gunpowder Milkshake

Fuck with the sisterhood, get your balls crushed by hammers!

dir: Navot Papushado

2021

Well. That movie had a lot of stuff in it.

It had a lot of shooting, a lot of stabbing, a few cinema legends in key roles, and a lot of colour and momentum.

It’s also pretty silly, which is something I can appreciate.

I mean, John Wick is pretty silly, but it takes itself deadly seriously. Gunpowder Milkshake does not. Probably cannot.

It’s not entirely ruled out that this film doesn’t exist in the same universe as the John Wick flicks, but it might as well. It’s also almost cartoonishly similar to a movie Clive Owen starred in that absolutely died at the box office called Shoot ‘em Up too many years ago now. It’s a world seemingly ruled by assassins, with very few civilians in between them. No cops seem to exist whatsoever. There are massive criminal organisations with masses of people in them, and every business or building seems to be connected to them, but the main difference here is this isn’t meant to feel deathly important. And everything isn’t filmed at night in the rain with a blue filter.

Our protagonist Sam (Karen Gillen) is also not trying to get revenge on crims for the death of her wife / dog / guinea pig, though she is angry, and stern, though she is trying to protect a little girl mixed up with the shenanigans going on.

What Sam is angry about is being abandoned, she feels, by her assassin mother (the almost always awesome Lena Headey, of Cersei Lannister of Game of Thrones fame) fifteen years ago. That abandonment has fueled her anger, which she’s channeled into being The Firm’s number one killer.

It is not clear what The Firm really is, other than The Patriarchy. In this flick The Firm is represented by Paul Giamatti, who took Sam in when her mother disappeared, and employed her for The Firm’s benefit. She is sent on a job where she kills a whole bunch of people, presumably just before the movie started. One of those people has a father who is quite upset about this. I would have thought all of the people Sam kills, or that The Firm kills could potentially have parents that are saddened by their deaths, but it’s only this one, to Papa McAlester (Ralph Ineson), that seems to matter.

Papa McAlester wants revenge, and The Firm, being a boys’ club only, they are happy to feed Sam to the wolves in order to keep peace with their rivals.

Sam doesn’t play that shit, though, so it’s up to her to enlist the aid of other murderous women in order to stay alive long enough to protect, um, whatever the girl’s name is, um oh yeah Emily (Chloe Coleman).

Sam has to kill and maim a lot of people to achieve that, but thankfully most of those people are pretty shit at their job, and she’s pretty good at hers. What ensues is long sequences of Sam fighting people (contrived reasons are given to stop people constantly shooting at each other, which makes for more inventive fight scenes) with whatever comes to hand, and then, even “better”, contrive a way to make it even harder for her to fight off multiple opponents by temporarily paralyzing her arms.

Rating:

Stowaway

Stowaway

One of us ain't leaving this room, and it won't be me!

dir: Joe Penna

2021

Stowaway is not really the kind of thing you expect to watch on the telly, at the movies or on a streaming service. There are no explosions, people speak calmly to each other. No-one gets shot or stabbed with a lightsaber. No aliens chomp off anyone’s faces.

It’s science-fiction, I guess, but it tries to be depicting space travel, or a mission to Mars, with technology we’re used to seeing from “real” NASA footage, or the International Space Station. Believable science of today, rather than magic science of the future.

I’m no rocket scientist, so I have no idea how accurate any of it is. Three people, three astronauts, set out on their mission, 2 years round trip to Mars, with the eventual goal of having a permanent manned base on Mars.

The Commander (Toni Collette) is Australian, for no other reason other than that they thought it would be okay. A biologist (Daniel Dae Kim) who’s going to be experimenting with algae, and a doctor (Anna Kendrick). They all get along fairly well. They’re going to be together for two years, so you would want them to be chill with each other.

Instead of always talking to NASA or to Houston, with their problems, they talk to Hyperion. In one of the grand gestures of complying with the current milieu, it’s possible it’s a corporation, like SpaceX and Virgin Blue and whatever Jeff Bezo’s space company is called.

You know, those companies billionaires start in order to thrust their proprietary phallus-like rockets into the stratosphere, just to find somewhere new to fuck up.

These astronauts aren’t like that. They’re calm scientists, or, in one case, a doctor, and they’re all about doing what needs to be done and following procedures and listening to every order given by Hyperion back home and following it.

I don’t think it’s meant to indicate compliance or obedience on their part: not too dissimilar to the relationship between the astronauts in space in Apollo 13, and the NASA nerds back on Earth at Houston in mission control, there are too many variables for three people to cover, no matter how adept.

That’s what you need the legions of nerds to figure out for you.

Thing is, though, this isn’t a situation where the ingenuity of scientists or the collective action of oodles of people will change the result. This isn’t a story about the triumph of American courage or American values or Tom Fucking Hanks.

This is a story where Science can’t magic up a solution to an impossible problem, and when all avenues are exhausted, someone might have to be sacrificed for The Greater Good (the greater good).

Sorry, couldn’t resist a reference to Hot Fuzz, though I did resist typing “crusty jugglers”.

Rating:

Black Widow

Marvel's Black Widow

Family that kill evil misogynists together stay together

dir: Cate Shortland

2021

I know this sounds weird, but the reason I was excited when I heard about this film being made was the fact that Cate Shortland, Australia’s Own Cate Shortland, would be directing.

You don’t know who Cate Shortland is? She made Somersault way back in the day, and that was a pretty good moody Australian film (one of the few). I’m sure she’s done a bunch of stuff since then, but that’s what I remember her for. She might be a strange choice for an action flick, but I guess they wanted a cis female director for a film pretending to make up the difference with the 20-plus Marvel films in which women mostly played supporting characters, and the now 2 that had female protagonists.

As well there’s this explicitly “smashing the patriarchy” part of the plot which I wholeheartedly support, and if you didn’t have a female director directing it, you’d accuse whoever made it of probably being a Polanski-Weinstein in simp’s clothing.

For all that Scarlett Johansson has done in these movies as someone who doesn’t even have superpowers, this being the 8th time she’s strapped on the outfit, making her the central character doesn’t entirely work here, because she’s the least interesting part of this story. The villain is, like, not interesting at all either, though he is diabolical in his horrible treatment of women, but the interesting characters are really everyone else except Black Widow.

There is a flashback set in the 1990s that opens the film, showing a family going about their general daily American apple pie bullshit, until they bolt from the house and desperately try to get to a plane and fly out of the States, presumably, as they are chased by government types who don’t look like they have any problem shooting children.

The children are little Natasha and her little “sister” Yelena (eventually played by the great Florence Pugh), and the parents are Alexei (David Harbour) and Melina (Rachel Weisz), and though they look like the perfect family, they are all evil Soviet spies! Even the children! Especially the children!

Rating:

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