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7 stars

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:

The Tomorrow War

The Tomorrow War

This is such a great poster. It screams "I am top billed: fuck all these
other losers and look directly at my crotch!"

dir: Chris McKay

2021

Flicks can be wholly derivative and still work. The Tomorrow War is constructed entirely from bits of dozens of older movies, and still works. I have zero problems with that. I feel so defeated by life right now that, honestly, if a film can have flashing lights in it and the dialogue mostly matches the moving lips of the actors, I’m pretty much convinced it’s masterpiece theatre.

I don’t particularly love seeing Chris Pratt as a serious dad type character wanting to desperately sacrifice himself in order to save the world, because he’s far better suited to goofy nutty characters, but he is getting old, and he is married to a child of Schwarzenegger, so maybe he hopes he’s the next Arnie? This is certainly not a comical romp, so there’s that against it, first up.

There’s an alien enemy that threatens to kill everyone on the planet, but it’s a threat that won’t happen for 30 years or so. Every second science fiction flick has ruthless aliens wanting to kill us just for existing. Just yesterday I saw a different flick where aliens want to kill all people because we’re such noisy buggers. And these creatures are somehow even nastier, and they can see AND hear, so we’re doubly fucked.

They are pretty horrible looking, and for the longest time I didn’t know what characters were talking about when they were talking about this alien enemy: they call them “white spikes”, but what I thought I was hearing was “The White Stripes”.

And I thought “hey, that’s a bit unkind. Maybe not all of their albums were as great as their good ones, but they never hurt anyone (except each other)”.

So now you know, I’ve spoiled it horribly: at some time in the future a billion clones of Meg and Jack White appear on the planet savagely killing humanity with the riffs from The Hardest Button to Button.

The greatest implausibility occurs right at the start of the movie. A house full of people, somewhere in the States, is having some kind of party, I think Christmas maybe. At this party, this party full of Americans, I mean American Americans, they have a game of soccer on the big screen television.

During the soccer match, a portal opens, and armed people from the future walk through.

The implausibility I’m talking about isn’t people coming through a portal from the future. The fundamental implausibility is the concept that a house full of Americans would be watching a soccer game, even if it’s the World Cup, even in fictional entertainment.

Rating:

Night in Paradise

낙원의 밤 Nagwonui bam

I wonder if there will be smoking and drinking in Paradise?

(낙원의 밤 Nagwonui bam)

dir: Park Hoon-jung

2020

Ah, the blessings of Netflix be upon you. I had heard about this film recently, and, wouldn’t you know it, it was on my local streaming service, so I watched it when I found a spare 2 hours and 15 minutes to myself, which are admittedly hard to come by these days.

So I watched it, and, well, now you have to suffer too.

Not that it’s bad, it’s just that, when you hear about it, you think it will be a certain way, and then when you watch it, it turns out to be something completely else. And that’s okay, that’s just a difference in expectation versus what you actually get.

I didn’t have any particular high or low expectations, but perhaps I had some preconceived ideas based on other South Korean films I’ve seen over the years.

And no, this is nothing like Parasite, in case you were wondering, a film that won Oscars and that people have almost completely forgotten about due to… well you know.

This was also clearly made some time in 2020, because there are some people with masks, and references to social distancing, but other than that it doesn’t play much part in the story.

Now, I don’t pretend to be an expert on South Korean films, culture, politics, history or crime, but I’m telling you this for free – this flick in its manner of telling a story about a young gangster is indistinguishable for any other number of flicks I’ve seen about young yakuza, young triads or any other jerks in organised crime set in other countries. The setting and the window dressing are different, but, really, the specificity of the location belies the fact that this could have been told universally.

Tae-gu (Park Tae-goo) is a loyal gangster in his gangster clan. He is respected and admired and all that crap, but, most importantly, he is feared by the jerks in the opposite clan called the Bukseong, who tried to recruit him, which he regretfully declines.

After a meeting with those rivals, Tae-gu gets to spend a few brief moments with his sister, who is unwell, and his niece, who’s cute as a button. And it’s her birthday!

Despite being a cold emotionless robot in all his work dealings, Tae-gu loves his sister and his niece. He gives her an expensive present, and waves like an idiot (though not as idiotically as one of his fellow henchmen) as they drive off.

His sister is ailing, and in need of a transplant of some sort, but he is not a suitable donor. What’s to be done?

Rating:

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