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7 stars

I Care a Lot

I Care A Lot

She doesn't, not really. She is not being entirely forthcoming with you

dir: J Blakeson

2021

This is going to blow your mind, but the main character in this film called I Care A Lot, called Marla Grayson, played by Rosemund Pike, doesn’t, actually.

This is the REALLY mindblowing part: She doesn’t care at all.

Marla is a lawyer who, through manipulating the legal system around the guardianship of oldies, and bribing the right people, forces old people into old folks homes and then drains all their assets over the years until they die penniless and alone.

Piece of work, right? And we all thought Rosemund Pike perfected playing psychopaths back in Gone Girl. Turns out there are even nastier characters for her to play in the Rosemund Pike Cinematic Universe.

At movie’s beginning, over scenes where a distraught bearded chap is trying to visit his mother in an old folks home, and being pummeled by the security, we hear in voiceover Marla tell us that this world ain’t shit, victory is for the ruthless and the weak can go fuck themselves.

This is the movie’s mission statement. It does not shy away from equating the monstrous ruthlessness of the protagonist with American late-stage capitalism, with the American Dream, with doing what people need to do not to get by but to destroy other people for shits and giggles.

Marla has a wall covered in the photos of the people for whom she has organised to be appointed as their guardian. It’s a lot of old people. It’s not really to give her a sentimental attachment to the people she gives not one fuck about. It’s to remind her of who her cash cows are. Once they die she scrunches up their photos and throws them in the trash.

While they live but are declared mentally incompetent, this set up allows her to sell their houses, drain their bank accounts, basically get them institutionalised and cut off, and make it impossible for them to leave, or for anyone related to them to help them out. It’s shocking, and bracing, and from the perspective of the people it’s happening to, I guess this is like an awful horror film, from which someone has to go to extraordinary lengths in order to beat Marla at her game.

Rating:

Happiest Season

Happiest Season

This is so cheesy it would make the baby Jesus hurl

dir: Clea Duvall

2020

I have a soft spot for these kinds of Christmas-related family comedy-pseudo dramas. I also have a soft spot for grindcore and stoner rock, so I don’t think the former says any more about me than the latter does either.

In case you’re wondering, no, I fucking hate the movie Love, Actually, it’s the absolute worst.

I’m thinking more of flicks like The Family Stone, and other gentle fare, where the “dysfunctional” part of the scenario is that someone likes smoking dope, or someone won’t admit they lost their job, or someone’s upset about something that happened a year ago involving a misplaced thank you note. You know, as opposed to families where the cops have to be called routinely, or there are restraining orders and death threats involved, like the dysfunctional family I grew up in.

Happiest Season doesn’t exactly stick to a certain familiar, untaxing template, but it doesn’t exactly create a new genre out of whole cloth. It’s the kind of film that you feel like you’ve seen a thousand times before even if you’re watching it for the first time, and even if it has a gay couple as the central ones making all the fuss.

Kristen Stewart plays Abby and Mackenzie Davis plays Harper. They’re a couple. It’s Christmas, or at least Christmas is coming up. Harper loves Christmas and loves spending it with her big family. Abby lost her parents when she was a teen, and doesn’t really care to celebrate this most dismal time of the year. But she loves Harper.

For some reason. Abby plans on asking Harper to marry her. Harper doesn’t know this. But she doesn’t want Abby to be alone this Christmas, so she invites her up to whatever snow-covered one pub town her parents live in, in rural Pennsylvania.

Does hilarity ensue? Well, not entirely. All these kinds of flicks depend on a central lie at the beginning, sort of, and this one’s is that Harper is not out to her family, so Abby is just going to be introduced as her housemate. They’re just friends, and Harper encourages her family to take pity on Abby because she’s an orphan.

Rating:

The Little Things

Little Things

Nice poster. Nicer than the film THAT's FOR SURE

dir: John Lee Hancock

2021

Well isn’t this flick a barrel of laughs.

It’s a bit of a throwback to police procedurals of which there used to be a dime a dozen. I’m not sure what changed, because there were a million on the teev before and there are even more now.

They’re not really my cup of tea. Of course, like billions of people I’ve watched so many episodes of Law & Order that I confuse it with reality, and think all the time about stuff that happened in the show as having happened in real life, but my capacity for watching crime these days is pretty limited.

So I can’t really say why I was drawn to watching this flick. Sure, it’s got Denzel, and that’s usually a great drawcard, but, honestly, he’s been phoning it in for years. And Denzel playing a tortured cop trying to figure out who some murderer is, is like such a cliché it’s beyond cliché. Almost every actor who’s ever acted has this role on their resume.

But I watched it anyway. It’s set in the early 90s, so no mobiles or internet, which honestly sometimes comes as a bit of a relief. Sure it’s the past, but it’s recent enough for those of us who were alive then to be able to remember a time before doomscrolling or getting hourly phone updates on what the dumbest people around the world are doing every day.

Now, that doesn’t mean life was actually any safer back than. If the opening of this film is any indication, even driving around in your car meant serial killers were going to come after you.

A young woman is driving a car, and gets weirded out by some guy in a car that she doesn’t see who drives near her. She gets so freaked out that she stops the car, and gets out, presumably because she’s going to reverse-psychology the serial killer into thinking killing her now would be too easy?

Anyway, things aren’t looking that good for her.

Rating:

Black Bear

Black Bear

What's she building in there? Is it plans to rule the world or
eat a cookie?

dir: Lawrence Michael Levine

2020

How lucky for us: two movies for the price of one.

Aubrey Plaza stars as Allison, a director / actor who stays in an Airbnb with a couple she doesn’t know in the Adirondack Mountains, in upstate New York. She seems a bit anxious to be there, and the couple she’s staying with seem like they have their own problems.

Blair (Sarah Gadon) is pregnant, and her jerk of a boyfriend Gabe (Christopher Abbot) doesn’t seem too happy about it, and neither of them really seems like they can stand the other. Bringing Allison into the middle of this feels like dropping someone into the middle of a Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? rehearsal. Everyone is overacting like it’s their last chance before the virus destroys the film industry.

I don’t know how much of this is “real”. I mean, it’s easy enough to suspect that it’s all bullshit, but when you have an actor being asked by another actor as to why she stopped getting jobs, and maybe it was because she was “difficult”, you have to wonder what they’re getting at. I don’t know if Aubrey Plaza has been referred to as “difficult”, which is usually the kiss of death of your career. “Difficult” can mean an actress refused to be violated by a Weinstein or didn’t put up with someone else’s predatory bullshit, or thought she should get paid as much as someone else.

You know, grave crimes like that.

Aubrey Plaza has been in a bunch of films, so hopefully it’s not coming from her personal experiences, but then she’s a woman who works in movies and teev, so, yeah, more than likely, she’s been through some shit.

But there are multiple ways to look at the stories the flick is telling. The stories themselves aren’t that complicated beyond the dramatic. I mean, if we divide the film in two halves, and we call the first half “black bear in the road” and the second half “black bear near the boat house”, we would call the first half trashy melodrama, and the second half a behind the scenes look at what awful people directors are and the shit they put actors through.

And even then that could be simplistic.

Rating:

One Night in Miami

One Night in Miami

Maybe a few more nights would have changed the world

dir: Regina King

2021

My first film for 2021! Who knew that we were even ever going to make it this far? I was sure by now nuclear missiles would have been launched, or flying piranhas would have taken us out, but here we still are, somehow, as much of the world collectively sighs in relief.

This film is another seen recently that is pretty much a play confined to one location, which pretty much is defining the business model of the streaming services that seem to be happy giving people money to make movies based on plays but only if they’re cheap cheap cheap. I don’t mind, because it’s not like multiple locations would have improved what is already a pretty decent film, awesomely acted and tightly directed by a woman who’s had a great couple of years, being the Queen, Regina King.

As if she hadn’t already achieved great things as the lead in the limited Watchmen series as Sister Night, here she shepherds a mythical story about 4 African-American titans and a night they might have shared together.

I call it mythical because, let’s be honest, no-one has any idea what happened that night. That four men hung out and talked shit isn’t that unusual, but when the four men are Muhammed Ali, Malcolm X, Jim Brown and Sam Cooke, and the year is 1964, then it seems like something incredibly important.

The film starts with 4 little vignettes, four lead ups to show us where these men are at in their lives and where America is at this point in time, for those who somehow think racism started in 2016: Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), the most acclaimed football player of his day, visits some guy with massive eyebrows in his mansion, where they have a pleasant enough conversation, but the kicker at the end is that the guy, for all the respect he might have for Jim’s achievements, won’t ever allow him into his house, because…

Prototypical soul singer Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jnr), already pretty successful, gets to play the Copacabana club for the first time, to the absolute indifference of an entirely white crowd.

Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) boxes in England, taunting his bloodied opponent, showboating to a degree that even he should find embarrassing, and gets knocked out for his troubles.

Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir) nervously discusses his plans to leave the Nation of Islam with his nervous wife, and, needless to say, they’re pretty nervous about things.

Rating:

Mulan

Mulan

She can enrol in the army in my place any time

dir: Niki Caro

2020

I am not embarrassed to admit that I have sat through and enjoyed the Disney animated movie Mulan a couple of times, in the same way that I’ve watched most of their cheesy products over the years, both with and without my daughter. But now that she’s too old for me to use her as an excuse when I want to watch something, the choice to watch a new version of this tale has to be a more conscious one.

Everything is so freighted and problematic these days. By watching Mulan, and enjoying the pretty visuals and the costumes and the performances, and tearing up a few times, am I supporting the genocide of the Uighur people by the one party totalitarian government of China? Well, probably, I don’t know. I’ve been watching Hong Kong and Chinese films for decades, and I’ve long known that now the government has to approve every script before it goes into production, and virtually every Chinese film, even ones made by Disney, have to toe the party line.

And, yes, the party line is a cruel, inhuman and brutal one. I don’t really have a justification beyond that. I have to hope that, at least from the perspective of the person playing the lead character, and the person directing, being Kiwi director Niki Caro, most famous for Whale Rider all those years ago, their intent with this film, with its predominantly Chinese-American cast (with some major exceptions, being legends like Gong Li, Jet Li and Donnie Yen), is to side-step the political stuff and to tell the ‘classic proto-feminist story of a girl who fights great pretending to be a boy in order to save her dear old dad, the emperor and all of China.

That it is all told within the context of a story that glorifies empires / totalitarian states, and emperors that rule by Divine Right, and obedience to patriarchal structures and such, well, as my daughter handily points out, this is Disney after all. What were we expecting?

This mostly sticks to the script set out by the ‘original’ animated version, doesn’t update it in any way, but wants to use the look and the tropes of wuxia epics to deliver something that looks like one thing but appeals to both a mass Chinese audience as well as a mass American audience.

When you try to make two different people happy, who have two completely different agendas, and you do it in the most ham-fisted and timid way, you’re not going to leave anyone happy.

Of the many names of people who ‘worked’ on the screenplay (the greater the number of names, the shittier the end product, quite often), there wasn’t an even vaguely Asian-sounding surname amongst them, let alone a Chinese or Chinese-American one. Sure, there are Chinese actors, but they are awkwardly singing to an American tune. Thankfully there is no singing in this flick, if that metaphor used in the previous sentence gave you the impression this was going to be a new Chinese Cats inflicted upon the world.

Rating:

The Burnt Orange Heresy

The Burnt Orange Heresy

Look at these serious people being all serious. This must
be seriously serious.

dir: Giuseppe Capotondi

2020

It’s… There’s… Hmmm.

I enjoyed most of this flick, and then it flies off the rails in a way that makes it overall less satisfying? I try to make the first sentence in a review punchy and eye catching, but it’s a bit of a catastrophe, this time. It’s hard to pin point exactly where things go wrong – actually, no, it’s not hard at all. There’s an exact moment where the audience has to say out loud “what bullshit”.

The Burnt Orange Heresy wants to be a good film. There’s a good film lurking under the surface. It certainly wants to be and look classy. It starts with a jerk (Claes Bang) practicing a speech that he’ll be delivering to a group of wealthy middle aged middle class American tourists, but in Milan, somewhere. There’s no suggestion that the main character is Italian. I mean, the main character’s name I’m guessing is Spanish, the lead actor is Danish, his love interest is played by an Australian, and it’s got Mick Fucking Jagger in it and Donald Sutherland. Who else could you possibly need?

The opening is incredibly successful. James delivers a speech to these tourists, upon which he takes them on an incredible journey, of not giving a fuck about something, about giving an incredible fuck about something, and then giving them a pointed lesson in both the power of an art critic and how you shouldn’t believe everything they say. It is an incredible opening scene, a perfect distillation of stating your film’s thesis (art critics are bad and desperate people), setting up the themes for the film, and within the span of exactly 8 minutes, you’ve gone from the opening image, had an entire marathon of emotional rollercoaster rides, been chastised for falling for it, then he’s face down giving a woman head back in his apartment, all in record time.

You have to appreciate such ruthless and effective efficiency. The rest of the flick isn’t paced so crackingly, but that’s okay.

Rating:

She Dies Tomorrow

She Dies Tomorrow

Amy doesn't seem like she's at peace with whatever's going on

dir: Amy Seimetz

2020

One of the stranger flicks to come out this year, in what is turning out to be the strangest year in living memory, She Dies Tomorrow almost seems prescient in its story about someone infecting everyone she comes in contact with over the course of a day/night.

No, none of them are wearing masks, though this is the one instance in which I don’t think masks would have helped. A young woman called Amy (Kate Lyn Shiel) seems to be dealing with the aftermath of a breakup, and also with moving in to a new house, which is its own ordeal. She will burst into tears every now and then, and compulsively play part of Mozart’s Requiem on her turntable, lie on the floor, rub her face on the wall.

She really does own a lot of vinyl for someone so young, but we don’t get to check out the rest of her collection because she keeps playing the same piece from the Requiem. Shame.

Eventually she speaks to a friend on the phone, and everything she says makes the other friend not want to come over that much, because she has a birthday party she doesn’t want to go to, so she reverts to drinking alcohol and using a leaf blower in the middle of the night. I guess we have the impression that she’s not coping well with whatever it is that she’s not coping well with. Or she’s just doing random pointless things because…

Rating:

VFW

VFW

VFW, better known as Valiant Fighters Wassailing

dir: John Begos

2020

Damn, I guess I felt like watching some 80s trash, and I found the perfect neon and blood-drenched delivery device, so, really, I have nothing to complain about.

Except it’s not actually violent action trash from the 80s; it’s a recent flick mimicking and set in the 80s and with the complete disregard for decency, physics, budgets and believability that typifies that era’s highs and lows.

VFW is ridiculously violent, but in a cheap-rubber-mask-filled-with-fake-blood-exploding kind of way. This looks exceedingly cheap and seedy, but that is not a negative, necessarily. Of course people in reviews and comments keep referring to John Carpenter’s legendary Assault on Precinct 13, not only for the heroes under siege storyline, but the exceedingly Carpenter-esque soundtrack, which is all synthesizer keyboards whenever it’s not metal guitar chords all over the place.

Our assembled heroes are, mostly, Veterans of Foreign Wars, hence the acronymic title. That would make this place where most of the heads explode the equivalent of the Returned Servicemen Leagues, or RSLs that we have here in Australia, which are places mostly old people go for cheap buffet food and booze. In our RSLs the most that happens is a little annoyance when they force you at gunpoint to sign into the guest register, if you’re not a member. Very few heads explode, though there’s probably a fair bit of food poisoning, which is no less awful than mass murder, sometimes.

But the VFW this film is concerned with, seems to be located in the worst part of some alternate history America in the 80s where a drug called hype turns users into violent lunatic zombies, and members of gangs wear lots of leather with spikes coming out of them from wacky angles. Presumably, in all realities and timelines, leather is always the textile of choice of cool people, gangs, drug dealers and their lackeys for ever more.

Rating:

Greyhound

Greyhound

Dads doing Dad things, in the Daddest ways possible

dir: Aaron Schneider

2020

Tom Hanks is not just a dad to four kids, he is America’s Dad. It is a role superior even to Pope or President: he supersedes them in the White American Anglo-Saxon Protestant patriarchal hierarchy. In his role as America’s Dad, he created this gift to the Dads of the world, and gifted it to streaming service Apple TV+, during these troubling times where a lot of Dads are in quarantine and have run out of DIY projects in their respective sheds. This will keep them occupied for 90 or so minutes, so they won’t need to pause it too often for loo breaks.

In a different era the intent would have been to create something that everyone, in the so called Western world, would be able to give a copy of to their Dads for Father’s Day, after taking their dads to the cinema for the first time in decades, several months prior to the home release. But that world is gone. In some ways it’s even further away than World War II itself, because back in the 1940s, people were still able to go to the cinemas at least, even as the Nazis’ bombs were falling from the skies.

The world that exists now still has a surplus of Dads whose only subject of interest is that War, because they can speak of it comfortably (unless they’re from a German background), with enough distance, to celebrate the heroism of the men involved and men in general, those bonds of brotherhood unsullied by the presence of pesky women. Men being men, camaraderie, bonding, sexual prowess mockery, feats of strength, general dick measuring, casual racism, all that kind of stuff.

Greyhound fits snuggly within all those needs, so it’s going to be catnip for the right Dads. Almost any of the actual men who would have been in the navy back then are most likely either dead, being killed by their respective countries’ negligent responses to the coronavirus especially with regards to aged care facilities, or are having a nap right now, shh, let them rest, don’t wake them, they’re just going to ask for more painkillers.

Tom Hanks himself wrote the screenplay, and plays the main character, as the commander of a destroyer protecting a fleet of ships carrying war supplies to England. He is an older gentleman, commanding for the first time, and it’s 1942, so there’s plenty more war to come after these events. Unlike the other war film America’s Dad is best known for, being Saving Private Ryan, the intention with this flick is to keep the focus very narrow, and not to pontificate about the bigger picture of the whole world at war, just one guy on one ship, and his crew, trying to do a job. Hanks’s character already has the in-built personality or character of Tom Hanks. They call him Commander Ernest Krause, but no-one’s really fooled, it’s just Tom Hanks in another Dad role. We accept it, everyone else accepts it; it could even be what we need right now.

Rating:

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