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8 stars

Supernova

Supernova

Who wouldn't want to be cuddled by these wonderful old men?

dir: Harry Macqueen

2021

Oh boy. I felt like watching something human and intimate after enduring the shitshow that was Annette a couple of nights ago, and so I chose to watch this, knowing full well what it was about.

Let’s just say I got what I wanted, in spades and truckloads.

It’s a really simple story. No bells and whistles. If you can watch an old gay couple squabbling about minor things at first, poking fun gently the way two old curmudgeons who still love each other might, and travelling around the English countryside, then this could be your jam.

At least for about half an hour.

Tusker (Stanley Tucci) and Sam (Colin Firth) have been together for decades, and, no, this isn’t a flick about past infidelities or heartbreak; one of them is a bit ill, and so there’s a bit of a victory lap feel to their travels. Tusker, being an American writer, is still working on a novel. Sam is a former concert pianist, and this trip is a prelude to him taking to the stage again after many years off of it.

They have an RV, and are meandering their way through what I’m guessing is the Lake District, but Tusker, despite his wry humour, is struggling with dementia. Neither Tusker nor Sam are that old (both actors are 60, but that doesn’t mean their characters are meant to be the same age), but dementia doesn’t see a number: it just sees an opportunity to ruins many people’s lives.

He hasn’t lost all his words yet or motor function skills, but he feels its breath on his shoulder, and dreads what’s to come. Sam is cheery, and prefers not to face it at first, but also thinks / feels / hopes he’s prepared for what’s coming.

He knows, and some of us know, that it is difficult to look after someone whose body and mind betraying them, but in this case it’s also going to be coupled with the fact that Tusker will eventually not recognise his beloved anymore, let alone himself. Tusker is still a fucking smartarse, though. There’s a brief bit early on where he deliberately and gratingly embarrasses Sam when a waitress seems to recognise him from the telly, and Tusker adamantly insists that Same has to give her an autograph.

At this stage of the flick, because we have no idea who “Sam” is in the scheme of things, I wasn’t really sure what was going on, on the off chance that the waitress was a real waitress, and maybe wondered if “Sam” was that actor who played the brooding Mr Darcy a bunch of times.

But nah. Under questioning from a mortified Sam, Tusker admits that when he does it, it’s probably supremely irritating to Sam, but at least half the time he finds it immensely funny.

Well, that makes it all right then.

It’s only after that point that they explain (to us) through dialogue that Sam is a pianist of some renown, and that their trip together will culminate in a concert. Although, really, it’s not the concert Sam is concerned with, it’s the plan he has for how the two of them are to live afterwards.

He has one plan, being something like assisted living, with Sam doing the bulk of the high level care, as it’s called, with some help as well.

Tusker has his own plan, but hasn’t shared it as yet, but it’s there, sitting patiently like a hidden blade.

Rating:

Minari

Minari

Here's one I prepared for you earlier

dir: Lee Isaac Chung

2020

The Immigrant Song. It’s an old tale, told very differently, country to country. Especially when it’s Led Zeppelin, which is I guess about singing about Vikings or something?

Anyway, Minari is a version of the immigrant story, the ‘new’ American version of that story told more with an eye towards depicting a family’s remembrances growing up, rather than talking up the American Dream.

The American Dream had long asserted that if the tired, the hungry, the poor huddled masses of the world’s wretched refuse just got to the country’s shores, and worked monstrously hard for less than minimum wage for several decades, not only would they eventually prosper, but they would get so successful their kids would grow up pudgy, lazy and entitled. In recent years that’s changed to “fuck off we’re closed”, build this wall, build that wall, buy more guns, dying on the job for peanuts is noble, and the virus isn’t real.

This story is unusual in that it’s not about the success that comes from working hard, taking risks, having good luck but grit and determination as well. It’s not a parable or a cautionary tale. It’s the story of a person born into a Korean-American family in California, and the family moves to rural Arkansas because of the father’s dream of a more meaningful life.

I have no doubt that, over the long term, the family survived and thrived, through hard work and sacrifice and all of that, because the little boy depicted here clearly grew up to become the person who wrote and directed this movie, since while it’s semi-autobiographical it’s also clearly, deeply personal. Plus the “David” here went on to study biology at Yale, but chose not to enter medicine and instead became a film director.

That must have taken a lot of hard work, on everyone’s part. But that is not what the flick is about, almost perversely. You can imagine producers, or studio people, hearing early versions of the script saying “yeah, well, you’d get more arses on seats if we can sell it as ‘hard-working immigrants deal with racism and eventually shut up their detractors by opening franchise Korean barbecue company and swimming in pools of money’, don’t you think?”

Because this flick is from the perspective of the family’s youngest member, the immigrant struggle and yearning for success and credibility means little compared to the a) restrictions David lives under because of problems with his heart, and more importantly b) the incredible stress the family was under as the father tried to achieve his goals while they lived like trolls under a bridge.

Rating:

Another Round

Druk

To alcohol - the cause of, and almost never the solution to,
all of life's problems

dir: Thomas Vinterberg

2020

One could think that alcohol has had a good enough run for long enough that it wouldn’t really need to be celebrated in cinematic form, but Danish director Thomas Vinterberg and his cast of Danish legends (well, at least Mads Mikkelsen is well known) choose to highlight the many highs and precious few lows of drinking in this here cinematical enterprise.

I am very conflicted about this flick. I get that it’s not really about drinking, or alcohol, per se. It’s more about the malaise of middle-age, of not being present to the people around you, of feeling bored and disconnected. But it also presents the consumption of alcohol as a mostly joyous experience with very few side-effects beyond greatness.

Drinking in Danish culture seems bonkers, as depicted here. The film starts with a huge bunch of what I assumed were uni kids, but they’re actually in high school, lugging around crates of beer and playing yacht race-type games which involve sculling booze and running, two things that shouldn’t really go together. The high energy raucous start, which involves the kids carrying on like pork chops on public transport and handcuffing a transport guard to a railing, makes underage drinking look like a lot of fun.

That is strongly contrasted with the energy exhibited by their teachers. Martin (the magnificent Mads Mikkelsen) is so listless and drained of interest in his own subject, which is history, that he cannot maintain the thread of his thoughts, or give a shit about what the kids are learning from him. He brings this same energy to every other aspect of his life. He’s checked out from his kids, he’s checked out from his wife, and seems to have no interest in anything other than continuing the drudgery of daily doleful domestics and doing the bare minimum in the classroom.

A co-worker called Nikolaj (Magnus Milang) has a birthday dinner planned, so Martin and two other colleagues, Peter (Lars Ranthe) and Tommy (Thomas B Larsen) go to a fancy shmancy restaurant where they give you shots of vodka with your caviar and perfectly paired wines with your meal.

Martin is polite, but not really connecting, he’s also not drinking because…it’s a school night? The other guys drink heartily, feast and carouse. Nikolaj, whose birthday it is, and who I think teaches psychology, proposes two things. One, that Martin is lacking in self-confidence and joy, which he makes some noises about but basically accepts, and two, that deliberately misinterpreting a joke from someone who actually exists, being Norwegian psychiatrist Finn Skarderud, who suggested that people have a 0.05 blood alcohol deficiency which needs to be corrected by drinking small amounts of booze regularly, should be their role model.

Rating:

Ema

Ema

Just pray that none of her plans include you, even if you
die happy

dir: Pablo Larraín

2020

This film…is definitely something.

I am guessing this was filmed way, way before the coronavirus was on the horizon. The main reason for this is while I don’t know how Chile has fared over the last couple of years with the pandemic, I’m assuming having this many scenes of stacks of people dancing together, or, alternately, this many simulated lesbian orgies probably is pretty difficult these days under covid-worksafe protocols.

Ema is the main character here, which is pretty obvious I guess since the film is called Ema. As played by Mariana Di Girolamo, Ema is a sociopath who is very determined to get her way in life. She seems, from beginning to end, to really want a certain outcome to occur, and also that she is capable of bending everything around her into a particular shape through sheer force of will.

And through the power of dance. And, um, probably sex.

Right at the start the flick is calculated to make the audience loathe Ema and her husband Gaston (Gael García Bernal: Mexico’s greatest export other than cocaine). See, there are often dramas about people trying to have kids, or adopt kids, or save kids etc. Few dramas start with a tremendously fucked up couple who’ve just GIVEN BACK a kid they had previously adopted.

The kid, Polo (Christían Suárez), doesn’t play much of a part in the actual film, but it is his absence that fuels all the terrible things Ema does over the course of the movie. Wait, that’s not accurate. Ema fuels all the terrible things she does during the course of the movie because she is Ema. There are a bunch of things with flamethrowers and fire hoses that she does as well that I’m pretty sure have nothing to do with Polo, but you never know.

Ema is married to Gaston, and they tear strips off of each other about giving the kid up, each blaming the other. Ema may be a sociopath, but giving the kid up seems upsetting to her. She might actually care about the kid, but the way she mostly treats people implies they are all pawns on a chessboard, and she’s a queen, so when something she once wanted and then briefly didn’t want is taken away from her, the infantile mind demands the toy be returned.

Rating:

Moxie!

Moxie!

We're all in this together, until we aren't, then it's every
girl for herself

dir: Amy Poehler

2021

Moxie sounds like something from the olden days, like something you used to put in a car during Prohibition, if you could afford one, and if the Mafia allowed you to drive. It’s used in dialogue by an older (compared to the protagonists) person, and severely mocked by those who hear it. And yet it becomes the title of this film and the zine the main character Vivian (Hadley Robinson) makes to combat the sexism and misogyny she sees at her school.

I don’t know if you can argue that it all comes about in an entirely organic manner, but really, how much does that matter. Upon the first day of her new school year, she’s wondering about what matters to her and what she cares about. Turns out, not much. She looks to others to tell her what should matter to her, because she doesn’t yet know what to care about.

That’s fair enough. She and her BFF Claudia (Lauren Tsai) know about stuff and care about stuff, but they’re wallflowers at their high school, and more the kind of people who just want to get through rather than stand out and become targets for shitheads and bullies.

A new starter at the school, being Lucy (Alycia Pascual-Peña) is targeted by the captain of the football team, who is the appointed god-king of this place, and it’s either because she’s African-American or because she tried to defy the established canon of American Literature, and disliked being interrupted by the jerk Mitchell (Patrick Schwarzenegger) when criticising the fact that The Great Gatsby is still being taught in schools like no other books have ever been written.

Mitchell probably hasn’t read it. Guys like Mitchell don’t need to read. But he hears a person of colour criticising the canon, he has to defend it, like he’d probably reflexively need to defend Confederate flags and vaccine conspiracy theories. He’s just out here, exercising his freedom of speech, asking the questions the others don’t have the courage to ask, is all.

How Mitchell behaves is appalling, and over the course of the flick this mediocre piece of shit keeps getting away with and being enabled by everyone, just because he’s the captain of the football team. It’s not even a remotely successful football team, but the hierarchy established in this ecosystem dictates that the male Captain of Any Football Team = Way Better than Anyone Else.

But the focus isn’t really on Mitchell. He’s not a character that matters (though he commits much evil). It’s the people around Mitchell, the system around Mitchell that enables him and never even tries to gently recommend he not be so much of a piece of shit that matters.

And, at least at first, Vivian doesn’t even see that she’s part of it. Even after watching and hearing Mitchell be awful towards Lucy, everything the school has taught he to say and think comes to the fore: she tells Lucy to just keep her head down, go with the flow, and then maybe Mitchell will move on to presumably threaten and sexually harass someone else.

Lucy, who makes her case to the principal of the fucking school (Marcia Gay Harden), is told there is no case for Mitchell to answer, and reporting it would be a lot of paperwork, but nevertheless, she persists. She tells Vivian there is no reason for her to keep her head down and modify her behaviour.

She is going to keep her head up.

Rating:

Oxygene

Oxygen

Despite all her rage she's still just a rat in a cage

dir: Alexandre Aja

2021

How strange. This flick pretty much occurs in one location, with one actor. There are images of other people, and a couple of voices, but really we, like she, are trapped in place.

I guess we’re all trapped in place when we’re in a cinema (or at least what I remember about cinemas from 100 years ago, 1 covid year = 100 calendar years), but for this I was trapped on my couch as the captive audience for this Netflix Exclusive!

And I found it pretty compelling. I mean, I do get a little claustrophobic watching things like this (another great example is the Ryan Reynold’s flick Buried, that’s kinda and kinda completely not similar), but I think you’re supposed to, just like the character. This starts with the simple premise that these kinds of flicks often start with: person wakes up in a box that it appears they can’t escape from, and oxygen is running out.

The person here (Melanie Laurent) is French, so presumably everything that transpires is happening to a French person, including a disembodied voice that talks to her in the flat emotionless tones of HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey (Mathieu Amalric) which also speaks French.

The inside of the box looks pretty high tech-ish, so we can assume that the future is possibly French? Tres chic! The men will all be boorish sexist pigs and the women classy and sexually confident?

Um, we can do better.

The additional problem the lady here has upon waking is that she is wrapped up in a whole bunch of stuff, with wrappings, and masks and cannulas and straps and all sorts of things, but also doesn’t remember who she is, or why she might be in such a contraption. The disembodied voice, let’s call it Milo, for whatever reason, answers some questions put to it, but not others. There are limits to what information it can access or tell the occupant of the box / pod / super high tech coffin.

It can’t tell her her name. It can’t tell her why she’s there, it also can’t release her from the box. But what it can do is tell her that the oxygen supply to the sealed pod is depleting rapidly, and she coincidentally only has about as much time to escape as the film seems to have remaining in its running time.

Convenient, that.

The woman in the box might not know who she is or why she’s there (has she angered some kind of high tech serial killer / kidnapper? Was she dying and was she put in the box to keep her alive? Is this some kind of state-sanctioned punishment for her crimes against humanity?), but she has that believably human drive to survive. She pieces together whatever she can find out, and however far she can reach within the pod in order to try absolutely everything in order to either escape or survive.

Rating:

Sun Children

Khorshid

None so blind as those who won't see, none so
alone as those underground

Khorshid

dir: Majid Majidi

2020

Life is a constant, unending struggle in the films of Majid Majidi. I haven’t seen all of them, but I’ve seen enough to know that, in his flicks, poor people struggle and struggle and get barely anything for their troubles. There is no nobility in struggling, and there is barely if any karmic reward coming down the pipeline for everything they go through.

The approach that he has taken in all his films, including here, isn’t one of trying to make grander points about inequality and Iranian society in explicit or polemic terms – you can easily infer all of that, but he doesn’t have characters come out directly and say how unfair everything is and how things should be different.

Majidi has been making movies for years, movies which get seen overseas at festivals and such, and get released in arthouse cinemas, but he’s not political, which is why he hasn’t been arrested by the Revolutionary Guard or the morality police for crimes against Iran, unlike some other directors. Directors who live there don’t have the freedom to criticize the regime, and Majidi isn’t that kind of director, unlike, say, Jafar Panahi, who spent years in jail and under house arrest, and can’t leave Iran and isn’t allowed to make movies ever again.

No, the pricks in the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance probably think Majidi is perfect because he never gets political. Thing is, though, like the phrase goes, trying to be apolitical is being political.

It’s not like his films are saccharine mawkish products either. They are harsh in their depiction of what life is like for poor people in Iran, especially children. And a flick that shows how shitty life is for kids in a major city is an indictment of that city and that country, even if thankfully the authorities don’t see it that way.

Ali (Rouhollah Zamani) is a brawling, ruthless force of nature, even at twelve. His mother is institutionalised, and his father is dead. He has a crew of three other chaps, all of whom have lost a parent at least, usually to heroin addiction. I cannot imagine what it must be like as a heroin addict in Iran – a place where they hang you for looking at a picture of the Ayatollah funny or for pointing out that some beards look dumb. I can’t imagine the regime takes an empathetic, harm minimisation approach to addiction, but you never know.

That is the world these particular kids live in – hand to mouth, always looking to scam, taking orders for stuff to steal, always on the make.

The flick starts with the kids trying to steal luxury tyres from a luxury vehicle, something they’ve clearly done before, but the job goes wrong when the lookout gets busted by a security guard. When Ali sees his tiny friend at risk of being grabbed by this jerk, the jerk being a full grown-arse man, Ali takes him on and takes him down temporarily, as he and Abolfazi (Abolfazi Shirzad) abscond. The law would be tough on either of them, but Abolfazi is an Afghani refugee, and it would be even worse for him and his family.

I never thought about it, honestly, that there would be a large population of Afghani refugees in Iran because of the various wars, Taliban etc, and that they would be a shaky, oppressed minority, but the flick has a fair few scenes of Iranians acting like cruel dolts towards people of that background.

Fucking hell, who does catch a break in this world?

Rating:

Quo Vadis, Aida?

Quo Vadis, Aida?

And no it's not Elizabeth Moss, just FYI

dir: Jasmila Zbanic

2021

This is some pretty heavy stuff to deal with. This happened in the mid-90s, which isn’t that long ago. For some reason, at least for me, it’s easy to forget that at a time when I was going to gigs and staying up all night arguing about pop culture bullshit with friends drunk out of our minds, there was a war in Europe, and people were being slaughtered just for being who they were.

This is a true story in the sense that there is a town called Srebrenica in Bosnia / Herzegovina, formerly Yugoslavia. And the Serbian army slaughtered a whole bunch of Bosnian Muslims there, for no other reason than that they were Bosnian Muslims.

And there are two armies depicted in this, but only one of them is killing people, and it’s the Serbian one. The other army is made up of Dutch soldiers, some of whom are wearing shorts. Some of them have big moustaches, but mostly they’re not very intimidating. They are there as United Nations peacekeepers. They are running a refugee camp, because the Serbian army has been terrorising all the villages and towns around Srebrenica, and many of those who weren’t killed fled hoping the UN would look after them.

It remains one of the great tragedies of the last half of last century, up there with Rwanda as well I guess.

This flick is so matter-of-fact about what happened, about how desperate these people were to survive, how there was no magical solution, and how the vast majority of them didn’t have a chance.

The main character, as one could guess from the title, which is Latin for “Where are you going, Aida?” is Aida (Jasna Đuričić), who speaks English and Serbian, I guess. She is a Bosnian Muslim, and she has a husband and two grown up boys. She helps as a translator with the peacekeepers, even though she doesn’t speak Dutch, but they do speak English.

When the film starts, after a long pan from right to left of Aida and her family, Aida is translating to the Dutch the concerns of the mayor of Srebrenica, who is worried that the Serbian army is getting ever closer. The Dutch commander assures him that the army won’t enter the town, because they have said to them that if they enter the town, NATO will bomb them. There keep being variations on phrases like “in no uncertain terms” and “this is a UN resolution”, but it ultimately means nothing, and the terrified and angry mayor knows it.

Aida is not a person with power in this situation. The most she is able to do is chat to people in different languages, and try to save her three men.

The Dutch aren’t interested, really, in saving anyone. The Serbian army no longer cares about appearances, as it is determined to get what they think of as revenge. So it’s down to Aida to desperately scramble about to find a way to avoid the inevitable.

Rating:

In The Heights

In the Heights

I await the sequel about Heidelberg Heights and all the
wonderful people who live there, hop to it, Lin Manuel.

dir: Jon M. Chu

2021

I’m not…the target audience for musicals, that should be fairly obvious. I have been trying to finish watching Cats for over a year in order to review it, and I haven’t been able to complete it, despite trying over 20 times to get through it. When I die and go to hell, among the many other torments available and specially designed for me, Mamma Mia will be playing loudly and on a loop.

I guess there are times when I’m able to unclench my jaw and relax into these strange musical – cinematic hybrids. I really enjoyed Hamilton when it came out last year (the film of the original cast performing on the stage, for Disney+), and that required no particular love of the genre or love of America’s Founding Fathers. And, despite never having been to the New York suburb of Washington Heights or having anything close to Latinx heritage, it’s not impossible for me to enjoy a song-and-dance extravaganza about a bunch of people who live in a vibrant, caring community.

It specifically honours the Caribbean, central American, South American and other permutations heritages of the people who make up what seems to be this most melting pot of melting pots, seeing in them the story that has played out for millennia across the world but in terms of the States the story of migrants aspiring to a better life for them and their families.

Which is the story of chumps everywhere, I guess. Many of these people are trapped within dreams, their own dreams, the dreams of their parents, parental expectations, community expectations, all of which can be pretty far from what real life brings on.

Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) tells a story from what looks like a bar on the beaches of the Dominican Republic, to a bunch of snot-nosed kids. What story is he telling them? Well, it’s the story of how he followed his dreams, or his dad’s dreams, or someone else’s dreams. Anyway, most of the kids look bored, but the brightest of them, an eager girl, listens intently, about the events of one particular summer.

The bodega Usnavi runs with his cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV) is a focal point of the neighbourhood, in that every other single character in the flick comes and goes from the bodega. Across the street is a car hire place(?) called Rosario’s which is also a focal point of the neighbourhood. There’s also a hair / nail salon place which is also the focal point of the neighbourhood. Plus there’s also Abuela Claudia’s (Olga Merediz) apartment, which is also the focal point of the neighbourhood. I think I’ve overused that particular construction, because I think you can see what I’m implying.

Rating:

Violation

Violation

Vengeance will absolutely be hers

dir: Madeleine Sims-Fewer and Dusty Mancinelli

2021

I wanted to watch a horror film last night, and did I watch a horrific film…

Violation is a pretty horrific descent into a story that brings no comfort or catharsis, at least I don’t think so for the audience, even as it deals with someone getting revenge on someone for raping them.

I know, I know that sounds like a cheery subject for the whole family to sit around and watch, grandma too. It’s a curious sub-genre within horror, but this is… nothing like those other exploitation flicks, the most notorious of which is probably I Spit on Your Grave, and its sequel, I Spit on Your Gravy.

The central relationship in this story is between two sisters, Miriam and Greta (Madeleine Sims-Fewer and Anna Maguire), who have a somewhat salty manner with each other. They haven’t seen each other in a while, and Miriam and her husband Caleb (Obi Abili) go out into the Canadian wilderness in order to stay with Greta and her husband Dylan (Jesse LaVercombe). Even though Miriam and Greta speak with English accents, they apparently grew up in Canada, and Dylan was a childhood friend to both of them prior to Greta and Dylan marrying.

Greta and Dylan seem happy together, happier at least than Miriam and Caleb seem to be. Miriam’s fractious relationship with her sister is also mirrored by the fact that she seems to have fraught relationships with every character. Though she gets along well enough with Dylan, and chats freely with him about all sorts of stuff.

You can kind of guess where this might be going, but even I, having read reviews of the flick after some film festival, possibly Toronto’s, am staggered by what happens in this flick.

Fucking Hell. Them Canadians…

It’s a horror flick in the sense that something absolutely horrible happens in the flick, and because the person whom it happens to cannot live with what happened, she enacts an all encompassing revenge that annihilates her betrayer, and we watch it. That’s disturbing and incredibly bleak.
I could get (even more) pretentious and argue that the title possibly doesn’t refer to what happens to Miriam (even though clearly it is a violation of her person, her autonomy, her body), but to not even being believed as to what happened. No-one believes her, least of all her sister, who assumes Miriam not only consented but seduced Dylan.

That is a violation, of the sisterly bond, if one existed. But the problem then even becomes that Dylan himself, prior to facing his fate, also doesn’t think he did anything wrong, if anything, he thinks he and Miriam are having a hot affair.

It’s kinda staggering. It also kinda reminded me, of all things, of Mike Tyson’s trial for rape back in the 1990s, for which he was convicted, thankfully. At the trial, I recall reading that his lawyers, and he himself, tried to argue that he didn’t even understand the concept of consent, or that a woman could decline to have sex with him, once she was in private with him. It didn’t compute, therefore he should have been found innocent, was their staggering argument.

Rating:

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