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8 stars

Dune Part 1

Dune

All these people worried about what spices are going to
be served at dinner

dir: Denis Villeneuve

2021

I was a bit worried when I heard that Denis Villenueve was tackling Dune, but I shouldn’t have worried. He’s probably one of the consistently best directors making big budget movies around. Look at this list of movies: Prisoners, Enemy, Sicario, Arrival, Blade Runner 2049 and now Dune, all solid movies.

Maybe I was a bit more worried about Timothée Chalamet as the lead, because, look at him, he’s Timothée Chalamet, for fuck’s sake. He’s no Kyle McLachlan, that’s for sure.

But he does okay. If ever a role called for a moody emo kid in a trenchcoat to look moody and such, well, Chalamet is your boy.

The scale is BIG, everything is really BIG. Production values, through the roof! There’s nothing cheap about this production, no siree.

I am one of the few people who actually has fond memories of the ‘original’ version of this, directed by David Lynch, that came in 1984. I liked it, but I was twelve. That’s not an excuse, it’s just that at 12 I liked a bunch of things that maybe weren’t great. I hadn’t discovered women yet and wouldn’t do so for many more years, so maybe I didn’t have a lot of life experience as to what stuff was great and what stuff sucked back then.

I saw it at the movies, and I saw it a stack more times on a VHS copy in the following years. I know that long arse flick backwards. Kyle McLachlan played Paul Atriedes, Francesca Annis played his mum, and a whole bunch of other legends played various characters. Sir Fucking Patrick Stewart was in it! Dean Stockwell! Sean Young? Jurgen Prochnow? Virginia Madsen? And there were giant worms, and people could kill people with just using their voices. And it had an amazing look to it, both retro and ultra futuristic.

I’m not here to defend that film, just to say while it might have been a bomb, no film David Lynch has ever made has ever been completely worthless (with the possible exception of Fire Walk With Me). And I read the book too, but the film always mattered more to me than the book did.

Fidelity to the book also never really concerned me that much. This flick does everything it can to make this all seem serious and important. There’s no fucking around here: everything is deadly serious. The state of, um, the universe is at stake.

Rating:

Nomadland

Nomadland

Life is brief and all too long, together or apart

dir: Chloe Zhao

2020

Nomadland is a beautiful, sad film. I have no doubt it’s about something to the people that made it, but mostly, it just seems to be about a woman with no home who drives around, does odd jobs, and meets a few people.

Imagine trying to sell that idea to a studio, to get them to make your film.

Well, it helps if the person is Frances McDormand who read the book by Jessica Bruder, and thought “this would be a good movie with me in it”, and she was not wrong, because she’s rarely wrong. She’s been a tremendous actor for decades, but she’s not as beloved by the media as the Streeps and, I dunno, the Cate Blanchetts of the world because she doesn’t seem to give as much of a shit about the fanciful stuff around the movies versus the movies themselves.

If a person was being uncharitable one could argue being married to a Coen Brother is an incredible advantage in such a ruthless world of cinematic shenanigans. You might argue that’s how she got her first Oscar, but that doesn’t explain the other two, or all the great roles she’s assayed, in pretty much everything she’s ever done. Plus she was great in Fargo independent of who directed it.

The keen intensity she brings to most of her roles is directed elsewhere here. Her character of Fern exists, does things, has a backstory, but she’s not really the protagonist of this story. This story doesn’t need or have a singular protagonist. She does things, a bunch of things, and talks to a bunch of people, but she underplays everything in a way that people confuse with naturalism or underacting, which, if ever you’ve seen non-actors act whenever a camera is on, we should know is anything but easy.

Her character has lost her husband of however many years, but she’s also lost her home, her sense of place, any feeling of a safe harbor in the world. The town she lived in disappeared not because of her husband’s death, but because the town itself died when the one business shut down. The town of Empire, Nevada, is a real place, and all that’s referred to actually happened. A town with a population of 750 fell to zero when US Gypsum closed the mine. No mine, no reason for the town to exist.

Rating:

Lorelei

Lorelei

Young love, ages like a poisonous wine

dir: Sabrina Doyle

2021

I did not know what to except with this movie, and it totally delivered on that uncertainty.

Set mostly in a tiny town in the Pacific North West, this is a fairly grim story about people who had hopes and dreams when they were young, but life came along and crushed them, but they kept on living, so, now what do we do?

People on the lowest rungs of society, especially in gleefully capitalistic wonderlands like the States, don’t really have as much of a chance to pursue their “dreams” as all the motivational self-help boilerplate statements would lead us to believe. Working hard and making sacrifices doesn’t make you Jeffrey Bezos. Jeffrey Bezos could sit in the corner of a darkened room motionless, unblinking all day long and still “makes” millions per second, more than any of his employees who could work twenty four hours a day and never take a bathroom break could make over their entire lives.

Those who grow up in a small Oregon town, who get involved with drugs, crime from a young age, having kids way too early, well, the system isn’t designed to let them get anywhere with all the will and hard work in the world. The system needs them to stay isolated and desperate so there’s no upward pressure on wages, and they’ll work themselves to death for peanuts, and that there proves how well the system works.

Wayland (a phenomenal Pablo Schreiber) has just been released from prison. He’s done hard time for 15 years. He wasn’t unfairly or unjustly incarcerated. He isn’t vowing revenge on the cops or on some criminal enemy. He committed a serious crime, got caught, kept his mouth shut, and that was that. His crew, his family, a bikie gang called The Night Horsemen, as in, presumably, the Night Horsemen of the Apocalypse (unless they all met at pony club at a very young age, brought together by their love of all things equestrian), are there to greet him and welcome him home.

Rating:

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:

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