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8 stars

We're All Going to the World's Fair

We're All Going to the World's Fair

I'm not going unless it's being held in a basement somewhere

dir: June Schoenbrun

2022

We’re not all really going to the World’s Fair. Only the select few.

The rest of us will be left behind, in our miserable isolation, desperately wanting to connect with someone whilst avoiding all meaningful human contact.

Describing this film will be somewhat difficult, at least for me. I am, as many people are happy to point out, quite old. Despite the fact that I try to have an understanding of contemporary stuff in the zeitgeist, there’s so much of it, and some of it is so ineffable, that it’s sometimes hard to grasp whatever the hell the latest thing the young ‘uns are obsessed with is.

I think this flick is about a subset of a subset of internet users who suck themselves into believing conspiracies that are patently untrue, But believing that stuff, no matter how outlandish, is the only way for them to wrest meaning from the chaos that is their existence.

There are pretty much only two characters / actors in this flick. We watch Casey (Anna Cobb) record videos of herself all throughout the movie. I’m no therapist, but I think it’s safe to say she’s an isolated, disconnected teenager, possibly grieving the death or departure of her mother. We never see her father, but we do see her bolt upstairs to her attic bedroom when he arrives home, or yelling at her from downstairs when she’s watching creepypasta horror videos at 3 in the morning at full volume.

I don’t think we see her go to school, or have a single scene with other humans in it. Her one interaction with another person is a skype call with some jerk who’s obsessed with her.

Before those warning bells start ringing, I don’t think this is a flick about the perils of predators on the internet, and what hazards kids face when their loneliness compels them to open up to strangers. It’s not a cautionary tale in the sense that “this could be your kid right now!!!” being sold into slavery or pursued by rapacious Republican politicians.

It’s more nuanced, in the sense that it’s about quite a depressed teen, who may be acting out, who may be disassociating, but who struggles for meaning, for a reason to go on.

And what does that look like in this present age? It’s a kid posting videos of themselves to an audience of nobodies in order to get a handful of likes or views. We’re not even talking about the people who go to insane lengths for subscribers and the like: they’re performing for fewer people than you’d see at an average bus stop.

So we wonder, how much of this is Casey losing the plot mentally, and how much of it is her choosing to buy into this elaborate (and yet absurdly simplistic) “game” called the World’s Fair, where people pretty much recite an incantation, smear blood on their screen, watch a strobing video, and then watch as parts of their bodies or brains start transforming in some way?

Rating:

Hellbender

Hellbender

Parenting isn't that bad. Not most of the time

dirs: John Adams, Zelda Adams, Toby Poser

2022

If hell, as Jean Paul Sartre once opined in between abusing amphetamines and literary groupies, is other people, then families are a unique form of hell. And to be trapped with your family during a pandemic, well, we keep discovering lower and lower circles of hell all the time…

But imagine if your family, all its members, were immensely talented actors and filmmakers. Well, out of these despicable last few years, you could have made something quite special if you’d really tried.

When I mention that this flick is a family affair, it makes it sound like an amateurish set of home videos. It is nothing of the sort. Before I get carried away – I’m not implying this is the most heartwarming and uplifting movie made since Schindler’s List – I am however trying to say that this is a quite accomplished and pretty well put together horror film made by people who know what they’re doing, and they do it very well.

Yes, on the other hand you could see this as a director’s audition to try to convince metal bands to let the Adams – Poser family make all their next album’s film clips – I can see them making clips for Mastodon or Opeth or Baroness quite easily.

A lot of this flick has that vibe, and not only because the two main characters, Izzy (Zelda Adams) and her mother (Toby Poser) play doom-heavy music with lots of make-up on in their spare time.

They have a lot of spare time. They are a mother and daughter living in rural isolation. They play music, they do foraging stuff, they seem to get along okay, they do arty stuff. It seems like the perfect life if you like that sort of thing. The mum seems to fear… something. Either she’s worried about Izzy straying too far from the property, or she’s worried about something encroaching upon their hillbilly paradise.

Of course I’m leaving out the very beginning of the flick, which shows an array of women trying to hang and burn a woman that looks a lot like the mum, in those pilgrim / witchburning times, and yet it seems like they didn’t get their wish if she’s swanning about in the present age.

Izzy is a teenager, though, and bored, which is a dangerous combination. It seems like she’s never spent time with anyone else other than her mother. It could be because she has some kind of allergy or dangerous immunity condition, but like in real life that’s just some bullshit parents make up to keep their kids obedient.

As is inevitable, Izzy finds some teenagers doing some dumb stuff, and is drawn to them, and knows enough to keep this from her sainted mother. Of course a teenager would want to hang out with other teenagers. No matter how awesome one’s parent / parents are, you seek out peers, to compare, contrast, drink and have sex with etc.

I hesitate to say that it’s natural, as in a natural curiousity and urge, because this film is not about the natural urges all people might possess. It is, after all, a horror film.

Rating:

Kimi

Kimi

Who looks at this wily, confident woman and thinks
"our corporation will win against her?" Idiots.

dir: Steven Soderbergh

2022

This time that most of us lived through (and many didn’t get to) hasn’t spawned a lot of great films yet. I’m not implying that this is the first great pandemic flick. I’m implying this is the only good pandemic flick.

A lot of flicks have come out, have been impacted by lockdowns and such, have even tried to address this dreadful time, but it’s all too soon, all too lame. The best they’ve managed is some two-handers where a couple of actors yell at each other in a confined space with minimal crew for an hour and a half, never mentioning The War.

Instead of a two-hander, this flick staring Zoë Kravitz, who seems to be in everything at the moment, and is mostly a solo gig. As a shut-in IT worker ‘happily’ working from home during the pandemic, much of the flick transpires in the main character’s apartment.

On her lonesome, except when she occasionally has sex with a guy from across the street. The main character’s name is not Kimi: her name is Angela. “Kimi” is the alternative Alexa – instead of working for Amazon, Angela works for Amygdala, which might as well be called Amazon. Anyone with half a brain automatically thinks they’re talking about Amazon anyway, why bother with the charade, ya timid fucks?

Instead of Bezos drinking people’s blood and fucking their wives, the CEO of Amygdala is the one assuring the public in interview that the in-home voice activated device definitely isn’t harvesting people’s data when people haven’t activated it directly.

Of course, Angela’s job seems to be sifting through conversations recorded by the system for data useful to the company when they have no idea they’re being recorded.

Rating:

Nightmare Alley

Alley of the Nightmares

I can't say I love this poster, but it accurately reflects that
these people are in this movie. So, points for that.

dir: Guillermo Del Toro

2021

Ye gods, what a keen and dark flick.

Legendary Mexican director Guillermo Del Toro often makes movies about (older) movies, but rarely outright remakes older movies. This, though based on a book, is a remake of a film from the 1940s.

As well, as much as it might sound like blasphemy to say this, I don’t always like or even get Del Toro’s movies. I love what his crew do visually with the visual language of film, but sometimes, or quite often, I find it almost impossible to connect to the characters.

I didn’t have that problem with what I think was his last film, The Shape of Water, which I watched on a plane, back when that was a thing people did, which won a bunch of stuff. It’s had a bit of a backlash against it since then, but also the last time I mentioned it to someone in a conversation about movies, neither of us could remember the name of the film.

I am not going to have that problem here. This is a masterful, controlled, perfectly realised vision of a Depression-era story about an amoral chancer who thinks he’s too smart to ever pay the price for his deceptions, but he very much gets his comeuppance.

And how. It’s not the first time Bradley Cooper has played a too smart for his own good arsehole (as in Limitless), but this time it’s in the service of a story slightly more grounded in cold reality, or at least a reality closer to recognisable from the 1930s. It’s a hard-scrabble time, everyone’s poor, everyone is desperate for a meal and a few cents. Stan (Cooper), after having some kind of grim experience at some house on fire, stumbles into a circus, and tries to make himself useful in order to have a roof over his head.

It’s the standard travelling circus of that era that is deeply ingrained in our (Western, of a certain age) consciousness: tormented animals, people with deformities or physical differences for audiences to gawk at, and then something much worse.

We forget, because the term has such ubiquity and none of the stigma anymore, but a geek was a particular thing, back in the day. And if we watch the flick, and listen carefully, we’ll learn anew what a geek started off being, rather than a catch-all term for anyone that liked computers and comic books a little bit too much.

Rating:

Drive My Car

Doraibu mai ka

I know, I know, it looks like a laugh a minute

(ドライブ・マイ・カー, Doraibu mai kā)

dir: Ryusuke Hamaguchi

2021

This film is a lot. There’s 3 hours of it. It’s mostly people talking. If you’re into that, well, this will be a treasure for you.

If not, the lack of explosions and action could be perplexing. Also, it probably helps if you’re a fan of Japanese dramas in general and the writing of Haruki Murakami specifically.

Taken from his short story collection Men Without Women, Drive My Car also uses elements from some of the other stories in the book, so it’s not a straight retelling of that story.

Yusuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) is an actor and theatre director. A lot of people not including his wife think that he is the bee’s knees, or whatever the Japanese equivalent is thereof. His wife Oto (Reika Kirishima) is a tv screenwriter, and she has this habit of spinning stories either during or after sex. Though they seem loving, there is a cold sadness somehow sitting between them.

When Yusuke tries to catch a plane but is delayed, and arrives home unexpectedly, he finds that he’s not the only one that enjoys Oto’s bedbound storytelling talents.

He does not confront her, or let on at all. But soon tragedy strikes, and Oto passes away.

At exactly 40 minutes into the film, the opening credits roll. I thought it was, kind of, a joke, but the more I thought about it, it was just a long prelude explaining who these people were, what they had, all before the “story” proper begins.

Rating:

A Hero

Ghahreman

Would you give this man all your gold coins?

(قهرمان Ghahreman)

dir: Asghar Farhadi

2021

It’s another great film by Iranian director Asghar Farhadi. How does he keep making films so consistently great? I mean that literally, because every other great Iranian director ends up in prison eventually.

If nothing else I would have thought the Revolutionary Guards would have sifted through his films suspiciously for any hint of anti-establishment sentiment, and punished him for it. They always, invariably, find what they’re looking for.

Farhadi doesn’t make it easy for them. He himself says his work is never political, which, everyone else immediately thinks “that makes it even more political than before!”

To a western ignoramus such as myself, well of course I’m not going to get subtle references to critiquing the regime if and when it occurs, but the mere fact that an Iranian flick exists and its main topic is the complexity of life in modern Iran itself is a criticism of how fucking bonkers life is with a theocratic viciously authoritarian state in charge of things.

A Hero has a seemingly simple premise: a guy in debtor’s prison tries to find a way to pay off his debt to his former brother-in-law in order to be set free, and with each minute that passes finds new ways to complicate things and new levels of intricate complexity. Life in Shiraz (not the wine, but the city from which I guess the wine takes its name) is not easy.

Rahim (Amir Jadidi) seems like a happy go lucky type. As soon as he’s out of prison on leave for a couple of days, he calls on his brother-in-law, who seems to be working as an…archaeologist at the tomb of Xerxes? The brother-in-law is Rahim’s conduit to the man who is keeping Rahim in jail.

And that chap happens to be… Rahim’s ex-brother-in-law through marriage. That guy, Bahram (Mohsen Tanabandeh), you’d think would have to be some kind of angry jerk for keeping the young, charming Rahim in debtor’s prison for no good reason.

Except that’s not quite the case. While Bahram is angry, and inflexible, he does not trust Rahim’s protestations or honeyed promises about money raining from the sky. And he fears that Rahim will try to do something to stop his sister from remarrying (someone we never see).

I don’t claim to understand the money that’s at stake here, but I think I recall Bahram saying the amount owed, as in, the money he’d given Rahim to pay off a loan shark for a business venture that went sideways was 150 million toman, which works out to around $50,000 in Australian terms.

That’s a fair chunk of change. By some twist of fate, Rahim comes into possession of a handbag with 17 gold coins in it, and hopes that they will discharge most of his debt, and get him out of prison. The problem is, the coins are only worth about half of the debt owed, and Bahram has no interest in being generous.

Rating:

Atlantis

Атлантида

The bleakest place in the world, but at least they
have each other

(Атлантида)

dir: Valentyn Vasyanovych

2019

Such a sad, strange, serious film... about something that hasn’t happened yet.

I mean, the conflict this alludes to definitely happened. Russian forces pretending to be Ukrainian separatists took over whole swathes of Crimea and what’s called the Donbas region, and around 13,000 people have been killed since 2014, which is a lot of people.

A lot of people. The conceit of this flick is that the ‘conflict’ was worse, and went for way longer, and the dead are at peace, but the living are the walking wounded.

The entire film consists of 28 sequences or shots. Most of the time the camera is static, sitting in one place, unmoving.

The film opens with just such a static shot: overhead, thermal imagery, of someone digging a grave. Someone else is dragged to the hole, beaten brutally and then buried. We see the whole thing from go to whoa. It’s not a pleasant way to start things.

We don’t know if it’s a Russian soldier or paramilitary, or Ukrainian, but it doesn’t matter, in the sense that whoever it’s happening to, it’s pretty horrible, whatever their ethnicity or identity.

Set in 2025, two veterans of the conflict, Sergey and Ivan (Adriy Rymaruk & Vasyl Antoniak) are not living their best lives. The two chaps set up metal targets in the snow and, for fun(?) shoot at the targets while screaming abuse at each other and making it difficult for each other to fulfil challenges set by the other. After many minutes of this, after taking things a bit far, Ivan shoots Sergey in the chest, laying him out.

They’re both wearing bulletproof vests, but it’s still not how friends should treat friends. Both of them are clearly not in a good place mentally, though we’re never told or shown as to why. It’s not some specific event – it’s just the accumulation of what happened, all the horrors of war, that don’t end just because there’s a ceasefire.

On top of that, these veterans are not well regarded by their fellow Ukrainians. They blame these soldiers either for the war itself, the fact that they fought for so long with nothing to show for it, or that it’s their fault they didn’t win.

The place where they work, a foundry, is so bleak it looked literally like something out of Nineteen Eighty Four, as in the film version from the 1980s. If shit wasn’t bad enough at the foundry, where the other workers hate them, they also get a heartwarming lecture from the foreman as to how they’ll be closing now thanks to their American owners, thanks for all your hard work you bloody peasants - no there won’t be severance cheques.

Rating:

Encanto

Encanto

Happy families are all alike; every magical family is
unhappy in its own magical way

dirs: Jared Bush, Byron Howard and Charise Castro Smith

2021

You may ask yourself: why would a man your age voluntarily subject yourself to a new Disney animated movie, when you no longer have a child of an age where the watching of such films is not only necessary, but mandatory?

Honestly, while I wave my hands at all *this* that’s happening now, the very thisness of it all, the crushing familiarity of where the world is at the moment, I just wanted to feel some delight, some joy, and while such a thing is not always guaranteed by Disney, it has a pretty good track record delivering with its mainline animated efforts.

I watched it, on a night I usually reserve for horror flicks or brutal action monstrosities, because I think my soul needed it, and I was rewarded. Encanto is up there with the “good” recent animated films Disney proper has put out, since it started having to compete with Pixar (before buying Pixar, of course). I don’t yet know if this has the longevity of something like Tangled, Moana or Frozen (I mean, Frozen was a global phenomenon, but no-one talks about Frozen II), but it’s definitely up there.

It does have some catchy tunes, but however great “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” is, it’s not going to invade the ears and minds of every reluctant parent the way that “Let It Go” is probably sung even on the outer planets of our solar system.

I also like the fact, love the fact that if you could somehow resurrect Walt Disney himself, and play him the entirety of the movie, he would probably die from shock that an animated movie from the studio he created would have so many people with different skin shades in it, and that they weren’t playing happy slaves on a plantation.

It would kill him all over again, and that’s probably a good thing. We don’t need old racist zombies returning from the grave, craving our brains, money or votes.

Rating:

Nitram

Nitram

The cracks, they are getting bigger

dir: Justin Kurzel

2021

A film that no-one wanted to see made, other than obviously the people that made it. Yet it won a lot of awards recently, so someone other than the people of Tasmania thought it had to be worth something.

“Too soon” isn’t even the cry, because no amount of time will be enough for the survivors, for those who lost loved ones back in 1996, or the rest of us who were just left stunned. And though I clearly remember that time and what happened, and how we sounded when we talked to each other about it, and though I have seen and done much in life that would stain the souls of most mortal men, even I came into this film wary, worried, anxious.

To say that someone is this nation’s worst killer, who harmed the most people in the shortest expanse of time, is obviously not a worthy title, but it’s one I deeply hope is never taken from this particular, awful man. I never want anything even close to this to ever happen again, here or anywhere else. There are other countries, let’s be fairly obvious, where gun carnage and mass killings are taken to be an unfortunate but necessary reality that should never be used to diminish a citizen’s right to own as many guns as they want, for whatever reason. But that’s not Here. That’s not Australia. We tell ourselves, well, it only happened because of an oversight – our overly permissive laws regarding guns before were only because we never imagined someone could legally possess weaponry like this and use it in such a fashion. I mean, This is Australia!

And yet, you ask yourself, what else would they be for? A weapon that can shoot thousands of bullets in the space of minutes only really has one purpose, and don’t they just sit there full of their dark potential until someone uses them the way God intended?

I had hoped there would not actually be any depiction of the fateful day itself, but Nitram goes into aspects of the day, like, how the massacre started, and it was all too much. But that was the end of the film, and up till then, I’d been sitting there as a tortured ball of stress, willing somehow at the screen with every fibre of my being that the outcome we were obviously leading up to could somehow be different, could somehow be anything else.

But it couldn’t. This is part of our appalling history, and just like how the colonial horrors of Port Arthur from more than a century previous, or any of the brutality across Tasmania can’t be undone by wishing it, nor could this horrible day be undone either.

Nitram opens with a shocking snippet of news footage of the person this film is about, as a child, in hospital after an accident. It’s shocking because it’s shocking to see him as a child, that he existed in documented form well before he became known by all.

He speaks flatly about having hurt himself with fireworks, and when asked by the interviewer as to whether he’s going to avoid fireworks in the future or be more careful in general, if anything he wants to play with fireworks even more now.

It never lets us forget what he’s going to do, but it does remind us that he was a child once. A child that grew up into a man who was pretty much still a child.

Rating:

The Lost Daughter

The Lost Daughter

Everyone has fun on a Shirley Valentine-like holiday

dir: Maggie Gyllenhaal

2021

Is there anything the Gyllenhaals can’t do? When they’re not wowing audiences with their intense acting, or stealing red scarves from Taylor Swift and keeping them long after the relationship has ended, now they’re also directing intense dramas and probably getting ridiculous amounts of awards and stuff.

Maggie Gyllenhaal elects to write and direct here, adapting a novel by Elena Ferrante, being The Lost Daughter and not, as I initially thought, an adaptation of the fourth Neapolitan novel The Story of the Lost Child. She does not elect to star in it, instead letting Olivia Colman take centre stage, to the film’s benefit. Gyllenhaal is a fine actor, but Colman has this way of getting mean peevishness across with very little effort. She did it so effortlessly and coldly on The Crown as Queen Betty for two years, so why wouldn’t she bring those Ever So British skills to bear here?

Very much like the Neapolitan novels, it’s about a woman who’s an intellectual and an academic, who had kids, and felt pretty unimpressed with the experience. Present are the elements to do with maternal ambivalence towards one’s own children and not wanting to be classified as a mother to the exclusion of one’s other professional, personal or artistic pursuits. Absent are the elements to do with growing up in poverty in a mafia run town, or the intense rivalry between two childhood friends.

It’s something most mums are reluctant to admit, I’m guessing, unless they feel like they’re in a safe space or have had a few too many chardonnays. The mother who isn’t completely enraptured by kids, or who doesn’t feel comfortable maintaining the illusion that having kids changes everything positively about what you want out of life is still a touchy subject that usually results in the woman daring to say it in essays or fiction as heartless, selfish monsters.

Leda Caruso (Olivia Colman) never lies to people about how she feels about motherhood. “Children are…a crushing responsibility” she says to a pregnant woman at one point. Very patiently, over the course of the film, Leda’s relationship with motherhood, and what she did to her children, is teased out, but mostly it’s used as a backdrop to partially explain why she’s standoffish and prefers to be isolated even as she holidays alone on the Greek island of Spetses.

The thing about holidays is, no matter where you go, other arseholes always turn up. And a huge bunch of loud Americans appear, among them a young woman (Dakota Johnson) with a toddler daughter. The way the mother seems to swing between wanting to be a good mother to her angelic, annoying child, and seeming to want some freedom from her as well, reminds Leda of what were clearly her struggles when her own daughters were younger.

We get to see Leda as a younger woman with a pair of kids being so deliberately annoying you know this is somewhat a heightened depiction of how oppressive kids can feel sometimes, especially when you know it’s down to you. Other people will say they’re happy to help, but there’s judgement there too.

It’s down to you, all of the time.

Rating:

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