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8 stars

Malcolm & Marie

Malcolm and Marie

These people are pretty but shouldn't be together, nuh uh

dir: Sam Levinson

2021

Pandemic filmmaking. It’s a genre unto itself. You could argue it’s a product of necessity and invention, or you could say “there’s something more helpful or vital that you could be doing with your time.”

Truth be told, you could have said that at any time in the past and there would have been some truth to it.

So. A director / writer, in the form of Sam Levinson, and two actors, and a crew, put together a movie during the coronapocalypse that has engulfed the States and killed half a million people to date. Minimal crew, only two actors, shot mostly at night, all at one location, in gorgeous black and white.

Malcolm (John David Washington, who’s having the year of his life) is a director, and he’s just had a film premiere, and it’s been a triumph. Marie (Zendaya) is seething from beginning to end, and goes outside of their remarkable house somewhere in Carmel-by-the-Sea to smoke.

What is Carmel-by-the-Sea? The only thing I know about it is that I remember way back in the day that Clint Eastwood decided he wanted to be the mayor of the place, which is a town in California, presumably by the sea. And it happened. And then he got bored of doing that and went back to making movies.

Malcolm is pacing and ranting, high on life, but mostly adrenalin, yelling a mile a minute about his triumph, about his conversation with a critic from the LA Times, and about the ignorance of most people about the important milestones in film, being Citizen Kane and the work of Billy Wilder, and how he hates having to be compared only to other African-American directors.

He’s ranting and raving, and drinking a lot, but he’s not drunk, other than on his own smug sense of self-satisfaction.

And that is some powerful stuff.

Marie is, strangely enough, making mac and cheese, though not for herself, at one in the morning. Strange thing to be doing while you’re wearing a spangly dress in high heels, but who am I to question someone else’s choices?

You see, clearly there’s something bugging her, or at least, there are a lot of things bugging her. No doubt it’s because of something Malcolm did or didn’t do. But she doesn’t volunteer the information until it’s demanded, and from then on it’s on for young and old.

And by “young” I mean Zendaya, and by “old” I mean John David Washington.

Rating:

Possessor

Possessor

How to succeed in business by trying really hard

dir: Brandon Cronenberg

2020

Possessor is a nasty, vicious horror movie replete with horrifying and disturbing imagery in the service of a plot that pulls none of the punches you expect would be a done deal in almost any other movie, made by anyone else with a different legacy.

It’s not a film that uses humour to dissipate or alleviate the tension, either. It’s pretty much committed to a singular vision of a terrifying world in which corporate assassins have mastered a technique whereby an assassin’s consciousness can be inserted into a particular person’s brain, allowing them to take out their target, with no-one any the wiser as to the actual ‘person’ pulling the trigger or inserting the knife, as the case may be.

Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough) is this company’s, called Trematon, star assassin. The first scene is of her “possessing” a woman called Holly (Gabrielle Graham) in order to kill a lawyer at a party. Killing lawyers to improve society has been a longstanding joke since at least Shakespeare’s day, but it’s unlikely he envisaged something as bloody as this. Tasya’s task is to shoot the guy and then herself, but she takes a physical relish in her work, and pleasurably luxuriates in the bloodbath that ensues to the point where the practical necessities don’t seem as necessary anymore.

She tries to shoot herself in the mouth, in an image that will reoccur throughout the film, but cannot bring herself to do so, but luckily, when the cops arrive, they tie up that loose end for her.

From there it cuts back to Tasya waking up out of some awful looking machine, throwing up, but coming back to herself. These possessions are not simple affairs, and they take a lot out of the possessor, and, obviously, everything out of the person taken over.

She has to debrief with the company’s handler, being a woman called Girder (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who asks her if she recognises a number of items, and the back story to those items.

Of significance is the story she tells about a pinned red butterfly, one she pinned as a child, that always makes her feel a bit guilty whenever she looks at it. You’d think with all the people she has likely killed, there are other things to feel bad about. It reoccurs towards the end, to an extremely chilling affect.

As alien as this performance is throughout, and as far nastier as the story gets, the character of Vos is disconcerting from beginning to end. How else would a person losing their sense of self AND carrying out horrific murders in other people’s bodies be?

Rating:

Ammonite

Ammonite

it's like Ingmar Bergman died for somebody's sins, but not mine

dir: Francis Lee

2020

Ammonite. It’s a fossil.

Why is this film called Ammonite? Because one of the characters was famous for the fossils she discovered, back when women in England weren’t allowed to vote, own stuff or count numbers out loud for fear of shriveling up all the gentlemen’s dicks with their fancy book learnin’.

Mary Anning found a bunch of sea monster fossils at a place called Lyme Regis, from the age of 11 onwards, and was quite adept and skilled when it came to finding, excavating and drawing them. She accumulated a lot of knowledge, but she couldn’t be allowed to join the Royal Society of Geologists or even call herself a science type person because, obviously no testicles means not scientist.

But she found and excavated what would be called ichthyosaurs, pteranadons and plesiosaurs and stacks of other fossils, including ammonites, those spiral shells so synonymous with limestone, and she was good at it. Few people start an entire branch of science, but she was surely one of the progenitors of modern paleontology (if that isn’t oxymoronic language, and I think it probably is). This is the rare instance where I knew something about the person a movie is about (this is not a biopic, not really), but, like most British figures from history, I knew about her because of an episode of Horrible Histories which I watched with my daughter years ago. I thought it was a pretty fascinating story about a pretty dauntless, accomplished person, who barely got credit in her lifetime for her work or achievements.

Ammonite is a story about Mary Anning and her relationship with the world, not so much about her achievements. The film conjectures that Mary’s experiences in life, being one of the only surviving children of a family of ten, where most died soon after birth, and living with the grimmest ghoul of a mother (Gemma Jones) in a place that looks utterly soul-draining, had an impact. She, herself, is fossil-like, stone cold, living only to please her desolate, dour mother and find more fossils for sale. It’s their only source of income, and, amazingly, fossils don’t go for much, because there isn’t much of a market.

As portrayed in the film, a dilettante, a prancing smug poser of a jerk called Roderick Murchison (James McArdle) walks into her shop and fawns over her and her discoveries. She, being Mary Anning (the always great Kate Winslet), listens to his prattle with unconcealed disinterest. She does like to make a sale, though.

Rating:

Borat Subsequent Moviefilm

Borat Subsequent Moviefilm

I wish we lived in a world where this wasn't necessary. But it is.

dir: Jason Woliner

2020

It’s getting increasingly hard to know what to call these films with Sacha Baron Cohen playing strange characters trying to trick people into showing how awful they are. They’re not docos, mockumentary is not a real word, they’re not entirely fictional, except for the people who don’t know they’re on camera for the purposes of making a Borat movie, and they are, at least for me, excruciating to watch because of my ever-decreasing threshold for cringe.

I literally had to stop watching this flick 30 or 40 times. Admittedly, that doesn’t mean much when you’re streaming something: it’s not like I had to get up dozens of times to press ‘Stop’ on some outmoded VHS player without a remote control, or eject the tape and put it back in its plastic box. I just had to click the Pause icon. But I did it so many times, over so many days. Can I even really say that I’ve watched the movie, or would it be more accurate to say I watched a disconnected series of images to do with this movie, until I heard or saw something so disturbing I had to stop dozens of times over the course of a week? So my knowledge of what actually happens in this flick is spotty, to say the least.

The gist of it isn’t really beyond me, because it’s not that complicated. It sounds complicated, if you took the trouble to list the stuff that they pretend is the plot: Borat was imprisoned in Kazakhstan for bringing shame to the fatherland, and is released in order to give a monkey to Trump, or Michael Pence or any other random person, in order to make his country great again. The original flick came out in 2006, so it’s comforting to see, when Borat returns to his home, which if I recall was originally filmed somewhere in Romania, nothing has changed or improved in nearly two decades. If it’s not the same, awful place, then excellent work by the location scouts finding somewhere just as dismal from a few centuries ago to briefly film in. I wonder if they gave cigarettes or chocolate bars to the local children in payment?

Much to Borat’s horror, he discovers that he has a daughter, called Tutar (Maria Bakalova), who somehow lives in more squalor than the people around her. Through comedy and misadventure, she ends up in the States with Borat as he tries to implement his plan of giving something of value to the highest ranking monsters of the current administration.

Now, along with all the horrific racist and anti-Semitic stuff Borat is renowned for, and the ability he has to find terrible people who happily say horrible things on (hidden or obvious) camera, the ultimate story with Tutar is the gradual realisation, on both their parts, that she is not sub-human, and that she is as entitled to live and breath and walk around and drive and do all sorts of things just like everybody else. There is a manual of misinformation and medical mendacity that both read from like it’s gospel, and in truth it’s only marginally more repressive and misogynist than the actual gospels.

Rating:

The Outpost

The Outpost

I swear, honestly, the film is way better than what
this poster would seem to imply, which is that it's
a movie about soccer hooligans angry about a bad
call by the referees and their washing machine
being blown up by a rival team supporter. Grrr!

dir: Rod Lurie

2020

War is hell, war is dumb, but it’s really exciting to watch on television. Less enjoyable in person, one imagines.

The Outpost tries really hard to capture the experience of a number of soldiers in Afghanistan in 2009. It is very much based on a true story. The true story is this: at the height of their wisdom, the powers that be within the US hierarchy decided that there should be an outpost near the border with Pakistan whose purpose would be both to project power and encourage feelings of goodwill within the local Afghani community. So, look tough but also be friendly and hand out bribes whenever it seems like an opportune time. Goodwill among the locals would mean they’re less inclined to support or enable the Taliban, which is a win for everyone, except the Taliban, of course

With that intention, an outpost is set up, in probably the most exposed and vulnerable place in all of Afghanistan, so that the US’s commitment to peace in the region cannot be doubted. I mean, if you set up your camp in a place where anyone with a rifle or even a rock could potentially kill your guys from up on high, and you wouldn’t even see where the jerks were attacking you from, it shows how hardcore you are as a military and a nation. Probably.

I mean, tactically it looks insane, but maybe strategically? Who fucking knows? It is made to look insane to us, as viewers, as it is explained to the new soldiers rolling in, who look up at the mountains surrounding the post, wondering how such a terrible and isolated location was chosen, but it must have made sense to someone, at some point. No one in the flick takes credit for it, like, some white-glove wearing evil Colonel swirling a glass of brandy and smoking a Cuban cigar from the safety of his quarters back in the States, but someone somewhere thought it was a good idea.

These grunts, of course, aren’t there to reason why, theirs is just to do and die. And they will, in large numbers. Along the way, they’ll mock each other, question each other’s sexuality on a constant basis, describe each other as smelling like a “bag of dicks” and generally do a lot of idiotic things in between getting attacked by the faceless and ruthless enemy, who doesn’t want them there, for some reason.

Rating:

The Devil All The Time

The Devil All the Time

Sorry to disappoint you, but the Devil doesn't put in an
appearance. I think he refused to share screen time with
such an obvious hack like Robert Pattinson.

dir: Antonio Campos

2020

The Devil All the Time has a brutal story. It’s almost as if Nick Cave’s Murder Ballads album came to life in the form of a Netflix original movie. It’s mostly set in or around a place called Knockemstiff, Ohio, and mostly confines itself to the miserable lives of a number of people who live and wander around Ohio and West Virginia. And the place actually exists! Hopefully this laundry list of tragedy and awful luck didn’t happen to too many people the author knew, but you never know.

I have no knowledge of what life is actually like in those states, but, fucking hell, this is not a movie that’s going to inspire a lot of tourism. The author of the book this film is based on, being Donald Ray Pollock, also helps out by reading his own words in voiceover, telling us more about these sorry sons of bitches than we probably ever wanted to know, and even, in a moment that I’m ashamed to admit made me laugh out loud, calls one of the worst of them “the sick fuck”, with all the disgust he can muster, in case we had any doubts how he feels about his own creations.

Like God himself, Pollock knows what it is to become sick of one’s own creations, and devises often the cruellest ways for them to depart this mortal coil, only the most ironic of methods for his and our amusement. Underlying everything is a feeling of hopelessness, of everything being corrupt, that the good can’t last long in the face of evil, but that it’s really not God’s fault. Oh no.

Many characters have a deeply distorted idea of their Christian faith, one which they feel compels them to do a bunch of horrible stuff to themselves or each other, but the fault doesn’t seem to be with the faith itself, but in their twisted and selfish delusions. It is all well and good to decry the abuses of the clergy or the hypocrisy of the faithful doing evil and pretending it to be God’s will, but we are never really confused when a person does a horrible thing here: that ain’t Jesus telling you to murder a dog or stab your wife in the neck; that’s all on you, buddy.

There is a vast number of characters, and interlacing stories, but they manage to get pared down significantly. The story mostly starts just after World War II as a soldier (Bill Skarsgard, yep, one of Stellan Skarsgard’s hundreds of talented children) returns to his pokey Ohio town, but not before he meets the love of his life (Hayley Bennett) in a diner during the return journey. He sees her beauty and kindness to a disabled homeless chap, and is convinced his life can go no other way.

He carries with him not only the experiences of the war, but the specific experience of having seen a man crucified and skinned alive. The Christian cross has taken on a much darker significance for him. Plus, his character’s name is Willard, and nothing good ever comes of people being called that.

Rating:

The Farewell

The Farewell

It's a mystery as to why Grandma looks so happy, and no-one else does

dir: Lulu Wang

2019

The Farewell is such a modest film, such a mostly quiet film that I find it quite amazing that it exists at all. And I’m glad it does. Even more so, for me, the strange premise is one that I probably wouldn’t have been curious about, had I not actually listened to the director telling the story on This American Life about five years ago.

I have listened to thousands of podcasts over the years, whether from This American Life or bunches of other people. I remember very little of any of them, but the story Ms Wang told stayed with me all these years. Not because there was anything that dramatic that occurred within it, or horrible, or shocking. But there was something about how unique the story seemed to be to this family, it never left my consciousness.

So: a Chinese-American woman called Billi (Awkwafina) lives in New York. She has a beloved grandma (Zhao Shuzen) that she and everyone naturally calls Nai Nai. This is the second film in as many weeks where one of the main characters was a Nai Nai that I watched. It’s a growing demographic / genre: films about Chinese Grandmas! No, not like that you goddamned perverts!

This one, though, is a much nicer Nai Nai than the other one who falls afoul of the triads for selfish reasons in Lucky Grandma. This Nai Nai faces some serious health issues. Not only that, she faces the trials and tribulations of living in a culture that supports lying to individuals for the supposed good of the collective. If that isn’t a comment on the docility required for living under communist one-party rule, I don’t know what is.

When Billi, after arguing with her parents, finds out that beloved Nai Nai has cancer, that’s a horrible shock. The even bigger shock she has to be confronted with is that none of the family, including the woman’s sons or grandkids, or own sister, will tell her what’s going on.

I cannot emphasise this enough, but apparently this is a true story, and it happens on the regular in China, and it happened to this director’s grandma, and her whole family was complicit in this elaborate charade, which only gets more elaborate as it goes on. See, they have this belief that when someone is of a certain age, telling them the truth about their health conditions could kill them, the shock of it. So instead of telling them that they’re terminal, you tell them they’re fine, the doctors go along with it, and you lie about their treatments, and then you wait for the inevitable, I guess?

Rating:

How to Build a Girl

How to Build a Girl

Well, you start with gin, cornmeal, velvet, chocolate,
adamantium and rosewater, and work from there

dir: Coky Giedroyc

2019

How to Build a Girl is another entry into the one woman industry that is Caitlin Moran. We previously had a fictionalised foray into her teenage years in the brilliant but short lived series Raised by Wolves, but here we get another go at seeing some of the formative years of a clever and somehow optimistic young writer who gets seduced by the dark side of music criticism.

Moran’s big success book-wise was the publication of How to Build a Woman, which was part memoir, part collection of various columns she’d written over the years ranging from her experiences as a teen writer for weekly music newspaper Melody Maker, her experiences growing up and her family life, and broader issues she’s faced in life and that women face in general. It was a tremendous book, funny, trenchant and illuminating, and fiercely feminist. Specifically, there’s a chapter in the book dedicated to convincing people to reclaim the term, which a lot of people, including women, tend to shy away from because of the negative connotations the media has appended to it, essentially accepting the distorted interpretation of their enemies of its meaning and purpose.

For me, as an added element, the thing is, the era in which she was writing at Melody Maker, and the era in which Melody Maker and NME, or the New Musical Express were the two titans that dominated British music press in the late 80s early 90s, is not just an era I’m informed about through media as an interesting time, kinda like how watching Almost Famous about a teenage boy writing for Rolling Stone in the early 70s represented Cameron Crowe’s experiences. I wasn’t there. It didn’t speak to me on that level.

No, the big difference for me is that I used to obsessively buy both Melody Maker and NME in that era, despite the fact that I definitely didn’t live in Britain at any stage of my life back then, and, looking at the place now, not for the foreseeable future.

Rating:

Harriet

Harriet

Coming to free the downtrodden in a town near you

dir: Kasi Lemmons

2019

I had heard the name of Harriet Tubman many times in the past, but never really had known her achievements in life, even as I could see she was venerated in death, with good reason. This film here called Harriet, which you can safely assume is about her, tries to summarise an extraordinary life in under two hours, and, I’ve got to say, she did a lot.

Cynthia Erivo plays the title character, and she plays the role really well. Harriet is pretty much depicted as a combination of Joan of Arc (a warrior chosen by God to liberate her people) and Moses (chosen by God to set her people free). She has epileptic fits / visions that show her the future, and warn her of danger. She is convinced God is guiding her. A more skeptical acquaintance notes in his journal “potential brain damage” when he hears her tale of wonder and liberation.

And what a tale it is. Living on a slaver’s farm in Maryland in the 1850s or so, so before the Civil War, her position is precarious. For some reason, her owners fail to treat her with the respect and dignity she and all her family deserve but never get, seeing as by law they are considered to be livestock. Her cruel owner is replaced, through death, by an even crueler owner, being the son, Gideon Brodess (Jon Alwyn), complete with sadistic eyes and an endless capacity for torment. I don’t care that he didn’t exist. Slavery required structures, laws and a whole lot of awful people to continue as long as it did. Sometimes you need to embody those ideas and horrors in the person of a Southern dandy who is anything but a gentleman, just so the audience can remember what the ethos of white supremacy looks like in person.

She escapes north, travelling to Philadelphia where she has relative safety. But that is not enough for this sterling woman. She cannot rest, or God won’t let her rest, until she saves as many of her family members as she can. So the journey back and forth, back into hostile territory, perilous as it is, is one she makes countless times in order to save almost everyone she knows.

Though she is remarkable in and of herself, this endeavor required the help of others, so we are introduced to the rudiments of the so-called Underground Railroad, the network of abolitionists, freed former slaves and opportunists who would ferry countless souls to safety up north.

As the film makes clear though, for many of these slaveholders, the loss of their slaves represents a cruel blow upon their finances, and the viability of their business enterprises. The slaves themselves are assets worth so many hundreds of dollars, and their labour, which can’t be replaced by working people, because that’s just not how we do things down here in the South, means these good white people could end up destitute. We can’t have that. They band together to, I dunno, randomly kill Black people, threaten each other, vow to capture and execute Moses, who they don’t realise is actually a woman, and a former slave at that. They convince themselves that this liberator of slaves would have to be a white man in blackface, because surely no former slaves, let alone women, could organise such an enterprise.

Rating:

Relic

Relic

Three generations of successful women, together, united

dir: Natalie Erika James

2020

The horror…of watching a loved one succumb to dementia and impending death…

For many of us, this is not why we watch entertainment, in fact it’s the exact opposite impulse. Yet here we are.

It’s impossible to separate our fear of death and the mortality of the people around us from the wellspring of fears that horror movies prey upon. Relic crafts together what looks like a haunted house story, but, really, come on. It’s not. It’s about something far less supernatural and far more likely for us all to experience, being the decline of the elders in our families.

Kay (Emily Mortimer, putting on a pretty solid Aussie accent) receives a welfare check call from the cops, saying that her mum Edna (the great Robyn Nevin) hasn’t been seen around the last couple of days, and isn’t answering the door. So Kay and her daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) drive to somewhere in rural Victoria to find out if she’s okay.

But before that we watched a naked Edna, presumably, standing stunned in the lounge room, as water overflows the bath, cascades down the stairs and spreads everywhere, both beneath Edna’s feet, and towards someone else that seems to be standing in the room near her.

When Sam and Kay get to the house, they cannot find her. There are post it-notes around, saying mundane things like “take pills” or “shut the door”, maybe indicating that Edna’s having memory problems. Otherwise there’s nothing too much out of the ordinary. That is to say, nothing visually seems that much out of place, but the sound design, and the ominous, claustrophobic atmosphere never let up, never let us think anything will ever be too normal.

And then Edna is back, never explaining where she’s been or why, and not feeling the need to justify herself. Kay expresses both relief, bafflement and frustration, but Sam is just glad to have her back safe. There are tentative stabs at potentially returning to some form of normality. A doctor’s visit makes it seem like Edna hasn’t totally lost her marbles. When Sam offers to move in and look after her, Edna at first seems to welcome the company. She hands over one of her treasured rings, saying it no longer fits her, so Sam should have it.

Rating:

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