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9 stars

X

X

It's not as trashy as this poster makes it sound, I swear

dir: Ti West

2022

Finally, a decent remake of Texas Chain Saw Massacre. It’s about bloody time.

No, it’s not a literal remake, unlike the appallingly dunderheaded update / remake / sequel / reboot that came out a couple of months ago, but it’s closer in spirit, aesthetics and setting, being Texas in the late 1970s (despite, you know, actually being filmed in New Zealand, of all places.)

X is a surprisingly good film. I say surprisingly because I did not expect it to be such a strong, well-thought out film, horror film or otherwise. And despite being an out and out horror flick, for the first hour you wouldn’t be certain of that, and in the last half hour you’d have no doubt.

The funny thing is, this flick has a theme, or almost a moral. And it’s not the one that “classic” horror flicks from the 1980s had, which is that young people should be punished for wanting sex and drugs and rock & roll, although it’s in parallel to that, in a way.

It’s about how terrible thwarted desire can be, how poisonous to the soul. Thwarted desire leads to mass murder, don’t you know?

A group of youngish libertines in the 1970s decide to travel to the sticks in order to make a “high quality” porno movie. The mood of the era is a dark one, with a heavy, moralising tone cast over everything. The only televisions we ever see have footage of a fire and brimstone preacher damning all us pleasureseekers to hell, droning on and on about how damned we all are for our libidinous, sinful ways.

This crew of travelling pornographers, on the most part, have zero qualms about what they’re doing. There is no coercion, no sadism, none of the callous disregard that generally typifies the “industry”. It’s a group of relatively young people just doing their thing, hoping they can elevate the “art form”, and having a good time along the way.

Is that a fantasy? I guess. It’s like, remember the early bits of Boogie Nights where everyone is having a great time, everyone’s high and there are no consequences to anyone’s actions yet?

Rating:

Little Fish

Little Fish

Little Fish, Big Fish, Red Fish, Forgetful Fish

dir: Chad Hartigan

2021

Just to be clear, this isn’t a review of the really great Australian flick from 2005 that starred Cate Blanchett and Hugo Weaving of the same name – this is a recent flick called Little Fish, and it couldn’t be more different from the earlier flick if it tried.

This Little Fish is more of a romantic drama about a young married couple, in a world where a condition or a virus takes people’s memories away. I know that sounds just like this world, like with traumatic brain injuries or early onset dementia or a bunch of other conditions that rob people daily of parts of themselves, but the difference here is that it’s happening to hundreds of millions of people of all ages at the same time.

People instantly forget how to do things they’ve known how to do their whole lives. People forget themselves, and the people closest to them, instant strangers. Some memories stick around longer, especially sense based ones, and there’s no rhyme or reason to it, and no way to protect yourself from it or to stop it.

This sounds like the prelude to yet another flick about societal collapse and the apocalypse, but it’s nothing like that. Its scale is small and intimate. We see the changes this affliction brings about, but mostly we’re seeing what happens to two people and those closest to them.

Emma (Olivia Cooke) and Jude (Jack O’Connell) are the main couple, and they are married, and they’re starting to see the effects of the so-called affliction on those around them. And when it starts happening to Jude, forgetting little things, tiny aspects of their shared history, Emma tries to keep him present by endlessly replaying their past, to see which details he still possesses and which are gone.

Can they be retained? Can they come back? Can you still love someone when you’ve forgotten all the moments that lead up to falling in love with them? Is love based on memory, or can you still feel the feeling even if the memories are gone?

Rating:

Identifying Features

Sin Senas Particulares

This shouldn't be happening, there, or anywhere. Please stop.

Sin Señas Particulares

dir: Fernanda Valadez

2020

I don’t understand. I don’t understand what is happening, what is depicted here, as happening in Mexico.

I understand government violence (well, when I say that, I say it from the safety of distance and privilege, in that I can intellectualise about it, but haven’t lived through it), I understand the concept that criminal gangs commit violence in order to control drug operations and maintain areas of control.

I guess I understand the concept of right wing or left wing paramilitaries, or religious nutters attacking villagers and villages, or ruling suburbs, or any number of things. I think I understand violence as a tool to make the survivors cower, and go along with whatever the group wants.

I don’t understand what is depicted here. Killing just to kill people, and not like serial killers or sadists or crazies or vampires. People, trying to get to El Norte (the States) from all areas of Mexico, being robbed, murdered and their bodies desecrated and burned, just for the hell of it.

And…it’s real, it’s what’s been happening for a long time in Mexico, and I find it terrifying, and I don’t understand it.

A recent film I watched about the Srebrenica Massacre (Quo Vadis, Aida?) during the Balkans War in the 90s, that was horrible, and terrifying, to see a group of people try to exterminate an ethnic group of people they don’t like. That’s horrible, too, but I can at least grasp some semblance of their mentality, of how they justify it to themselves, or try to justify it in front of a war crimes tribunal at The Haig.

I don’t understand this.

The perspective is mostly from that of a mother, Magdalena (Mercedes Hernandez), trying to find out what happened to her son Jesús (Juan Jesús Varela), who went up north two months ago, and haven’t been heard from since. She lives a humble farming existence on a small plot of land, and while she obviously fears for her son, she would understand the son’s drive to go El Norte, cross the border, maybe eke out a living and send some money home. The lure of the better life that only money and not being surrounded by apocalyptic violence could bring.

When he and his mate disappear, his friend having a distinctive patch of vitiligo on his forehead, making his body easier to identify for his mother, at least, Magdalena doesn’t accept that just because the authorities say that he’s dead, that he must be.

She’s fully aware that he might be dead. This isn’t false hope or delusion on her part. She has a weary kind of resignation to what has happened. But she has to know for sure. She needs certainty, a mother needs certainty, to bury her son, to bring him home, somehow, if she can.

Rating:

Pig

Pig

It's true that there are few real things for us to care about in
this life. But why oh why, for me, did it have to be movies?

dir: Michael Sarnoski

2021

Pig is an amazing film, in that it’s amazing to believe that of the twenty or so movies Nicolas Cage still makes a year, very occasionally there will be an okay one, an almost better than okay one. Pig is surprising for that reason, if no other.

It’s a simple enough premise, but it’s the same premise taken to absurd lengths that underpins other far more violent flicks where the death of a pet or the loss of an animal is an excuse to kill a bunch of people. The action in John Wick kicks off with the shooting of a dog. The Rover with Guy Pearce has a man kill a whole bunch of people in a post-collapse landscape because he wants to get his dead dog back.

Pig has a guy searching for his pig, which has been stolen. But it’s not used as an excuse to kill a whole bunch of people. While there is a small amount of violence in the film, it is visited upon the protagonist, rather than him visiting righteous vengeance upon others. It subverts not only the expected path for these kinds of films, but for Nicolas Cage films in general.

I’ve heard tell, quite often, that Portland, Oregon is an odd place, and this film doesn’t make it seem any less weird. The main character, Rob (Cage) and his odyssey through the curious culinary underworld of Portland is a journey of a broken, barely speaking man who looks like he’s been destroyed by life. The pig was his only companion, and with whom he sought out truffles, which he gave to Amir (Alex Wolff) in exchange for food basics. They lived in a shack in the woods, somewhere near the Willamette River. How do I know it’s the Willamette River? They talk about the Willamette all the fucking time. Considering that I even know about the Willamette River mostly due to the Wildwood novels written by Colin Meloy of The Decemberists fame, I get the feeling there’s not much else going on there other than the river and rare culinary treats.

Rob, as he’s known, takes a beating from two shady characters who pilfer the pig. Rob then embarks on his journey to getting the pig back by going towards a place he has avoided for over a decade. He only goes to the kinds of places that are somehow tied to the food services industry, but more on the exotic produce and ingredients side. In such an imagined world, a truffle finding pig of high quality would be extremely valuable, and everyone would somehow know about it.

Where I live, if I had a pig, and someone stole it, and then I wandered around the local restaurants and markets grunting about my pig, most likely I wouldn’t find the pig, and people wouldn’t answer my questions, and I’d probably get arrested. There isn’t much visual disparity between how I generally appear at my best and Cage’s character appears at his worst, but my name doesn’t carry the weight that his character’s does here.

Rating:

There Is No Evil

Sheytan vojud nadarad

This title may not be entirely accurate, in that there probably
is plenty of evil. Don't believe them!

(شیطان وجود ندارد‎, Sheytân vojūd nadârad)

dir: Mohammad Rasoulof

2020

This is an amazing film. I find it hard to believe that it is exists.

I have not seen every Iranian flick, I’ve probably only seen about twenty in my life, but I’ve never seen one that so explicitly comments on how appalling living in such a regime is, that being the one in place since the Islamic Revolution, and the rule of the Ayatollahs and Revolutionary Guards.

I’ve seen stuff produced outside of Iran, by people who don’t have to fear being locked up or executed, because they have no intention of going back, and hopefully no family members for the authorities to punish. But something like this…

I think the director has been in jail numerous times, for some reason the Revolutionary Guard courts keep finding new reasons to jail him, ban him from making films, ban him from leaving Iran, so, honestly, this is a fucked up way to live and work.

It’s a long film. A very long arsed film, two and a half hours, which is longer that most people can handle if there aren’t explosions and the world ending or being reborn. It needs to be that long, though.

There are four parts to the story, as in, four different sections that are connected thematically but otherwise are independent of each other. They are all about pretty much the same thing: that a state that does evil to its own citizens makes all its citizens morally culpable, because it otherwise doesn’t allow them to live.

The first section is the most baffling, until the brutal punchline, which brings a horrifying clarity to what we’ve been watching. It is exactly 30 minutes long. Within those 30 minutes, we watch a guy go about his day. Heshmat (Ehsan Mirhosseini) is just a boring middle-aged guy. Balding, paunchy, drives a shitty car. He picks up his wife and listens to her complain about a bunch of stuff, gossip about another woman. They go to the bank, where his wife has to go in and take money out for him.

The whole time she’s in the bank, he’s double parked in this awkward spot, constantly in people’s way, apologetic, moving his car back and forth to let people through.

They pick up their kid from school, who the dad totally spoils (she is such a brat!), do a bunch of shopping, and then visit the guy’s mum, where they do chores, make her dinner, make sure she’s looked after.

They then have dinner at some pizza place, as demanded by the daughter, where the mum, like a lot of mums in cultures across the world, tries to convince them to eat something healthier, when father and daughter just want to chow down on pizza.

They get home, the guy has a shower, takes some medication, falls asleep like a log.

We even have a scene where he dyes his wife’s hair, because she wanted her highlights touched up before they go to a wedding tomorrow.

You may be asking yourself, what is the goddamn purpose of all of this? This sounds like the most boring bullshit I’ve ever heard of in my whole fucking life! If I wanted to watch a boring person go about their day I’d watch myself, somehow, doing all the same stuff just not in downtown Tehran.

Rating:

Night of the Kings

La Nuit des rois

Most people have to lie just to avoid facing up to their
responsibilities or the repercussions of their own actions.
He has to lie just to stay alive! No pressure, you go, king

La Nuit des Rois

dir: Philippe Lacôte

2021

I had heard this film was good, but even I’m a bit surprised.

I know what the flick sounds like – young chap turns up to prison in the middle of a jungle in the tiny African nation of Cote d’Ivoire, also known as the Ivory Coast, and looks pretty scared.

He should be. It’s like no other prison I’ve ever seen.

I’m going to indulge in what seems like a bit of fat-shaming, but that’s not really what it is. Especially since I look like Jack Black before he found fame and fortune and personal trainers. There are only two overweight chaps in this whole prison: the warden Nivaquine (Issaka Sawadogo) and Barbè Noire (Steve Tientcheu). Both are big men, both are older, but only one is considered the king of MACA prison. Barbè Noire, despite that being a nickname, and French for Blackbeard, as in the pirate, is just as much called his other title, being Dangôro.

This prison has rules. Every prison has rules, but this one’s rules are tinged with the vaguely mystical: if its ailing king grows weak, he is obligated to top himself, so that a new king can take his place. Except when there is a red moon. If a red moon is to appear, the Dangôro can choose a Roman, as in, a storyteller, to tell a story on that night, thus buying himself some more time.

It is very unclear what the rules are around the telling of the story, or what the storyteller is meant to do. If the crowd doesn’t like the story, presumably the storytelling can come to a premature end. If the crowd are entranced by it, the storyteller gets more time to tell more of a story. But if they run out of story before the sun rises, they will end up on a metal hook, up a flight of stairs, and it looks like a painful way to die.

Again, I know what a story set in a prison sounds like, murder everywhere, abuse by prisoners and guards alike, brutality and sadism and hypermasculinity and all that, and while elements of that appear here, they’re not the bread and butter of the story. It’s really about watching the terrified and desperate Roman (Bakary Koné) try to spin a tale, as many tales, as many versions of tales as he can before he loses the crowd and before the night ends.

No one is really on his side, and everything seems stacked against him, and I’m sure most of the prison don’t care whether he lives or dies, but I guess we care. The sole non-Ivory Coast person in the prison, called Silence (legendary brutish looking French actor Denis Lavant) breaks his silence in order to tell the kid that he has to play for time and stretch out what little material he has. Everyone else, including the ailing king, want to see him fail, because sacrificing him gives the king another day.

Rating:

The Killing of Two Lovers

Killing of Two Lovers

I'm glad they got a good night's sleep, even if it's their last

dir: Robert Machoian

2021

The Killing of Two Lovers, as a title, doesn’t sound that ambiguous. I mean, any reasonable person with eyeballs who reads English would read that title and assume that this film has a story about the killing of two lovers.

It is not, however, the whole sentence. It is somewhat deceptive. It is the beginning of a sentence, rather than the end of a sentence. But it’s still not clear whether it’s the beginning of a story or the end of one.

When the film begins, a bearded distraught chap (Clayne Crawford) with a gun, stands in a bedroom. We see two sleeping people’s feet poking out of the bed. He raises the gun towards them, but then stops when he hears a toilet flushing in the house. He retreats, sneaks out a window, and runs to a pick up truck, hides the gun, drives about a block away to another house.

At that house, an aged dad struggles to breath and drink water from a cup, but he’s okay, in the way of all old men. He is father to this angry son, but the son puts on a veneer of normality when speaking with him, doing chores around the place, doting on him. It’s a kind of weary friendliness, concern, all mixed in together.

But only we know apparently that it’s a veneer. When he ventures out again, it’s in pursuit of the other newer, shinier pick up truck that was parked in front of the house he was standing in with murderous intent. The male that was on the bed drives away, and our bearded jerk follows him. The camera, in long takes, focuses solely on the driver, so we are seeing little of the world but much of it from his perspective. It is a very small town, the kind small enough where everyone must know each other or else.

The guy stops for a percolated coffee, so our guy stops for a percolated coffee, forced to interact with him in the process, then he follows him again on the road, seemingly with the intent of shooting him as they’re driving, but he’s foiled, again.

These scenes, these tense scenes of potential violence, only we see them. No one else has seen them at this stage, so the world chugs along as it did before.

The distraught chap goes back to the house from the beginning, and we find out that it’s the house he used to live in with his wife and kids, who still live there. He, being David, shepherds his younger kids to the school bus, and eventually sees his daughter walking in the opposite direction to the school. That daughter, Jess (Avery Pizzuto), is very angry, at her parents in general, for separating, but especially angry at her father, for not being able to keep his marriage together, because he is a loser.

Rating:

Sound of Metal

Sound of Metal

The Sound of Awesomeness, if you have ears to hear it

dir: Darius Marder

2020

This was a great film that I’d heard a lot about last year, but only just got to see. It’s on Amazon Prime, available for streaming, and I’m not going to pretend that I have a subscription to that as well as the other 4 thousand streaming services. I’m not made of bitcoin.

It’s even, and I’m not making this up, playing in Melbourne cinemas such as Nova in Carlton, the Lido in Hawthorn or the Westgarth in…I forget what that suburb is called. I don’t know who’s going to cinemas right now, but whoever they are, I salute you, you crazy bastards, as long as you’re not maskless anti-vaxxer morons, in which case fuck you and your dumb selfishness.

Ordinarily, in any given year where Daniel Day Lewis hasn’t made a movie, and Christian Bale or Mathew McConaghey haven’t starved themselves down to skeletons for a role, it would be hard to pick who gave the performance of the year. This isn’t necessarily the best movie I’ve seen in the last year (though it’s pretty close), but I reckon Riz Ahmed’s performance here as the main character Ruben is the best male performance I recall in 2020. And that’s saying something, because there were a lot of great performances last year, in films probably made before people realised what was going to happen to the world, or especially to the States, which has lost nearly half a million people to the virus thus far. When I look at all the films I saw in 2020, what most of them have in common is great performances mostly by women. For whatever reason 2020 was not the year of watching men do manly things.

No, Riz is the man for this performance. Give him the Oscar already, not that there’s going to be a ceremony this year (gods, I hope not, but who knows). Just send it to him in the mail, he can record a short message on Zoom thanking the Academy, and that will be it.

He plays Ruben, the drummer in a hardcore band, him and his girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke). The less said about the name of the band, being Blackgammon, the better. They are pretty noisy, and Ruben hits the skins pretty fucking hard. Based on the night we see, and the next morning, Ruben and Lou have a pretty tight schedule. They travel around a lot from gig to gig, always working, always trying to keep busy. Non-stop touring, something which they seem to have been doing for four years.

However. Ruben is starting to find it hard to hear anything. It first happens during a gig, but it keeps happening afterwards as well. He is scared and confused. Lou’s pretty confused as well.

This all starts happening fairly soon into the movie, so I don’t think it’s really that much of a spoiler to tell you, dear reader, that Ruben is losing his hearing, and it seems like it could be permanent.

Rating:

Promising Young Woman

Promising Young Woman

Hello, operator? I'd like to report a feminism.

dir: Emerald Fennell

2020

A young woman, very drunk, in a bar. Three work colleague jerks notice, the way pack predatory animals notice anyone falling behind from the herd. They see vulnerability, and opportunity. They don’t know her at all.

One steps forward, so gentlemanly. He offers to get her home. Then he suggests his place is just around the corner. Then he pours her a big fuming drink, and tries to rape her, essentially. He keeps telling her how pretty she is, how special.

What he doesn’t know, until she asks with a clear, steady voice “What do you think you’re doing?”, is that she’s not drunk at all.

This seems, especially since we see her walking away the next morning seemingly dripping with blood, to be a feminist revenge thriller about a woman fighting against the bullshit patriarchal system, and the opportunism of men, but it’s really about a woman fighting against the tide. The tide is grief, a vast ocean of it, brought about by the loss of her friend in college, being Nina.

The tide, which you can fight against all you want, but never stops coming in, is also the implacability of men’s selfishness, and the systems in place that defend their selfishness, protecting them from the consequences of their own actions, and punishing the women who seek justice.

Cassie (Carey Mulligan) knows all of that, but still needs to do something about it anyway. Since dropping out of medical school, she seems to have been frozen in place, like the décor in her parents’ house where she still lives, unable to move what the people around her think is “forwards”. They adjudge that what Cassie should want is marriage, a career, the 2.4 kids and an SUV. Let’s just say that doesn’t interest her. She desires societal change on two levels: on the broadest level she seeks to challenge and threaten the men who think they’re the “good” ones who nevertheless try to rape someone just because they’re drunk, and on the specific level, she needs to harm the people who hurt and let down Nina.

Cassie shows a level of disassociation, of emotional detachment staggering in anyone who’s not a contract killer or a CEO. She follows her path, does what she does, wreaks havoc (very correctly, in my opinion) on people who very much deserve it, but doesn’t seem to get much out of it beyond mild amusement. Also, and this works perhaps to show her as not being completely insane, the ‘revenge’ she mostly gets on people tends to seem far worse initially than it actually ends up being.

Rating:

Soul

Soul

Joe, you are rhythm, you are music, you are soul

dir: Peter Docter

2020

You don’t know how much of a relief this was. A good Pixar movie. Again. It’s been a while.

I did not love Onward, I guess because I’m not American, and the sight of grown people being obsessed with playing catch as the be and end all of parenting and fatherhood has never resonated with me the way I guess it resonates with Americans. And it was a very elaborate and colourful way to spend millions in the service of a story so simplistic and mundane that it should have been half an hour long, and delivered by a generic episode of Everybody Loves Raymond, or Two and a Half Men or something suitably banal. And in truth Soul is probably the Pixar flicked I’ve liked the most since Inside Out, which still holds up, but which was six long and lonely years ago.

At first it seemed surprising that anyone would devote Pixar / Disney levels of resources to telling a story with a middle-aged African American protagonist, this being the world we live in, but then I guess you remember that Pixar previously had an 80-year-old pensioner as the protagonist of Up. So they can basically do whatever the fuck they want. When work on this started as well, it would have been long before the coronavirus changed everything, but it is more than likely that it was finished with people working remotely or distanced at least, which I guess is less of a problem for an animated movie than one where crews and casts have to cluster together in a studio or on a set. And doubtless Disney never would have wanted to release this only on their streaming service, though I’m sure it’s playing in a bunch of cinemas where brave souls don’t fear the virus.

I wasn’t going to see this in a cinema. No way, no day. Too risky until enough of us have the vaccine in our sweaty, desperate clutches, and lord Satan knows when that will be. But I am happy to watch it streamed through that most diabolical of streaming services, being Disney +.

So even if Disney loses a bundle on this, I think Soul is a triumph, because it’s a very enjoyable and entertaining movie, its story isn’t completely familiar and overdone, even if there are elements recognisable from other Pixar flicks, but it’s also in the service of a pretty good message about Life, you know, that thing many of us take for granted because the reality of our daily existence can vary from excruciating to staggeringly mundane even when the plague apocalypse isn’t happening around us.

Rating:

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