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9 stars

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:

Kajillionaire

Kajillionaire

I love when posters say nothing about a movie, but then
this movie is indescribable

dir: Miranda July

2020

I don’t get to feel surprise very often, but I’m glad to say that while rare it’s not impossible.

I liked Miranda July’s first film, being Me and You and Everyone We Know, didn’t at all like her 2nd film The Future, and remember little else other than one of the main characters fucking a couch, but this, her third flick, delighted me. Delighted me. No shit.

It's kind of hard to actually pinpoint why I found it so enjoyable, and why I had a goofy grin on my face for much of the film’s duration. There’s nothing in the description, or in any plot summary you might read, that would point to why either. But I did. You’re just going to have to come to terms with that.

Three low level grifters, two parents and their adult kid, grift, scam and skim their way around the less memorable parts of Los Angeles. They are certainly odd bods. The parents (Debra Winger and Richard Jenkins) have a certain paranoid energy, and the third member of their trio has her own goofy trajectory.

The first thing we see them do is conduct surveillance on a location, before the gawky daughter does some weird semi-acrobatic movements, before going into a post office, and opening a post office box with a key. She puts her arm through, and then tries to find anything, anything she can grasp, in the other PO boxes adjacent.

It’s the slimmest of slim pickings. Whatever she gets is split three ways between them, as is their wont in all their schemes, we are told later on. They only travel by bus, and when they return to the place where they live, they have to hide, or contort themselves to avoid being seen by the landlord, to whom they of course owe a lot of money.

The landlord runs a business called Bubbles Inc, where they presumably manufacture bubbles. These bubbles overflow over one of the walls into the dilapidated office that the three grifters call home. As a condition of their occupancy, they have to catch the bubbles that overflow the wall with buckets, and then wipe the wall down. To stop it from getting mouldy.

Despite their best contortionist efforts, the landlord sees them, and starts crying as he berates them for the outstanding rent. He is a man with no emotional filters, but that doesn’t predispose him towards letting them live in a toxic environment he leases out rent free. Oh no, that wouldn’t be right. They owe $1500, and need to deliver by Friday or they’re out.

They don’t seem too stressed about it, though. Their view of life, though their own lives seem to be dominated with the petty obsessions it seems to require, aspires to be a rejection of consumerism. A kajillionaire is someone out there, anyone, who aspires to have a job and possessions, and who does a different grift for a living, being the rat race the rest of us normals presumably adhere to.

Rating:

Hamilton

Hamilton

He's pointing at where the price of the tickets for this
show are going to go, post-pandemic, if it ever goddamn
goes away

dir: Thomas Kail

2020

This is what we’re reduced to, in lockdown. Watching anything. Watching a recording of a play. Honest to god, a musical play.

Life has contracted thus. I’m making it sound like I was forced at gunpoint to watch this 2 hour and 40 minutes musical, but truth is no-one forced me to watch it. I was always Hamilton-curious, considering how there was a time a few years ago where every single American program or podcast you listened to that had nothing to do with the actual musical would be raving about it and Lin-Manuel Miranda endlessly, much to the mystification of people outside of that bubble.

And a couple of weeks ago I was watching the 7.30 Report, where musical tragic Leigh Sales interviewed the man Lin-Manuel himself about the upcoming release of this here thingie on Disney+, where neither Leigh nor a special guest kid video hook-in superfan could hide their joy when they heard this was being released 4th July, both fangirling out in the most absurdly joyous ways. Lin-Manuel must be used to people going gaga when they speak to him, so he took it with charm and grace.

So. A lot of us knew this was coming, and weren’t exactly sure why we should care. The majesty, the wonderfulness, the overarching importance of the Founding Fathers, as they are called, of those United States don’t really matter to anyone outside of the States. As one of the Founders that was lesser known, at least less than men like Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, it become incumbent upon Lin-Manuel to correct this gap in everyone’s knowledge.

To an Aussie audience, well, we’d be forgiven for not giving much of a damn about any of this. Musicals, too, I would argue, aren’t as much in the DNA of Aussies as they are in the American genome. Sure, we don’t mind a movie with a few lipsynched disco era or ABBA-adjacent songs, but we’re not that huge on the whole palaver. We don’t have multiple stage musicals about the founding of our great nation, because, let’s be honest, it’s not going to be a pretty story. But even worse, and even more humiliating is that, unlike the proud and feisty Americans, we never managed to cast off the colonial yoke of the Empire. We are, and our indigenous brothers and sisters, still under it.

Americans can forge a prouder path forward, ignoring all that pesky genocide and slavery, looking past all the unsavoury bits, in order to be able to construct something they can all mostly be proud of. The hardscrabble life of a young, scrappy and hungry man, just like the nation itself, who goes on to help fight off the British and forge a union of states like no other in human history. He inspires others to do their darndest to create a better form of government than most others were ever capable of, with an eye to the political and legal structures of the past, but with ideas about completely new ways of running things that would form what is often referred to as the American Experiment.

This kind of shit, let’s be honest, does not sound very interesting or entertaining. Anyone who’s heard any of the songs from the musical, though, or the various lines now quoted as scripture by those in the know, whether they’re mocking or saying them seriously, knows that where the joy is, is not in what the musical is about, but how it’s about it.

Rating:

Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Portrait de la jeune fille en feu

She burns, as one aflame laid bare by desire

(Portrait de la jeune fille en feu)

dir: Céline Sciamma

2019

What a beautiful film. It seems quite simple, really, but it is incredibly intricate and deceptively well done. It’s a lush, romantic story like a few I’ve seen before, but told in such a gentle, aching manner.

I won’t pretend to know anything about the era represented, or painting, or anything about French culture (it’s in French, with whatever subtitles you could possibly choose), but the fundamental elements are relatable to anyone not living on an island off the coast of Brittany. There’s class division, there’s fear of loss of self, the fear that one will never have any freedom to live and breath, the strictures and structures imposed upon women throughout the ages, the ways that society controls women in ways that are never of benefit to women themselves, and the ways in which when they band together, women can be indomitable.

There are very few men in this flick. We see a couple at the beginning, as they row Marianne (Noémie Merlant) to an isolated island, but they don’t play a large part in the proceedings. In trying to get to the island, a crate falls overboard, and Marianne has to jump in to save it, which she does, miraculously without drowning, considering the bulky dress she wears.

This is not the beginning of the film. There’s an opening scene where Marianne, presumably much older, issues instructions to young women drawing in her class. Behind their heads she spies a painting, unexpectedly, and the cool with which she was advising the class dissipates. When asked the title of this forbidden painting, she haltingly delivers the title of the film. You don’t get that every day. Even The Rock doesn’t usually utter the title of the flick in the opening moments of the film’s he’s in: “Looks Like Hobbs & Shaw are going to be kicking ass again!”

But I pointlessly digress. The opening tells us that the painting has some painful significance to the teacher, as she recalls the subject of the painting. That’s why it jumps to the past (Marianne, to be fair, looks no different, but we are to assume she is much younger) where Marianne is commissioned to paint a portrait of a young lady. The purpose of the portrait is for the painting to be sent to a nobleman in Milan who, if he likes what he sees, will wed the young lady.

By “wed” we might as well inscribe “purchase” upon the bill of sale. The large manor has a housekeeper, the young Sophie (Luàna Bajrami), who is quiet, but knows and sees all. She tells the painter, warily at first, what tensions there are in the house. The young lady in question, Hélöise (Adèle Haenel) had an older sister, who was the first choice of the Milanese gentleman, but the prospect of an arranged marriage compelled her to throw herself off of one of the conveniently located cliffs.

Rating:

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