On the Rocks

On the Rocks

Some movies I watch just for the wallpaper

dir: Sofia Coppola

2020

I was kinda excited to see this. Lost in Translation has played an outsized role in my life for many years, and at least 2 of the people responsible for it are here again.

Yeah, I know, parts of Lost in Translation are a bit problematic, which is a euphemism for straight out racist, but it did have a great soundtrack? And it looked great, and made Japan look great?

Bill Murray dominated that film, and he dominates this film too, even with less screen time. Like either the shark in Jaws or the giant gorilla in King Kong, when he’s not around, everyone’s still talking about him until he turns up.

The protagonist here, really, is Laura (Rashida Jones), and Murray plays her father. She has two young kids, seems checked out, is trying to write something, and her husband (Marlon Wayons) is often away on work trips.

That’s pretty much the whole film. I don’t mean that’s the premise, or how it starts, I mean that’s the entire film. I haven’t gone out of my way to make it sound simplistic or off-putting – I’ve left those bits out. I guess I’m trying to say there’s not a lot going on here.

When she starts suspecting that maybe her husband is cheating on her with a lady at work, that gives her something to do with her dad. You see, her dad, is a terrible piece of shit. But he is an immensely successful and charismatic piece of shit. His relentless womanising and contempt for women immediately makes him certain that Laura’s husband must definitely be cheating on her, because, hey, all men are dogs, right?

In a very weak, wan fashion, this gives father and daughter something to do, and something to talk about, until the grand revelation at the end: I’m not going to spoil shit about this flick, because then there’d be even less reason to potentially watch it, and it’s not my business trying to dissuade people from watching flicks made by Sofia Coppola. I think Sofia Coppola is a great director, better than her more famous father, that’s for sure. But as good as she is, some days it must be hard to have Francis Ford Coppola as a father.

Rating:

Baby Done

Baby Done

Having babies is dumb and terribly inefficient but it
gets the job done

dir: Curtis Vowell

2020

Babies, huh? Who’d have them, if we knew what a hassle they’d be?

No-one, if movies are to be believed. If you switch off or stop streaming these types of movies 10 minutes before they end, you would be convinced no-one will ever have babies ever again.

I mean, they’re so noisy and needy. And they ruin your life, or at least the perfect life you had constructed for yourself. Just when everything was perfect, some jerk comes along and impregnates you, and then your life totally turns to shit.

New Zealand, especially under the leadership of its (third) female Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, has this reputation for sane people in power and progressive politics, and general wonderfulness. Sure, so they handled their response to the coronavirus better that most other countries. But it’s bullshit. Utter bullshit. I mean, Jacinda Ardern is a wonderful leader, but I mean New Zealand is nowhere near as progressive as people might think.

Here’s my proof: This flick could have been 15 minutes long. A young woman called Zoe (the most excellent and incredibly funny Rose Matafeo) is an arborist and really good at her job. She has a partner she lives with, friends, loving family etc. She unexpectedly gets pregnant. She books an appointment at her local qualified medical practitioner, and gets an abortion. Life carries on. Maybe later in life she decides to actually have a child, when the joy of climbing trees professionally starts to wane, maybe not. Maybe she decides she doesn’t really want to be a parent, or that her partner is a bit of a dingbat. Up to her. Either way, we wouldn’t have watched the movie that I just watched.

Zoe finds out she’s pregnant, and is angry. She does not want to become a mum yet. Also, she qualified for the International Tree Climbing championships in Canada, so there’s that to look forward to. So instead of dealing with it, like, medically, or coming to terms with the impact it’s going to have on her and her partner’s lives, she pretends like it ain’t no thing, and that she can pretty much ignore it until the kid arrives, but none of the process of pregnancy should really stop her from doing the things she might want to do.

Rating:

Dear Comrades!

Dorogie Tovarishchi

It's always sad when people get murdered around you for
the dumbest of reasons and you do nothing to stop it

Dorogie Tovarishchi!

dir: Andrei Konchalovsky

2020

If you ever wanted to watch a movie about a strike at a factory in Novocherkassk in 1962 that resulted in Soviet authorities killing a bunch of innocent people who had the temerity to protest falling wages, rising prices and unavailability of basic food in what they were told was a communist paradise, then this is the film you’ve been waiting for all your life.

Saying that the Soviet years were already renowned for the sheer, spiteful waste of millions of lives and the cruelty of such a brutal, totalitarian system downplays the fact that people forget, all the time, and it’s stuff none of us should be forgetting, ever. But it also ignores the fact that Russian life has always been brutal, and that, just to massively over-generalise, they are a fatalistic people who always expect the worst and are rarely disappointed.

I’ll give you two basic idiomatic examples: in English there’s the phrase “hope springs eternal”.

In Russian the phrase is “hope dies last”.

In English, we say “love is blind”.

In Russian? “Love is evil”. Literally. Lyubov zla means “love is evil”. The full phrase is “love is evil and will even make you fall in love with a goat”.

I mean, how the fuck do you deal with such an entrenched cultural mentality?

Rating:

Barb and Star Go To Vista Del Mar

Barb and Star

If you ever go, you must absolutely ride the wild prawn

dir: Josh Greenbaum

2021

Well, I guess with a title like that, no-one’s expecting either Masterpiece Theatre or serious stuff for discussion at one’s next dinner party, in between debating the various strengths and weaknesses of the couples on Married at First Sight.

Even though I can’t imagine people having dinner parties. Is…that a thing people do anymore? Or is that something from the old world, before 2.6 million people met their maker at the hands of a fucking airborne virus?

It seems callous to take comfort in silly, frivolous things, but if there’s one thing I’m good at, it’s taking callous comfort in silly, frivolous things and then writing about them as a way of staving off the terror of meaninglessness and oblivion.

Just like everyone else.

Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar is entirely delightful and entirely ridiculous. I was somehow in the perfect mood for this because despite its utter ridiculousness and pointlessness, it made me chuckle, and two hours of my life passed without having to think about the bullshit that life throws at us on a daily basis. And that’s not because it’s brilliantly made, brilliantly acted and carefully crafted with heartwarming messages of universal redemption and meaning.

Because it is none of those things, at all.

It’s pretty fucking dumb, like, deliberately dumb, and about as convincing as an episode of Get Smart, just without the powerful social commentary or stunning fashions.

But it was still enjoyable, and yet talking about the plot at all will make it seem so fucking dumb that no-one would bother watching it on the strength of such a recommendation.

Because the plot is pretty fucking dumb. An evil Bond-like supervillain, played by Kristen Wiig, with severe bangs and albino skin, plots to kill people not all across Florida, which would be a gift to humanity, but specifically at a place called Vista Del Mar.

I don’t know if there’s a real Vista Del Mar, because the place they show in footage isn’t a town: it’s a sandbar with a bunch of hotels on it, making it look like a cruise ship run aground on dry land, but if there is such a place, they’re pretty much doomed anyway, and not because of the machinations of a villain who wants revenge through genetically modified mosquitoes. And even before rising sea levels blanket the site such that nothing but ancient ruins remain.

Rating:

The Night

The Night

Because the night belongs to lovers, because the night
belongs to the two of you

dir: Kourosh Ahari

2021

This film is scary, especially for anyone who’s ever tried to stay in a hotel with a newborn baby.

I mean, how guilty do you feel when the kid starts bawling, and it’s the middle of the night, and you’re worried that they’ve just woken everyone next to you, below you and above you? Oh man, how bad would you feel.

Hopefully you get them back to sleep okay. Shh, shh, it’s okay, I know it’s an unfamiliar environment, but everything’s going to be okay, I promise.

Of course it helps if you’re not staying in a Hotel, in California, which you apparently can’t ever leave.

I can’t claim entirely to understand the foundations of what this story is trying to say outside of the set-up of a Iranian-American couple with a baby, in a hotel where weird shit is happening around them. I mean on a metaphysical or supernatural level. Nothing is explained, no wise person comes along to explain everything in a massive exposition dump upon the audience’s ears and patience. Just – what happens happens, and our main characters react in an increasingly freaked out manner.

These characters being Iranian, and the film itself being a collaboration between Iranian and American producers, I would have to assume on some level that it hints at concepts of guilt, of sin, of unexpiated wrongs but from an Islamic perspective, or at least from a Persian perspective. I can’t claim to be an expert on Iranian film, or contemporary culture, but if this is the first American flick to be allowed to screen in Iran since 1979, then you’d have to assume certain things to be true. Iran still jails directors and filmmakers if the regime feels their work somehow insults the mullahs in charge, the Revolutionary Guard or the horrible authoritarian state that reigns.

So the films that come out of there are generally dramas, or deceptively simple stories about women trying to get into a soccer game, or children wanting to ride a bike, or a couple separating because of unspoken resentments and aspirations for their children.

The Night might have been filmed in LA, but it still has to please the censors, I imagine. Although, now that I think about it, doesn’t the hotel itself become a metaphor for the police state that is Iran since the Revolution? Random bad shit happens to you for reasons you don’t understand, and getting out or away is almost impossible?

Maybe Kourosh Ahari knows what he’s doing, the sly fuck.

Rating:

A Ghost Story

A Ghost Story

He never once even gets to say "BOO!"

dir: David Lowery

2017

This is such a strange and beautiful movie. I cannot believe it exists.

I cannot believe people convinced other people that this was going to work in any way. If you watch it and describe the premise to people, they will laugh in your fucking face.

I exaggerate often and in extreme ways, but this is one of the few times where my words barely grasp the strangeness on display.

But that’s not to say that the film itself is that out there or trippy. It’s not. It’s really simple. It’s extraordinarily simple. What I’m trying to convey is that something like this is rarely ever made into a film. Maybe a comedy sketch, maybe an animated short, but an actual movie?

That could be part of the appeal. It’s certainly not the presence of Casey Affleck, who somehow managed to become the worst Affleck in a family where he isn’t even the one who played a burly Batman who kills people.

No, his crimes are in the real world, not on the cinema screen. Even before he won an Oscar for playing the lead in Manchester-by-the-Sea a number of women accused him of sexual assault and harassment, and, by the fact that he paid good money to quieten their voices we can rest assured that he is free to do this crap again in future. He didn’t direct the film at least, and though he’s in it, as in, you see him for a bit, for most of the movie you can’t see him directly.

Why? Well, because his character is a ghost, with a Halloween-like sheet over himself, with two dark holes cut out of the sheet for the eyes.

A young couple (Affleck and Rooney Mara) move into a crappy looking house in, I dunno, rural Texas maybe? A couple of unexplained but harmless things happen, a few mysterious sounds, but it’s fine.

Then the chap dies, and something wakes up, wearing the sheet, and walks all the way home.

Rating:

The Climb

Climb

Biking in your 40s and beyond should be a criminal offence

dir: Michael Angelo Covino

2020

The Climb is about friendship.

It’s not about the friends we make along the way in this crazy journey we call life. It’s about the friends we drag with us, or drag us back, stopping us from growing or changing for a multitude of reasons throughout our lives.

I mean, this is not Sisters of the Travelling Pants. This is The Climb, and it is about two adult male friends who’ve known each other since childhood, Mike and Kyle. ‘Mike’ is also the director. Kyle Marvin plays Kyle. They clearly made the film together. Do you see where I’m going with this?

I don’t know if they’re actual lifelong frenemies in real life, but surely they’re bringing something to this too.

I hesitate to call it a comedy, because comedy, as a genre, implies laughter, chuckling, giggling and so forth. It’s funny, but there aren’t jokes. The whole film is immensely funny, in that it’s suffused with irony, and very cleverly done. But it’s not immediately apparent, it’s not showy, really, though it’s very well crafted.

And though I’ve said it’s not showy, that’s a lie, because there’s a section which is one long shot without edits which is incredibly well done, and would have been a nightmare to coordinate and get right, and both the filming and the way it’s put together are phenomenal for a film made with such a tiny budget.

Rating:

Music

Musique

Music brings the party people together

dir: Sia Furler

2021

I have to admit, I’m a fan of disaster cinema. I’m not talking about disaster movies per se, though those can be entertaining as well. I mean movies that come out that capture the imagination of the critics or the public because of, not in spite of, the fact that they are branded absolutely screaming apocalyptic dumpster fires right from the get go.

The people who greenlit this at Warner Brothers in order to keep Sia happy are probably happy that they haven’t been arrested yet, that the opprobrium has dissipated somewhat, and that Music has been pretty much forgotten about, about a month after its expectant mother, Sia, brought it forth into an uncaring and unsuspecting world.

Depending on which articles you read about it, Music was either the worst movie ever made to do with a character living with autism, or the worst movie ever conceived independent of whether autism is accurately or fairly depicted. That it was just a supremely wrong-headed project from conception to realisation is probably unfair to say out loud.

But while more complex questions come to mind, the far simpler one that perhaps captures the essence of the problem from the start is this one: what the fuck were they thinking?

Could no one say to Sia that this was a bad idea? Is she so far gone in her stardom that when people start shaking their heads at something she says they are fired immediately or catapulted out of a building?

Rating:

I Care a Lot

I Care A Lot

She doesn't, not really. She is not being entirely forthcoming with you

dir: J Blakeson

2021

This is going to blow your mind, but the main character in this film called I Care A Lot, called Marla Grayson, played by Rosemund Pike, doesn’t, actually.

This is the REALLY mindblowing part: She doesn’t care at all.

Marla is a lawyer who, through manipulating the legal system around the guardianship of oldies, and bribing the right people, forces old people into old folks homes and then drains all their assets over the years until they die penniless and alone.

Piece of work, right? And we all thought Rosemund Pike perfected playing psychopaths back in Gone Girl. Turns out there are even nastier characters for her to play in the Rosemund Pike Cinematic Universe.

At movie’s beginning, over scenes where a distraught bearded chap is trying to visit his mother in an old folks home, and being pummeled by the security, we hear in voiceover Marla tell us that this world ain’t shit, victory is for the ruthless and the weak can go fuck themselves.

This is the movie’s mission statement. It does not shy away from equating the monstrous ruthlessness of the protagonist with American late-stage capitalism, with the American Dream, with doing what people need to do not to get by but to destroy other people for shits and giggles.

Marla has a wall covered in the photos of the people for whom she has organised to be appointed as their guardian. It’s a lot of old people. It’s not really to give her a sentimental attachment to the people she gives not one fuck about. It’s to remind her of who her cash cows are. Once they die she scrunches up their photos and throws them in the trash.

While they live but are declared mentally incompetent, this set up allows her to sell their houses, drain their bank accounts, basically get them institutionalised and cut off, and make it impossible for them to leave, or for anyone related to them to help them out. It’s shocking, and bracing, and from the perspective of the people it’s happening to, I guess this is like an awful horror film, from which someone has to go to extraordinary lengths in order to beat Marla at her game.

Rating:

Judas and the Black Messiah

Judas & The Black Messiah

Look out Fred, this jerk behind you isn't social distancing!

dir: Shaka King

2021

I am… not… a revolutionary. It would seem hypocritical of me if I were. I mean, after all, I do work for the Empire, and there’s little tolerance for revolution or rebellion within the Empire’s rank and file.

This movie is not about me, which is handy, because I wasn’t a prominent member of the Black Panther Party, nor was I murdered in my sleep by the Chicago police in 1968. Nor was I betrayed by a sneaky, weasel-y fucker given no choice otherwise by his FBI handlers.

Judas and the Black Messiah is about a chap called Fred Hampton, who tried to help his fellow African-Americans against the forces of white supremacy, here represented by the FBI’s director J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen), and one of his underlings, being played one of the whitest actors in all of America, called Jesse Plemons.

It doesn’t matter what the character’s actual name is: he’s just bad news. He is always smoking a cigar, and always gorging on masses of food, and sometimes smokes a cigar while eating, which is somehow even grosser.

At first, like everyone at first, creepy FBI guy seems like he’s actually trying to do things legally. His concerns with the activities of the Black Panther Party are not about the breakfast programs for kids, or the community outreach: it’s for the illegal stuff they do, and for the crimes some of their members commit.

But at about three quarters of the way through the movie, J. Edgar himself asks the jerk Jesse Plemons is playing how he’s going to feel when his daughter grows up and brings a negro home for dinner.

Hasn’t he seen Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner yet? What if she brought handsome doctor Sidney Poitier home? That would be grand, surely?

But no. That’s the moment where mostly okay FBI agent goes “fuck that, all the prominent African-Americans must be slaughtered lest my daughter go black and never come back.”

Rating:

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:

Shadow in the Cloud

Shadow in the Cloud

She is ready to win this war, so get out of her way, scum

dir: Roseanne Liang

2020

So. This movie exists. It was made. And released. Kinda.

And what a bonkers movie it is. When I started watching it initially, and I saw the name “Max Landis” in the credits, I thought, eh. Landis is not best known for being the son of legendary director John Landis, who is not best known for making legendary films like Animal House, The Blues Brothers or An American Werewolf in London – he’s best known for getting Vic Morrow and two child actors killed on the set of The Twilight Zone movie due to unsafe filming practices.

And Landis junior isn’t best known now for writing the decent script for found footage superhero flick Chronicle, or American Ultra with Jesse Eisenberg as a stoner Jason Bourne / super assassin, he’s best known for multiple accusations of sexual assault and harassment.

So now that I know that, I’ll never watch anything new he’s involved with. I am assured by Wikipedia and multiple interviews online that while Max Landis wrote some script initially, it was completely re-written by Roseanne Liang, but his name still appears because of Writers Guild of America requirements.

Whatever. I think it’s very weird that an essential element of this flick, being some kind of gremlin that lives to destroy planes, is straight out of one of the segments from The Twilight Zone movie, which involved John Lithgow going more and more insane while seeing something on the wing of a plane destroying an engine, with no-one believing him. A movie, though not that segment, that his dad directed and nearly went to jail because of.

The difference here is that the lead character no-one believes at first is a woman (Chloë Grace Moretz), and it’s set during World War II in the Pacific, and she is the living embodiment of Rosie the Riveter, and her fighting a gremlin or bunch of gremlins on a B-17 bomber is the least implausible part of the script.

I don’t know exactly when this was made, but for most of the film her character of Flight Officer Maud Garrett is trapped in the turret underneath the bomber as it flies towards Guam, or somewhere else, hard to keep track. It’s almost as if the flick was trying to find cute work-arounds on how to make a flick during quarantine in a way that doesn’t make it obvious that everyone has to be kept away from everyone else. Or, since it seems like it was probably mostly made in June 2019, maybe it looks like a flick made in quarantine, but really it’s a flick made with a tiny budget.

Rating:

Happiest Season

Happiest Season

This is so cheesy it would make the baby Jesus hurl

dir: Clea Duvall

2020

I have a soft spot for these kinds of Christmas-related family comedy-pseudo dramas. I also have a soft spot for grindcore and stoner rock, so I don’t think the former says any more about me than the latter does either.

In case you’re wondering, no, I fucking hate the movie Love, Actually, it’s the absolute worst.

I’m thinking more of flicks like The Family Stone, and other gentle fare, where the “dysfunctional” part of the scenario is that someone likes smoking dope, or someone won’t admit they lost their job, or someone’s upset about something that happened a year ago involving a misplaced thank you note. You know, as opposed to families where the cops have to be called routinely, or there are restraining orders and death threats involved, like the dysfunctional family I grew up in.

Happiest Season doesn’t exactly stick to a certain familiar, untaxing template, but it doesn’t exactly create a new genre out of whole cloth. It’s the kind of film that you feel like you’ve seen a thousand times before even if you’re watching it for the first time, and even if it has a gay couple as the central ones making all the fuss.

Kristen Stewart plays Abby and Mackenzie Davis plays Harper. They’re a couple. It’s Christmas, or at least Christmas is coming up. Harper loves Christmas and loves spending it with her big family. Abby lost her parents when she was a teen, and doesn’t really care to celebrate this most dismal time of the year. But she loves Harper.

For some reason. Abby plans on asking Harper to marry her. Harper doesn’t know this. But she doesn’t want Abby to be alone this Christmas, so she invites her up to whatever snow-covered one pub town her parents live in, in rural Pennsylvania.

Does hilarity ensue? Well, not entirely. All these kinds of flicks depend on a central lie at the beginning, sort of, and this one’s is that Harper is not out to her family, so Abby is just going to be introduced as her housemate. They’re just friends, and Harper encourages her family to take pity on Abby because she’s an orphan.

Rating:

Saint Maud

St Maud

She's not even a redhead in the film. That's it, I'm going
to complain to Maud's manager

dir: Rose Glass

2020

Saint Maud is called, being reviewed as, categorised as, a horror film.

I’m not 100 per cent sure it is a horror film. It could be because I’m fairly jaded, or it could be because as a character study, it’s more depressing than shocking. The flick also isn’t scary in any sense, other than in the sense that it can be scary to watch someone harm others, harm themselves.

For me, in this instance, it was more unpleasant to watch, rather than scary. There are definitely horrible things that happen in the flick, all done by Maud (Morfydd Clark), and mostly to herself.

So for me it’s not horror. It’s disturbing, but most of all it made me feel tremendous sadness for the main character.

And by sadness I don’t mean my usual default setting of bursting into tears every time someone says something supportive towards someone, or the string section swells, or a puppy is saved, or any number of tear-jerking moments. I just feel really sad for her, is all.

While I find much of what happens in the flick disturbing or upsetting, what discomforts me the most is the difficulty I have separating what happens in the flick from what I feel like they’re saying about mental illness. The main character, I don’t think it’s any spoiler to point out, is profoundly mentally ill.

If she’s not profoundly mentally ill, then what she’s experiencing is something supernatural. Any time someone starts looking at the drawings of William Blake, either someone turns into a serial killer or they’re going to set fire to something big.

God, or Jesus or someone talks to her, occasionally. She feels the presence of the Lord, inside of her, sometimes. She sometimes feels moved to an almost religious level of ecstasy.

But it doesn’t last.

Rating:

The White Tiger

White Tiger

Eat the Rich, kill kill kill kill kill kill the poor: I don't know who
out of Aerosmith, Motorhead and the Dead Kennedys had it right

dir: Ramin Bahrani

2021

Right from the start, right off the bat, let me tell you something for free: This is the best movie about murdering someone in order to become a successful businessman that I have ever seen.

Any other movies that you’ve seen where someone murders people in order to become successful, they are but as ants at the feet of Alexander the Great.

The great trick that The White Tiger pulls off, that in my eyes Parasite didn’t quite pull off, is that not only is it as good if not better than the novel it is based on by Aravind Adiga that won the Booker Prize in 2008, it makes you almost accept without having too many qualms about it, that the scum of the lower orders sometimes are almost justified in killing their oppressors. That the people at the top of the hierarchy are awful and do awful things, especially to the lower orders, and actively maintain the system which keeps people down. Thus social and societal mobility depends on killing one’s betters, taking their place, and hopefully being kinder to the people below you.

It probably sounds like I’m being sarcastic, but honestly, I’m not. I’m pretty sure neither the main character of Balram (Adarsh Gourav) nor the author are actually advocating that every poor person should rise up and kill the rich. If they were, that would be sweet. The broader societal implications of what Balram is saying only really apply to him. There is no self-help manual on getting out of The Darkness, as he calls it, or, alternately, the rooster coop, other than desperately fighting your way out.

One of the more shocking aspects of the novel, for me, someone who knows little about India and its multitudes, is just what an appalling picture it paints of Indian society, and the prevalent system apportioning personal worth we refer to as the caste system. They don’t call it that, because ‘caste’ isn’t a Hindi word. But there are moments in the film where Balram is asked what his caste is, in order for the asker to know whether Balram is a higher order of scum or a lower order of scum.

He takes a while to answer. He is of the Halwei cast, the sweet maker caste, which is considered one of the lower castes. Boo, hiss you lower orders, get back to your awful villages and make sweets for us, you presumptuous scum!

In stories like this, and there are millions of them, life in the village is sometimes depicted as idyllic, as pure and wonderful, with the main character being forced to travel to the big city in order to learn valuable lessons about what matters, and how the simple life is better than aspiring towards wealth and power.

Rating:

The Little Things

Little Things

Nice poster. Nicer than the film THAT's FOR SURE

dir: John Lee Hancock

2021

Well isn’t this flick a barrel of laughs.

It’s a bit of a throwback to police procedurals of which there used to be a dime a dozen. I’m not sure what changed, because there were a million on the teev before and there are even more now.

They’re not really my cup of tea. Of course, like billions of people I’ve watched so many episodes of Law & Order that I confuse it with reality, and think all the time about stuff that happened in the show as having happened in real life, but my capacity for watching crime these days is pretty limited.

So I can’t really say why I was drawn to watching this flick. Sure, it’s got Denzel, and that’s usually a great drawcard, but, honestly, he’s been phoning it in for years. And Denzel playing a tortured cop trying to figure out who some murderer is, is like such a cliché it’s beyond cliché. Almost every actor who’s ever acted has this role on their resume.

But I watched it anyway. It’s set in the early 90s, so no mobiles or internet, which honestly sometimes comes as a bit of a relief. Sure it’s the past, but it’s recent enough for those of us who were alive then to be able to remember a time before doomscrolling or getting hourly phone updates on what the dumbest people around the world are doing every day.

Now, that doesn’t mean life was actually any safer back than. If the opening of this film is any indication, even driving around in your car meant serial killers were going to come after you.

A young woman is driving a car, and gets weirded out by some guy in a car that she doesn’t see who drives near her. She gets so freaked out that she stops the car, and gets out, presumably because she’s going to reverse-psychology the serial killer into thinking killing her now would be too easy?

Anyway, things aren’t looking that good for her.

Rating:

Black Bear

Black Bear

What's she building in there? Is it plans to rule the world or
eat a cookie?

dir: Lawrence Michael Levine

2020

How lucky for us: two movies for the price of one.

Aubrey Plaza stars as Allison, a director / actor who stays in an Airbnb with a couple she doesn’t know in the Adirondack Mountains, in upstate New York. She seems a bit anxious to be there, and the couple she’s staying with seem like they have their own problems.

Blair (Sarah Gadon) is pregnant, and her jerk of a boyfriend Gabe (Christopher Abbot) doesn’t seem too happy about it, and neither of them really seems like they can stand the other. Bringing Allison into the middle of this feels like dropping someone into the middle of a Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? rehearsal. Everyone is overacting like it’s their last chance before the virus destroys the film industry.

I don’t know how much of this is “real”. I mean, it’s easy enough to suspect that it’s all bullshit, but when you have an actor being asked by another actor as to why she stopped getting jobs, and maybe it was because she was “difficult”, you have to wonder what they’re getting at. I don’t know if Aubrey Plaza has been referred to as “difficult”, which is usually the kiss of death of your career. “Difficult” can mean an actress refused to be violated by a Weinstein or didn’t put up with someone else’s predatory bullshit, or thought she should get paid as much as someone else.

You know, grave crimes like that.

Aubrey Plaza has been in a bunch of films, so hopefully it’s not coming from her personal experiences, but then she’s a woman who works in movies and teev, so, yeah, more than likely, she’s been through some shit.

But there are multiple ways to look at the stories the flick is telling. The stories themselves aren’t that complicated beyond the dramatic. I mean, if we divide the film in two halves, and we call the first half “black bear in the road” and the second half “black bear near the boat house”, we would call the first half trashy melodrama, and the second half a behind the scenes look at what awful people directors are and the shit they put actors through.

And even then that could be simplistic.

Rating:

Outside the Wire

Outside the Wire

Outside of the wire is a world of pure imagination, one which
the screenwriters had no access to

dir: Mikael Håfström

2021

Outside the Wire feels like it should be more memorable. It also feels like it should have a less generic title. It also feels like it shouldn’t have characters saying the phrase “outside the wire” every five minutes or so. I exaggerate often, and not only for the purposes of humour, but there are a ton of instances where someone says “so, have you been outside the wire?” or “It’s his first time outside the wire”, or “What do you mean, you’ve never been Outside the Wire?”

How can you live with yourself? Especially when you’ve never been outside the wire, nor watched The Wire in its entirety? So the phrases “Where’s Wallace, String, where the fuck is Wallace?” or “Omar coming!” mean nothing to you?

It’s…it’s not great when that happens, when people say the title of a film in a movie’s dialogue. It’s kinda cringy. What else is an audience going to do other than roll their eyes when they hear that past the fourteenth instance?

I don’t know whether anyone intended for this to ever get a theatrical release, but this is the perfectly appropriate kind of thing that is produced whenever I hear that Netflix has a new action-y flick coming out. I already know what it’s going to look and feel like. This, Extraction with the good Hemsworth, and a couple of heist movies called something like 999 or Triple Frontier or something equally generic, all basically feel the same and have a similar level of action and interest. There’s lots of guys shooting other guys in the head, so it feels like a mid-budget John Wick situation as well.

And there’s also some kind of premise which is usually overblown, and it’s set in a country where the local government doesn’t mind too many of its locals being blown way, probably for reals.

The difference between Outside the Wire and the other stock standard Netflix action-y flicks is that this has a harder sci-fi plot to itself, buried under what would otherwise be a standard shoot shoot punch punch movie. It’s also so extreme in its sci-fi premise that I’d argue it’s a bit hard to believe.

Staggering, I know. I mean, Extraction had Hemsworth take on all of Bangladesh and win, but this flick is the unbelievable one.

Rating:

Wild Mountain Thyme

Wild Mountain Thyme

You've got something on yer face. Definitely Something Face.

dir: John Patrick Shanley

2020

Confession time: When I hear about something being almost supernaturally awful, I feel obligated to search it out and watch it. No-one who saw Cats last year could have expected or wanted anything less than a trainwreck when they voluntarily downloaded or streamed it after all those appalling reviews. Anyone who heard about the reviews for this film had to be expecting something so bad it makes the Potato Famine look like a day at Luna Park in comparison.

What I got was a pleasant surprise, in that Wild Mountain Thyme is not the worst film in Irish history, probably. It is a strange and slightly surreal experience, though, and I am sometimes a fan of surreal and strange experiences.

For such a quintessentially Irish story, they had to get that famous Irish actor of longstanding prowess and acclaim, being Christopher Walken. Christopher Walken? Yes, Christopher Fucking Walken, playing an old Irish farmer. Walken I think for the last decade has appeared in any movie anyone has asked him to appear in. I don’t think he even wants money to turn up, either. He just wants to get out of the house, stay active. It’s good, for chaps his age, to keep moving.

The problem with setting a story in Ireland with Irish characters is that people are expected to speak with Irish accents. I mean, it would be unusual to set the story in County Mayo and not have people speaking at least vaguely with an accent people associate with The Troubles and leprechauns and such. I think of the actors here there’s one who’s Irish, through and through. The other was born in Ireland, but didn’t grow up there, so it’s an Acting Exercise for them too.

Elsewhere, really, they could have had me playing some of these roles, because my Irish accent, though terrible, would have been indistinguishable from the rest.

Rating:

One Night in Miami

One Night in Miami

Maybe a few more nights would have changed the world

dir: Regina King

2021

My first film for 2021! Who knew that we were even ever going to make it this far? I was sure by now nuclear missiles would have been launched, or flying piranhas would have taken us out, but here we still are, somehow, as much of the world collectively sighs in relief.

This film is another seen recently that is pretty much a play confined to one location, which pretty much is defining the business model of the streaming services that seem to be happy giving people money to make movies based on plays but only if they’re cheap cheap cheap. I don’t mind, because it’s not like multiple locations would have improved what is already a pretty decent film, awesomely acted and tightly directed by a woman who’s had a great couple of years, being the Queen, Regina King.

As if she hadn’t already achieved great things as the lead in the limited Watchmen series as Sister Night, here she shepherds a mythical story about 4 African-American titans and a night they might have shared together.

I call it mythical because, let’s be honest, no-one has any idea what happened that night. That four men hung out and talked shit isn’t that unusual, but when the four men are Muhammed Ali, Malcolm X, Jim Brown and Sam Cooke, and the year is 1964, then it seems like something incredibly important.

The film starts with 4 little vignettes, four lead ups to show us where these men are at in their lives and where America is at this point in time, for those who somehow think racism started in 2016: Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), the most acclaimed football player of his day, visits some guy with massive eyebrows in his mansion, where they have a pleasant enough conversation, but the kicker at the end is that the guy, for all the respect he might have for Jim’s achievements, won’t ever allow him into his house, because…

Prototypical soul singer Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jnr), already pretty successful, gets to play the Copacabana club for the first time, to the absolute indifference of an entirely white crowd.

Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) boxes in England, taunting his bloodied opponent, showboating to a degree that even he should find embarrassing, and gets knocked out for his troubles.

Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir) nervously discusses his plans to leave the Nation of Islam with his nervous wife, and, needless to say, they’re pretty nervous about things.

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:

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

Ma Rainey

It's a dance. It's not specifically her butt that they're talking about.
I swear it's a dance

dir: George C. Wolfe

2020

It’s not fair, I know, but this is the 11,780th time where I’m going to do a very annoying thing I often do, which is talk about movies other than the one being reviewed, and I have no shame about it. Well, shame enough to mention it, but not enough to do anything about it.

When I watched Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods last year, I thought, damn, Chadwick Boseman is great in this like he is in everything, but the film is a bit of a shitty chore to sit through.

And then, in the worst year of living memory for most of the world, Chadwick Boseman died, taking most of us other than Chadwick Boseman by surprise. He knew, though, that he was going out at 42.

Black Panther is dead. King T’Challa, of the great Afrofuturist country of Wakanda, is dead.

I felt like an absolute ungrateful goblin for saying anything bad ever about anything he was ever in, especially Da 5 Bloods, which I now have to pretend is a better film than it is in order to not look churlish.

And so, with an actor I absolutely adore having died, and having the opportunity to see his last ever performance, it puts me in just as much of a bind. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is less about Ma Rainey, despite the fact that she was a living and breathing person, nicknamed the Mother of the Blues, but most of the flick is about Levee, Boseman’s character, his hopes, dreams and demons. He certainly gets the majority of the dialogue. And he gets as much screen time as you would hope in this very wordy drama (based on the play by August Wilson).

Problem is, damn it, it’s based on a play.

Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) is something of a grotesque figure. I don’t just mean her appearance, which is a lot of work, a lot of body suit stuff, a lot of garish makeup, with a tremendous actress underneath all of it. She is kind of a prototypical diva before such was fashionable. Her records sell, at this time in 1927. The Great Migration has been happening since Reconstruction, and a lot of people, meaning African-Americans, have been moving north in pursuit of jobs.

And she is their queen, of entertainment, at least. Her records sell not only in the South, but in the big northern cities too, so she needs must travel to Chicago to record another album.

The length of the film mostly covers a day at the studio as all and sundry await Ma Rainey’s arrival. Her band consists of three old timers who know how to play how she wants and keep their heads down, a young upstart trumpet player recently joined with delusions of grandeur (that would be Levee, Chadwick’s character) and the two brothers who run the studio and sell the records.

This is an era where they pay you for your singing and playing to be recorded, and then you’re out the door. If the recording works out, Ma will make $25 dollars for her time, and for the theft of her voice and talent. I mean, I know the studios have been exploiting the talent for a century, but, honestly, did things ever really improve. And when African-American entrepreneurs opened their own studios and produced their own records, did they exploit the ‘talent’ any less. Were Suge Knight or Berry Gordy Jnr any kinder or gentler to any of the people they ruthlessly tormented on their rosters at Motown and Death Row Records respectively just because they happened to be African-American?

Rating:

Wonder Woman 1984

WW84

This is a pretty good image for a poster, though it would be
even better on the side of a Sandman panel van

dir: Patty Jenkins

2020

I have to admit, as in, I’m ashamed to admit that I’m a bit disappointed.

I feel like I should be more grateful that a) another Wonder Woman movie has been released, and b) that another Wonder Woman movie was released at the tail end of the worst year in living memory, in a way that it could be enjoyed without risking coronadeath for myself or my nearest and dearest.

I might be more forgiving down the track, with more viewings, but I kinda have to admit that it didn’t feel great a lot of the time, and by the end, especially because of the ending, I felt a bit embarrassed for the people involved.

There should be scope, and room for films like this to be goofy. There’s enough of the ultra seriousness out there such that we don’t need every flick to feel like the literal fate of the universe is in the hands of an impressive band of overwhelmed heroes of various origins and ethnicities, though still predominately white, to save us all at least by the end of the film, if not the end of the sequel. Shazam managed to be goofy, endearing and entertaining, which was to Zach Levi’s and the movie's credit. I’m not sure there’s as much scope for goofiness with this character, but they try, good lord do they try.

I think that they still get the character right, and Gal Gadot’s performance is still pretty great. I’m not sure about the plot, though.

There are three major strands to the plot, and only one of them works that well, at least for my money. Also, the plot depends on a magic stone that grants wishes, and such things remind us that we are watching something a bit cheap, in every sense of the word.

The one plotline that kinda works best is the one dealing with Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal). This flick has an enormous advantage, at least for me, in that I am already severely predisposed towards loving anything Pedro Pascal does. I knew nothing about the very existence of the man until he played Oberyn Martel in Game of Thrones, and he was so unfuckingbelievably great as that character that I’ve never forgiven George RR Martin or the makers of the show for what they did to the single greatest character the show ever had that wasn’t called Tyrion, Cersei, Brienne, Arya, Varys or Ser Davos, admittedly.

And then he proved, at least mostly with his voice, that he could be equally great playing a completely different character, being the Clint Eastwood character he plays in The Mandalorian. In Wonder Woman 1984, to give the film its full title, or one of its potential titles – I’m not really sure – he is incredible. But, and this is a big butt, and I cannot lie, the major issue is whether you can stomach the millionth version of something to do with the orange piece of shit soon to be ejected from the White House in the United States.

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:

The New Mutants

New Mutants

Meet the New Mutants. Disturbingly undistinguished
from the old ones.

dir: Josh Boone

2020

A cursed movie…trying to come out in a deeply cursed year. Every flick that was meant to come out this year can claim to be cursed now, because of, you know, the floating death in the air thing, but this flick was cursed long before the virus raised its ugly head.

The New Mutants, really, didn’t stand a chance. In a normal year it would have been released in cinemas and then disappeared three weeks later, and accountants and jerks in marketing would have argued for a while as to what went wrong, and then everyone including the people in it would have forgotten about it and moved on with their lives.

It could be that audiences don’t care about mutants or X-Men or X-Men-related bullshit anymore, if they ever did, especially when there’s no Hugh Jackman with shiny claws and sideburns involved. It could also be that they’ve had enough of a crack at it, and they could leave this X-Men stuff alone for a decade or two before endlessly rebooting again and again.

When this was put together, they probably thought having Maisie Williams in it would be pretty great. She is, after all, pretty great. She singlehandedly saved Westeros / Game of Thrones, and created a moment of television history that will be remembered long after the dragons and the endless sexual violence are (hopefully) forgotten. And she was great throughout the show.

But this stupid year is the year of Anya Taylor-Joy, who has completely dominated streaming services and television, be it in perplexing chess dramas, in Jane Austen adaptations and virtually everything else in existence, including this standard mutant fare. She doesn’t have to do much other than turn up, so good luck for her.

This is, to be honest and fair, a fairly shitty, shoddy movie, with a bunch of people in their twenties playing teens and trying to get that YA energy, trying to reboot a franchise with new and therefore cheaper characters, and also, inexplicably, trying to make a horror flick with teen protagonists that makes no sense as horror or a teen flick or a new YA franchise.

It’s not all bad, though. Maisie Williams is great. It hardly matters what her character is called, or what she does, or why she has a Scottish accent, or why she’s being tormented by a Catholic-looking priest, which makes no sense if she’s Scottish. I’m just glad she’s here, in the same way I’m glad to see her in anything.

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.

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Hillbilly Elegy

Hillbilly Elegy

What an inspiring poster for such an inspiring and true story

dir: Ron Howard

2020

When a movie calls itself Hillbilly Elegy, I at least expect it to have some hillbillies in it. Some twangs of a banjo at least. There’s not much in this two-hour memoir about a kid growing up in the suburbs of Middletown, Ohio in the 90s that justifies such a title, but it hardly matters.

No hillbillies were harmed in the making of this moviefilm. Probably because they couldn’t find any, which is a shame.

J.D. Vance, through the success of his book of the same name as this movie, somehow became the voice of poor White America, most keenly during the last dire 4 years where he’d be trotted out on cable news and interview programs to explain why white poor people support political leaders who clearly despise them and do nothing to help them or anyone other than their own corporate interests. For whatever reason he was seen as offering some keen insight into the plight of the poor and disadvantaged, but only if they were white. It’s a heavy mantle to put on anyone’s shoulders, but it’s one he volunteered for and encouraged.

The purpose of the book wasn’t just to say ‘being poor sucks, and here is how I survived my family’, it was ‘being poor sucks, being a poor hillbilly sucks, and making bad choices means you’re fucked, but if you only make Good Choices and take Personal Responsibility for everything, then good things come to those who wait.” There was a sociological and political aspect to the book; a set of arguments that walk right up to the line of actually explaining something important (being the connection between the economic decline of these areas with jobs moving overseas, to vast unemployment, to the pipeline between legal opioid over-prescription and addiction). But he totally stuffs up the dismount.

There are important conversations to be had about people becoming disconnected from the community around them, having or at least feeling like they have limited agency in their lives, about the vast impact that casual decisions at corporate headquarters have over the lives of millions of people, and losing hope, giving in to despair. But you’re not going to hear anything new on the topic here.

Because all J.D. has are these bog standard conservative boilerplate arguments (pull yourself up from your bootstraps, work hard, be heteronormative, get married and have 2.4, pay the mortgage, be aspirational and consume, consume, consume) that ignore the fact that these “jobs” disappeared overseas a long time ago because businesses noticed they didn’t like paying people a living wage, and successive governments did what they could to destroy the union movement. Opposing unions and the minimum wage have been cornerstone conservative arguments for decades, and suppressing wages and eliminating secure jobs is what they do in practice, across the States. But you’re not going to hear this hack say anything about that.

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