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The New Age (1994)
Satire of vapid new age capitalists
A rich modern couple, interested in new age spirituality, explore novel ways of holding onto their crumbling wealth and marriage.
Like Tolkin's previous The Rapture (1991), this is a scathing satire that is played so straight it is not always obvious that it is hilarious. Nothing about these vapid characters is allowed to suggest any possibility of redemption. "How are your morals?" Peter asks a random beautiful woman at a party. And his own? "I just can't seem to find them." And this is the guiding force behind the protagonists decisions, guided by diverse con-artists. The film doesn't quite have the same cumulative dramatic and philosophical force as The Rapture, though it aims in a similar direction. While it believably dissects their emptiness, we don't learn much more about them than that.
Entertaining, funny, superficial
A good everyday American is wrongfully charged for sabotage of US war infrastructure, so on the run from the law he seeks out the real criminals.
In the Hitchcock style, the thriller plot is clear, tight and involving, but with hilarious comic asides played completely straight, so we can feel smart about being manipulated as we are being manipulated. The propagandist speeches about why Good Americans are fighting the war also seem simultaneously sincere and satirical, maybe simply calculated to serve the embedded audience of the time and the detached future audience, like me. Entertaining, satisfying, but somewhat superficial.
Banal and disturbing depiction of ludicrous chaos
In an institution for dwarfs, the inmates destroy their environment and taunt their authority figure.
An obscene and potentially meaningless piece of endurance filmmaking. As we sit through 96 minutes of chaotic shenanigans there is the vague possibility that this is some sort of elaborate metaphor, but the fact of what is literally happening is much more compelling than any projected meaning. It opens with an unbearable screeching vocal performance that forced me to turn the volume right down, and I wasn't compelled to turn the volume up again to hear incessant shouting. It is nothing more than an array of destruction and the moments I did enjoy were only on this visceral level: a driverless car going incessantly in circles while pots of flowers burn and the characters throw plates at the car. I found the scenes of real animal abuse very disturbing and unacceptable.
Lord of the Flies in Space
An 86-year space mission to reach another planet goes wrong when the young crew choose to stop taking their impulse-control drugs.
Very elegant, glossy, metallic design and beautiful young actors in an allegorical science-fiction movie that basically repeats the plot of Lord of the Flies by William Golding, except that it all happens in a space ship on a one-way mission. There is a frustrating lack of nuance and complexity in the psychology on display, as if it was written by a high school teacher for his junior political science class. It is also not as sexy as you might hope.
A woman in despair after a tragedy retreats to a cabin in the mountains to live alone.
Robin Wright directs her own performance, spending much time onscreen alone and silent as a woman struggling to survive both in relation to the wilderness and her own pain. Her performance always rings true emotionally, and the beats of her transformation are lucid. The landscape is beautifully filmed, the landscapes are vast, the winter is bitterly cold and the wilderness is living and breathing; though her interaction with it, her struggle to chop wood and hunt deer, the physical realities of her life, a very superficially depicted. The beauty and tangibility of the world is so real that I can't help but want to believe in her relationship with it. But the ultimate impact, of a woman struggling with significant emotional turmoil and despair, is real and her transformations and relationships are moving.
Historical recreation with no dramatic structure
Jazz singer Billie Holliday struggles with addiction to heroin and men while being persistently harassed by the FBI for racist reasons.
A spectacularly impressive recreation of a historical milieu, with settings, costumes, make-up, ways of speaking and cultural attitudes supremely realistic and immersive. Every scene is a magnificently composed world, but together they form no cohesive narrative, no complex thematic expression apart from a recreation in popular form of a racist history, and no interesting trajectory for a complex, inspirational, talented woman apart from self-destruction and degeneration. There is no depth, no overarching motivation, no transformation, just a pain explained in flashbacks of trauma. Like her controversial song "Strange Fruit", the painful and shameful recent history of racist America is being revealed, but is Holliday's strength and talent and legacy being honoured, is her story being given the depth it deserves? Andra Day's performance is the same, extremely impressive on the surface, powerfully lucid within an individual scene, but no dramatic shape. Perhaps the screenplay is to blame. It amounts to a glossy surface and no heart.
The film's political theme is clear: lynchings have not yet been banned, even if her song about them was. But the more intimate theme is perhaps akin to Asif Kapadia's powerful documentary Amy: that we, from our distance, though the veil of the media, have some empathy and patience for the particular and real challenges faced by those who pour themselves into music for us.
Six Minutes to Midnight (2020)
Humble suspense movie
UK 1939. A British agent gets a job undercover at a school for rich German girls days before the beginning of WWII.
Effective suspenser without ambition or pretension that often solves scenes of danger and difficulty with the protagonist literally running away.
Morte a Venezia (1971)
Beauty and shame
Death in Venice is a sumptuously beautiful Technicolor immersion into pesilential Venice. Dirk Bogarde gives a lot in his performance as the isolated composer Gustav von Aschenbach. He is holidaying alone in Venice to recover from the overwhelming stresses of his life, particularly of being massively uptight and self-denying, while simultaneously giving of himself through the committed and considered perfection of his music.
Flashbacks of passionate conversations with a friend spell out explicitly how we are to interpret the present scenes in Venice. There is no separation between the man and his music; he expects perfection of himself, moral purity, and no corruption through a mere pleasure of the senses. He dreams of a spiritual beauty that is pure and perfect. And he discovers this in the beautiful form of a teenage boy he sees in his Venice hotel, holidaying with his family, the magnificently beautiful Björn Andérsen. He observes this boy from afar but does not dare to approach him. Tadzio notices his attention and is as captivated by his gaze as Gustav is captivated to gaze upon him. But, as we are so clearly told in the flashback philosophical conversations, his engagement with life is as a detached observer.
Bogarde's performance is excruciating in its precision and commitment to communicating, through almost no dialogue and often merely sitting alone, the painful self-loathing expressed as pomposity and cowardice. Gustav is horrified in the beginning to encounter a painted and flamboyant queen who addresses him on equal terms, as if to a fellow queen. He does not want to humiliate himself with such shameless abandon.
Tadzio plays with his attention and the power it gives him, but Gustav cannot act, cannot place himself on the line, cannot risk to feel so much, cannot allow himself the potential pleasure promised by engagement with this beautiful young man fluttering about in front of him like a butterfly. I suppose this self-loathing and self-denial speaks to a very specific queer experience that would have been all too common at the time, and only somewhat less so today. The expression of queer desire and admiration of beauty is more permissible in Western societies today, but the admiration of the beauty of adolescent boys, is less permissible perhaps.
Gustav's struggle is as much present in the languorous gaze of the camera, its subtle movements and carefully editing, as it is in Bogarde's performance.
While I find it unpleasant to identify with Bogarde's character in very personal and humiliating ways the film remains a work of beauty and sympathy, with the squalid and dangerous beauty of Venice and the as-yet-uncorrupted beauty of Tadzio, perhaps equally dangerous.
Beautifully written and cinematic condensation of an expansive novel
Entwines the very different lives of three Maori girls, cousins, through tumultuous decades, after one of them is taken from her family and raised in an orphanage.
A very moving and cinematic adaptation of Patricia Grace's novel, very effectively condensed into movie length while maintaining the scope and complexity of the multiple threads. The lives of these three women, though particular and intimate, effectively represents a larger story of a culture interrupted by colonialism but regaining its strength and groundedness. The interaction between the personal and the cultural, memory and the moment, are woven together with various events, spanning decades, creating a complex portrait revealing how the past, the present and the future interact with each other, how members of a family interact through space and time, in life and in death. Though the performances were sometimes uneven, the editing and Terence Malick-like cinematography very skillfully conveyed a specific yet expansive spiritual and cultural journey through the entire lives of three compelling and tangible characters.
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
American arrogance as entertainment product
An American archeologist goes to Egypt to steal a priceless artefact from a tomb, creating havoc for the local population amidst which he is impervious.
Why is Indiana Jones the hero of this movie? He murders hundreds of people in order to steal valuable artefacts from poor countries. He's not even charming. He's just American. His intelligence is entirely unconvincing. His only apparent ability is determination, and of course miraculous amounts of luck. Harrison Ford's performance is only grimace, brawn and hat.
The film assumes you are stupid. It not only signposts everything without any subtlety, it assumes you have only the most superficial and passing interest in anything that happens, and so it only aspires to that level of engagement. It assumes you will forget everything instantly and be satisfied with that.
The film is utterly racist. The Americans are the good guys for no discernible reason. It is simply unquestioned. The Nazis and South Americans suffer familiar racial stereotypes, but the Arabs are simply set dressing. Jones smashes through their city and their bodies as if it was a field of corn. He trashes their cartoon city as if he was knocking over a pile of empty boxes and they flail their arms meaninglessly and helplessly. And the film assumes you feel the same way, and that it's all fun and games. The rest of the world is just a toy for the real people, the Americans, to play with. It is offensive and there is nothing remotely charming, inventive or clever to justify it.
The extreme lack of sophistication or cinematic flair and the huge commercial success can only suggest that Spielberg is a coldly-calculating commercial, good-natured psychopath firmly embedded at the centre of the American psyche. The idea that genius, intelligence or artistic skill could topple him is to misunderstand the nature of the industry. The fact that art gets exhibited alongside this type of product is merely a technical issue. They utilise the same technology but have nothing further in common. If this is art then a carpark is an installation.
Two minutes of very fast still images of plants pressed between two plates and photographed. There is no sound and it all moves too fast to see anything. I then slowed it down to 1/16th speed, so each frame takes a bit less than a second, and discovered many beautiful images. It's much better much slower.
Superficial to the point of tedium
Two and a half hours of life-spanning superficial gushing. There is almost no music in the film. Michael Jackson was a great musician and dancer, and the production clearly only had the rights to the Motown Jackson 5 music. There is no subsequent music whatsoever, no performance footage, and no interesting archival footage at all. There must be so much incredible footage of Michael Jackson out there that could be shaped into an exquisite documentary. This is not it. It is more about his life than his music perhaps, but there is no insight into the complexities of this very unique life. Despite the impressive array of interviewees, none of whom are named, which is just annoying and confusing, so you never know who is talking, there is very little insight. How many times can you hear, "Michael is the greatest entertainer who has ever lived"?
A bit more detail is entered into concerning the child molestation trials, but again, especially considering the more recent revelations, it is ultimately confounding. People say, "Michael is such a loving person, he would never do something like this," rather than presenting the evidence of what actually did or did not happen.
This is very poor filmmaking. It basically consists of people saying uninteresting things that we have all heard before, interspersed with many still photographs shot in irritatingly novel ways, to make up for the lack of actual moving footage.
Kidding: The Death of Fil (2020)
The first season of this show was an effective drama with interesting characters with real problems. The second season is worse with every passing episode. This was incoherent nonsense. It was neither funny, nor did it contain any sense of reality.
A Man Called Horse (1970)
Englishman conquers the natives (unconvincingly)
An English nobleman is captured by Sioux Indians and due to his inherent superiority is eventually able to manipulate and dominate them, and even show them some pity in their miserable existence.
This is the synopsis this movie deserves, as repugnant as it is. This film barely qualifies for racial stereotyping, the Sioux characters basically just being decor. Even the protagonist's wife is just a piece of scenery.
Even if you accept the racist premise that the Englishman is inherently superior and all he has to do is convince the natives, the plot development of how this happens is entirely unconvincing and the ending is meaningless in terms of plot development.
It is very telling that a title at the beginning of the film, before we see a single image, thanks some natural history museum and a couple of anthropologists, as opposed to the people whose culture is being appropriated.
The House That Jack Built (2018)
A serial killer narrates some of his murders to a mysterious interlocutor, contextualising them into theories of art and philosophy.
Like Nymphomaniac, Lars Von Trier's other philosophical conversation movie, this is strangely compelling viewing despite unpleasantness, excessive length and an inevitable remaining dissatisfaction. If only because of the greatness of his previous films, this deserves in depth critical analysis, if only to confidently regard it as a grotesque and pretentious insult to its audience. It is anti-genre in its interspersing hip serial killer antics with banal dialogue, it is anti-morality in its nihilistic emptiness, it is anti-art as it justifies itself repugnantly while simultaneously tearing itself down, and it is anti-it's audience, Lars Von Trier begging to not be taken seriously anymore.
Queer as Folk: Episode #1.7 (1999)
The delightfully outrageous energy of the opening episodes has now given way to an empty superficiality that is more tiresome with every episode.
Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971)
An intimate and realistic study of character and the details of life
A very maturely executed drama that's most remarkable feature - its calm and reasonable handling of sexual diversity - has now largely been integrated into society. It remains an intimate and realistic study of character and the details of life, though it is weakened by the central relationships, and the supposed passion between the main characters, being unconvincing.
J'ai tué ma mère (2009)
Farce and tragedy; moving and funny
The relationship of a single mother and her gay teenage son; as he begins to individuate, their intensely loving relationship erupts with periodic bursts of volatility. A confident and audacious work for a 19-year-old first-time filmmaker, but one rooted in something many have experienced: an adolescent boy and his mother. The farce and the tragedy of this strained relationship, so compellingly and believably performed by writer/director Xavier Dolan and Anne Dorval, ripples through every beautifully composed and hysterically emotional scene.
Under the Skin (2013)
An elegant blank slate
A very elegant, beautifully filmed juxtaposition of extreme naturalism and sci-fi fantasy. Seems to be enough of a blank slate to project various things onto the central metaphor of this film. As I read, it could be an allegory of sexual objectification and exploitation, with the woman experiencing it from both sides, in her initial psychopathy and in her subsequent vulnerability.
Blue Planet II: The Deep (2017)
Exquisite footage, banal editing
Footage from the depths of the oceans that is almost unbelievably exquisite. The beauty of seeing the life that thrives under these conditions is quite moving. It is such a shame that it is edited in such an banal manner and mixed with condescending commentary and sentimental music.
Sex and satire
A grotesque and perverse mix of explicit sex and over-the-top satire of melodrama with a horror aesthetic; what starts as ridiculously funny becomes stupidly tedious.
Delicate and heartfelt portrait of a songwriter by his lover
Blaze is an affectionately told story of songwriter Blaze Foley from the perspective of his wife, who wrote a memoir about him and co-wrote the screenplay with Ethan Hawke. As a result it is very personal, intimate and delicate, especially the love that Blaze and Sybil share. Their time together in the treehouse in the forest, when Blaze begins to write songs, when he conceives his public name, is very much about the opening of two human hearts and though Blaze talks about wanting to be a legend, there are no legends being depicted here just genuine feeling beings learning to express the delicate and precious parts of themselves. Sybil encourages Blaze to share his songs with the world and so they venture out of their intimate paradise.
The world is a bit harder and meaner and Blaze and his crew of singer-songwriters, including Townes Van Sandt, drink excessively. The film certainly does not take a moralistic view of this, but the damage it does to them and their interaction with the world is obvious. Ben Dickey as Blaze is an extremely nuanced and heartfelt performance. He loves with all of himself and he even hides his gifts with the same passion.
There are not many recordings of Blaze in existence, and it is the love of his friends that allows anything of the man's music to have survived. If the film communicates anything above the very moving and involving human drama, it suggests patience, respect and compassion for those on stage trying to communicate something with us that is complex, delicate and precious. Our world would be unliveable if people like Blaze did not risk their vulnerability to share their most gentle delicate parts with us. The attempted record company execs who tried to build a label around him didn't get it, though they must have recognised his talent. The audience didn't seem to get it, reacting to his anger and his defensiveness more than his music, but his friends did, and his lover certainly did. And so have the filmmakers, who offer us this delicate portrait in a way that can't be misunderstood, only felt.
Upload your consciousness
This short film explores themes of death, digital immersion, leaving behind the physical and specifically uploading your consciousness to the internet. It encompasses musical sequences, television clips, dream-like scenes and surrealism. While it is full of interesting ideas and images it lacks a cohesive vision, it is difficult to engage with and it doesn't amount to anything.
Blue Planet II (2017)
Extraordinarily filmed, structurally incoherent
Undeniably it is extraordinarily filmed, as clear as looking through a window, into a world we would otherwise have no access to; but structurally it is totally incoherent. It goes from one subject to another in a manner so distracted it seems to be made for those with no attention span. It's inability to focus means we come away having learned nothing. Imagine the power of this work if the effort that was made to get such amazing footage was actually developed into a cohesive narrative about the natural world, its beauty and splendor, and our impact upon it. As it is, it amounts to a collection of arcane facts. What an amazingly wasted opportunity.
Island of the Hungry Ghosts (2018)
Powerful poetic portrait of an island
ISLAND OF THE HUNGRY GHOSTS confronts the impossible situation of the refugee detention centre set up by the Australian government on Christmas Island. It is illegal for any employee of the centre to talk about or report anything about the conditions there. So rather than reportage about all the facts and all the horrors, the filmmaker has chosen instead to make a portrait of the island itself, using metaphor to convey the reality of the detention centre.
It is migration time for the island's red crabs and they are everywhere, most inconveniently on the road, and roadblocks must be set up to protect the crabs from being squashed. I suppose it is natural for beings to migrate in certain conditions.
The local Chinese people, who were the first humans to arrive in the Island 100 years ago, believe there are ghosts on the island who are in between worlds, people who have died but not yet passed on. They burn regular offerings to the ghosts to placate them and help them pass on.
The main character of the film is a sensitive and sympathetic woman who works on the Island as a trauma councilor, guiding the patients gently through the immense pain and confusion of what they have experienced and what they are being forced to live. The sessions with her patients are very moving and her love for them bleeds through into her family life, as the realisation of her powerlessness overwhelms her against the secrecy and bureaucracy of the institution that has no interest in helping these people.
Somehow all this is not depressing. It's delicacy and integrity is such that we must have hope that those concerned will realise that humans are as important as crabs and ghosts.