Polter-Cow (spectralbovine) wrote,

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Mistletoe Movie Marathon, Part II

The Mistletoe Movie Marathon continues!

No: I knew about as much about Augusto Pinochet as I did about Pablo Neruda, so Pablo Larraín is here once again to teach me Chilean history in No, the story of the historic vote to either legitimize Pinochet's dictatorship (Yes) or remove him from office and democratically elect a new leader (No). Each side got fifteen minutes of television airtime every night to campaign to the public, and Gael García Bernal, the Don Draper of his day, leads the No campaign with a message of positivity and rainbows. This 2012 film about a 1988 election to get rid of a terrible leader in the name of a brighter, more humane future has a startling amount of resonance right now. Most of this movie is just watching people talk about advertising campaign tactics and then watching political ads, and I found it fascinating, although I had no idea when I was watching a fictionalized ad or archival footage, which is totally Larraín's M.O. (I did recognize that the bits with American actors supporting the No campaign were archival footage). On top of that, Larraín shot the whole damn movie on the same magnetic tape that was used for television news in the '80s, so it always looks like you're watching an old TV show, both in aspect ratio and video quality. García Bernal's home life didn't offer as much character grounding and emotional resonance as I'd hoped, but the overall political story was compelling enough that it didn't matter. It's an interesting look at how to mobilize the public in a fight that no one really thinks they can win. B+

Tony Manero: I'm working my way chronologically backwards through Pablo Larraín's Pinochet trilogy. While No portrayed the end of the regime, Tony Manero portrays life under the regime through the eyes of Raúl Peralta, a 52-year-old sociopath obsessed with John Travolta's character in Saturday Night Fever. Like the unholy Chilean lovechild of Travis Bickle and Rupert Pupkin, this dangerous, dead-eyed man has showbiz aspirations and will let no one get in his way. Conscience? What's that. This is a rough watch, as you're pretty much just watching an awful person do awful things for 97 minutes, but Alfredo Castro is effectively soulless in a compelling way, making you still kind of interested in watching him if only to see what the fuck he'll do next. Is Peralta supposed to represent Pinochet himself? Is Peralta meant to be a reflection of the only way to survive a dictatorial regime being an escape into fantasy? Is Saturday Night Fever fever meant to be an ironic commentary on the American involvement in the original Pinochet coup? There's a lot going on underneath the surface, and Larraín doesn't spell anything out. So while I'm not quite sure what this movie's deal is, it made me think about what its deal was in a way that was interesting rather than distancing. B/B+

Post Mortem: I ended my tour of Pablo Larraín's Pinochet trilogy in the middle but also at the beginning, as Post Mortem takes place during the coup. Alfredo Castro is back as Mario, a morgue worker who begins dating a burlesque dancer who lives across the street from him, and...that's about as much as I understood in this movie. I rarely had any idea why anything was happening, and maybe I missed where it was non-linear, but so much of this film confounded me, and also I think the protagonist of this movie masturbated to an autopsy report. Castro brings the same creepy, dull energy he brought to Tony Manero, but I didn't find him interesting or compelling this time because I could not get a handle on anything. In the second half, bodies begin to pile up and the effects of the coup make things more interesting than the romance, but even then, I lacked context for what anything meant. The ultra-wide aspect ratio was neat, and I did enjoy the judicious use of long takes even if I didn't usually enjoy what was happening in them. The final scene is a weird flex but okay. Sadly, this is the first Larraín film that doesn't really work for me. B

The Report: I recommend The Report if you like these sorts of movies about one man's obsessive drive to Expose the Truth. In this case, the truth being that the CIA tortured detainees—ahem, practiced enhanced interrogation techniques—despite knowing that these methods were ineffective at gathering intelligence. Frequent Steven Soderbergh collaborator Scott Z. Burns tells a taut tale with all your requisite tropes: a stairway phone call, secret meetings in a garage, impassioned monologues, you know, the good stuff. Adam Driver and Annette Bening lead an ensemble cast of strong actors who don't need to be as strong as they are for this material, which is largely people explaining findings to each other. And yet for a movie that's largely people explaining findings to each other, it's remarkably engaging and generally easy enough to follow. Eigil Bryld's cinematography plays with light and shadow to give the film the appropriate ambience, and David Wingo's thumping yet haunting electronic score is reminiscent of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross and Mac Quayle. It definitely feels like there's something missing here, some special sauce that would elevate this film above "pretty good," but it's quite solid and lays out the case against the CIA very well. B+

Paradise Hills: Paradise Hills offers some paradise thrills in the YA feminist dystopia vein. In the future, rich families (or Uppers) send their daughters to a remote island to be rehabilitated into the young women they desire them to be. Compliant, thin, you know the drill. Can Emma Roberts, Danielle Macdonald, Awkwafina, and Eiza González escape the clutches of the sinister Milla Jovovich? This movie looks great, with lavish sets and costumes and very good special effects, and if you guessed that this candy-coated paradise holds a dark secret, you've...seen movies before. While director Alice Waddington and her production design team offer engaging visuals, the script by Brian DeLeeuw and Nacho Vigalondo is undercooked as hell, barely skimming the surface of its premise and not really exploring its themes in a meaningful way. The third act introduces some fun new ideas, but by then it's too late (and one of them is just left completely unexplained even though I did get excited at how out-of-left-field bonkers it was compared to the rest of the movie). Overall, it's a fun little movie if you like this sort of thing, but it's full of unrealized potential. B/B+

The Nightingale: I went into The Nightingale with trepidation, having heard it was not for the faint of heart. And indeed, this film contains possibly the most brutal and harrowing scene of the year in its first half hour, and there's more rape and violence ahead. Jennifer Kent defended her decision to depict these horrific acts onscreen as being historically accurate to the time of colonial Tasmania, and while I think it would still be possible to get it across without being so unflinching, I respect her desire to confront her country's racist history. Aisling Franciosi gives a fierce performance as an Irish convict on a quest for revenge, and Baykali Ganambarr practically steals the movie from her as her Aboriginal guide. The two of them form an unlikely bond, yet this is not some Green Book-y feel-good story. Strangely, unlike many movies where a black character is simply a vehicle to tell a white character's story, here it is the opposite, as Ganambarr is the far more fascinating character, one whose story is far less told and now gets a chance to shine. He's responsible for what little lightness and humor exists in this film, and it's an astonishing debut performance. Both of them have reason to hate the British white fellas (and Kent gives the audience plenty of reason to hate Sam Claflin over and over), and so what could be a simple chase through the woods for vengeance becomes something far richer. For most of the film, I thought it was very good, and I appreciated its depth and ambition and overall filmmaking, but in the last fifteen minutes or so, the entire weight of the film just seemed to fall on me all at once and I had tears streaming down my face through the credits. These two people, one of them stolen from her homeland and one of them whose homeland was stolen, the both of them connecting to their homes with a language other than the language of their oppressor, full of such pain and rage, experiencing this horrible journey together. The Nightingale is a bold, provocative, and ultimately haunting film. B+/A-

Photograph: Ritesh Batra takes a premise built for comedy—a man asks a woman to pose as his fiancée to appease his grandmother—and tells a pleasant, wistful story of connection between two lost souls from different socioeconomic backgrounds. Nawazuddin Siddiqui is endearing as a photographer trying to pay his father's debts, but Sanya Malhotra has to do quite a bit of heavy lifting because her motivations and desires are more of a mystery. It's initially unclear why she would go along with this scheme, but it begins to feel like she wants to do something, anything for herself rather than what's been chosen for her. It's a very slow film, but always engaging, even if Batra often leaves out connective tissue. Sure, you're just waiting for them to fall for each other, but Batra is certainly in no hurry to give you that satisfaction. Instead you'll be falling for Mumbai, which is just shot so beautifully in this film that I wanted to go visit. Photograph is a lovely, beguiling film, and even if it's not entirely satisfying, it will still warm your heart. B/B+

Greener Grass: Jocelyn DeBoer and Dawn Luebbe write, direct, and star in Greener Grass, an absurdist pastel-colored vision of white suburbia, marriage, and parenting that I don't want to say too much about because on rewatching the trailer, I noticed it gave practically all the surprises away and I'm glad I forgot them. I will, however, steal the "Wes Anderson does Black Mirror" and "David Lynch does Desperate Housewives" comparisons because yes. In the first five minutes of this movie, Jocelyn DeBoer straight up gives her baby away to Dawn Luebbe like it's just something normal to do, which sets the tone for the rest of the film. Also there is a deranged murderer on the loose. This movie comes on a bit too strong at the beginning, with over-the-top music cues and a real "we're so out there" attitude, but once it settles down, I got on its wavelength and laughed a lot. This is a movie where a man becomes obsessed with drinking pool water, and it's also a movie where a man sincerely attempts to teach a dog to bowl. Also D'Arcy Carden plays a teacher named Miss Human. Although it could come across as a series of sketches, a parade of silly jokes, Jocelyn DeBoer holds the whole movie together as a woman who seems to slowly wake up to the nightmare she's living in, and her story gives the film a true purpose. I keep thinking I've seen the weirdest movie of 2019, and then I watch another contender. B+

Aniara: Every year deserves a thoughtful, intelligent science fiction film whose title begins with A. In the tradition of Advantageous, Arrival, and Annihilation, 2019 brought us...well, technically Ad Astra, but I didn't care for it so the answer is Aniara, a Swedish film based on a Swedish epic poem by a Nobel Laureate. In the future, humans flee a ravaged Earth for Mars, and the Aniara is one such ship to make the three-week journey. Except a space disaster leaves them floating adrift for...however long it takes to get back on course. Three weeks becomes one year, then two, then...I won't even say because every time-jump in this film is inherently brutal. Our Heroine is responsible for Mima, a holodeck that mines the passengers' memories to provide them a personal vision of the Earth they've left behind. This is a bleak-ass film, and it features possibly the most chilling and unusual suicide I've ever seen. It captures the existential horror of being lost in space, torn between hope of rescue and acclimation to a new life on this spaceship, where you can at least have space sex in the space shower. As we watch the passengers react to their dire circumstances, it's hard not to see it all as an allegory for the climate change crisis. While it may be hard to get a grip on What It All Means, the film itself is absolutely gripping, a challenging look at what our future may hold. B+

Freaks: I went into Freaks knowing nothing about it besides that it was an intriguing sci-fi film that got good reviews, which made it all the more rewarding a viewing experience, since it's designed for you to be in the dark for a while, just like the protagonist, a 7-year-old girl played by Lexy Kolker (a strong introduction) who's never been allowed outside her house by her dad, a paranoid Emile Hirsch. There are definite 10 Cloverfield Lane vibes here, as it's unclear how much of his raving about people outside killing them if they discover they're "not normal" (freaks, perhaps?) is real, but the weird shit we witness inside the house certainly points to...yes. But then Kolker leaves the house to get ice cream (she's seven, okay), and the real adventure begins. This is such a fun goddamn film if you enjoy traveling through a world and learning all the backstory as you go along, through billboards and TV news reports and, of course, the occasional exposition delivered by characters, but there's never any awkward infodump. There's certainly a veneer of political relevance, as it's easy to see anti-freak sentiment as anti-immigrant sentiment, but don't think too hard about that and just enjoy the ride because goddamn, the third act is thrilling as all get-out. Also, Grace Park is in this!! This is totally an under-the-radar treat for genre fans, familiar tropes in a cleverly wrapped package that delivers the goods once it's opened. Adam B. Stein and Zach Lipovsky are definitely ones to watch in the realm of indie sci-fi. B+

Villains: Do you like movies about hapless criminals seeking a safe haven only to find themselves in the clutches of worse criminals? Then check out Villains, the delightful comedy thriller from Dan Berk and Robert Olsen. Bill Skarsgård (out of clown makeup!) and Maika Monroe rob a gas station and then run out of gas, so they break into the house of Jeffrey Donovan and Kyra Sedgwick to find something to help them out of this situation. What they find is...a girl chained up in the basement. Soon they're trapped in the house with these refined Southerners who will probably kill them if they can't escape. This movie is pure kooky fun, well made entertainment without any deep message, but the cast makes it work like gangbusters. The surprise is that not only do you care about the protagonists and their very sweet relationship, but you also kind of end up caring about the antagonists and their very sweet (but fucked up) relationship. It's just a good time for ninety minutes. B+

Like all good things, this is a trilogy! To be concluded in Part III.
Tags: making the grade, movies

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