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Pandemic Review Roundup!

Dira Paes in Gabriel Mascaro's Divine Love
Dira Paes in Divine Love

OK, so technically, this isn't strictly a pandemic-only roundup. Standards started slipping pre-lockdown, and I make no apology for that, only a commitment to keep slipping in perpetuity! Anyway, here's my verdict on the few, few films I've had the mild motivation to sit through so far this year, since February/March-ish. Who cares!

The Tree House (Truong Minh Quy)

This was lovely. Similar to a lot of popular contemporary South-East Asian arthouse, in that it was content to proceed at its own, languorous pace, and in that it mines much of its character from that pace. Truth is unveiled through the relation of tales, the recollection of memory and the construction of fiction. Not the most groundbreaking of debuts, but a confident and accomplished one.

The Invisible Man (Leigh Whannell)

I genuinely never thought either James Wan or Leigh Whannell was capable of something to this standard. It's only brilliant to a point - once the action properly gets going, it's fairly unremarkable - but it's actually brilliant when it's at its best. Technically excellent, with Elizabeth Moss at her most intensely committed, but its finest quality is its nuanced understanding of the effects of domestic abuse, and their integration into the narrative.

Onward (Dan Scanlon)

This had only limited potential, so it was pleasing to see it largely live up to it. Tediously male-centric, but the earnestness with which it operates keeps it afloat. And yet again, Pixar navigates a path direct to the tear ducts and bleeds them dry - someone ought to look into just how and why they're so much better at that than anyone else. Anyone! Still, this is Pixar running on fumes, resting on laurels, apparently now resigned to their status as a B-grade animation studio.

Playdate with Destiny (David Silverman)

This anodyne short played ahead of Onward, now that Disney has assumed control over the Simpsons brand, though it's not like their influence was needed to further devalue it. I haven't intentionally watched new episodes of The Simpsons in years, and I'm happy to see I haven't been missing out on much. Maggie deserves better.

End of the Century (Lucio Castro)

This has been reverberating around my mind since I saw it just days before lockdown. It's sensational. It's so bunged full of honest, clear-eyed observation, so piquant in its realizations of the thoughts and feelings and memories and desires that haunt us, so rich in so much that you're practically glad it doesn't even last 90 minutes. Another minute longer and the spell might have been broken. Castro's the real deal.

Bacurau (Juliano Dornelles and Kleber Mendonca Filho)

Mendonca Filho has yet to match the brilliance of Neighbouring Sounds, but there are lesser ways to expand your repertoire of skills than this. His and Dornelles' audacious amalgamation of genres and styles is intentionally gaudy, jarring and compelling - this is how you get an audience to pay attention! Throw strange shit at them so they don't miss the good shit you're throwing up everywhere else. It works!

Last and First Men (Johann Johannsson)

My first lockdown film, and Johannsson's last and first project as director. How to accredit this to him alone, though? It's him at the helm, Tilda Swinton reading his and Jose Enrique Macian's adaptation of Olaf Stapledon's 1930 sci-fi novel, with his and Yair Elazar Glotman's music, and Sturla Brandth Grovlen's abstract black-and-white images of brutalist Yugoslavian monuments. Yet the overall vision is a whole, and a wonder through and through. Truly, this is as perfect an adaptation as I've seen.

The Platform (Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia)

Briefly buzzy Netflix sci-fi horror that rests on the complex execution of a simple idea, something it promises but never quite pulls off. I kept waiting for an additional gambit to elucidate something I felt was missing, and maybe that's my problem, but it felt to me more like the film's problem. It's fun, but futile.

Domains (Kusano Natsuka)

MUBI hosted this 2019 title from Japanese minimalist filmmaker Kusano Natsuka, which utterly disarmed me. The layers of nuance and complexity added to a story already liberally threaded with dramatic detail are the stuff of subtle genius. Reminded me of 2017's Kuro, though its purview is both broader and deeper, its perceptive so all-encompassing I half remember it as a conventionally staged drama. I'd watch this again and again.

Isadora's Children (Damien Manivel)

I have a real affinity for art about the creation and practice of art, but then I feel that a lot of people do too, so I wonder if that's even a point worth making. This was right up my street, so I'm still a bit miffed by how it doesn't seem to have actually gone right up my street. It's sort of half in? Plus it's receded so far back into my memory I mightn't recognise most of it were I to see it again. Maybe that's a good thing! Keep up coming back, Damien!

Divine Love (Gabriel Mascaro)

I've come to the conclusion, after sitting on the fence following Neon Bull, that Gabriel Mascaro is a decent stylist with a little to say, and a lot to say about it. Divine Love works, in the end, because everyone involved in it seems sure of what he's saying, and how to communicate it, but it's a shallow statement repeated over and over, decorated with a lot of fluff, albeit very beguiling fluff. Diego Garcia, however, is more than decent!

Liberte (Albert Serra)

Serra takes the plunge, juxtaposing classical beauty with classic crassness and ugliness, as though he'd had enough of hovering over the point. Liberte makes it, and drives it into the ground with punishing force. Many think he's just jumped his own shark. I'm of the opinion that this is a very good movie, transformed into a potentially great movie by the very fact that so many seem to feel that way. Provocative art that actually provokes? In 2020? She is a high point!

A Russian Youth (Alexander Zolotukhin)

Another MUBI title, this one aggressively experimental, and while I've no problem with that, I've a few problems with Zolotukhin's experiments. This is my regular gripe with innovation for innovation's sake - not whether there's any point to it or not, but if there's any point to engaging with it. Some experiments are maybe better left as technical exercises. When it enters a more settled state, A Russian Youth is actually quite satisfying on its own terms, but it too seldom does for true satisfaction.

The Fall (Jonathan Glazer)

Nightmarish short from Jonathan Glazer, just about unexceptional enough to justify its brevity. This is the kind of thing Birth could have been, maybe. Achieves no more than it promises, but Glazer's prowess is peerless, so it all lands with the impact it should. Other filmmakers could learn a thing or two about sound, editing and cinematography from this kid.

The Orphanage (Shahrbanoo Sadat)

Still find Sadat's style too casual for my tastes; I get about enough realism in my own reality, so it's no surprise that I found The Orphanage to be most enjoyable when it took chances, especially in its startling, but entirely justified, final sequence. Excellent performances, an admirable dedication to honesty, and a resolute compassion are high points throughout.

Da 5 Bloods (Spike Lee)

Fully here for how, when Spike Lee jumps into the deep end, he has everyone else holding their breath. He'll drown if he wants to, and he'll do it his way. Flaunts so many conventions of "good" filmmaking, you'd almost think he was proposing a new language of cinema in response to the traditional, Euro-centric dialect... Ambitious to a fault, and so brazen in how it addresses its myriad complexities it's quite exhausting, but it's totally worth the effort.

Proxima (Alice Winocour)

An unexpected treat, as Winocour strips all the potential glamour and excitement out of her premise and grounds this small-scale drama in large-scale emotions. Few directors have her feel for place and the effect our environment can have on us - I'd truly love to see the ISS sequel. A trifle inconsequential; could maybe have used just a touch of that excitement, but it's good work anyway.

Just Don't Think I'll Scream (Frank Beauvais)

Self-Interested Cinephile: A Self-Portrait. "But these are my people!", I say to myself, with a profoundly unbalanced combination of despair and determined reassurance. An astonishing feat of montage, but then it's literally about the very conditions that provided the capacity for such a feat, so it ends up looking like folly. We all have our stories, and Frank Beauvais has other people's stories to tell his through - it's neat, but not all our stories are necessarily worth telling...

To the Ends of the Earth (Kurosawa Kiyoshi)

You can never tell when Kurosawa's gonna put his talents to good use, so it's a pleasant little privilege every time he does, not least since you can never tell when anyone's gonna notice. To the Ends of the Earth is suffused with his signature chilliness, only this time as a matter of obstacle, as something to be overcame, which the protagonist and, thus, the film thankfully do. Enriching and beguiling from first shot to last.

Relic (Natalie Erika James)

Fabulous production design and some handsome effects serve this Aussie horror well; it's otherwise pretty lacklustre. There's such burgeoning potential in the concept, as plain as it may be, that it's inevitably disappointing when Relic fails to capitalize on it, stopping right as things started developing beyond the basic. Good enough as a quick little creepshow, though.

The Old Guard (Gina Prince-Bythewood)

An intriguing case of priorities reassessed - a superhero comic book adaptation more concerned with politics, history and humanitarian philosophy than with action and aesthetics. It's all played for maximum catharsis too, giving it a soft, hopelessly earnest core that all the graphic violence ought to shred. In Gina Prince-Bythewood's hands, however, it's the hard-edged action that's smothered by the earnest emotion. I'd watch a dozen more of these just to see where they go.

Disclosure (Sam Feder)

Netflix documentary laying bare the painful, and also uplifting, reality of trans media representation through history. Infused with an open authenticity that ought to make even the most virulent transphobe crumble (though that'd imply that their arguments comprised tangible facts and truths, instead of fabricated hot air). A rare mainstream doc that leaves you feeling you've actually watched something meaningful, and that's because it actually is something meaningful.

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