Gods, Ghosts, guns, and Newspapermen.
Just over a week from now, I’ll be in London for this year’s London Film Festival. Compared to the last time I was in this situation, I’m rather excited for it. Some of that is due to the fact that I’ve now done it before and didn’t make an arse out of things, so the massive anxiety that comes whenever I do something new has largely subsided. A lot of it, however, is due to the pressure having largely been taken off. By which I mean: last year, I went in the capacity of representing my old University’s newspaper (through a lot of blagging that put almost all of the work onus on myself), whereas this year, I am representing a friend’s website. A good friend who knows me, knows how I write, and has admitted to always being willing to entertain anything I send their way. It’s still professional, arguably more so since people actually read this website (apologies to anyone from The Hullfire if you are for some reason reading this), but the whole thing ultimately feels looser and more relaxing.
See, last year, I was still strongly hanging on to the notion that I may become a Film Critic or at least a professional paid writer someday. This, of course, was despite my notoriously lax work ethic ever since starting up this blog (let’s call a spade a spade), mass imposter syndrome around my writing, and the general lack of fun or satisfaction I was getting – and, sometimes, continue to get – when I did finally pull my finger out and scribble down some words. Much of this came as a result of post-University anxiety and depression, fearing a regression from the personal progress I had made whilst at Uni and panicking madly about the removal of what had been a clear and constant structure in my life up until then, leaving no direction and a fear of a loss of identity. I, largely, couldn’t write, and every day that I didn’t write, my mind would tell me, was a day completely wasted, since I wasn’t doing anything else and I considered myself a writer so, ergo, not writing just made me a lazy wasteful piece of shit.
A lot of this is still true to an extent, in that my inevitable failure to complete outlined plans and schedules at the start of a day, for whatever reason, leads to me feeling like shit and my mind telling me that I am shit for not getting shit done. But in recent months, I have been trying to mitigate this effect through a simple change: I’m trying to not consider myself a writer anymore. Technically, I’m not anyway, I’m not prolific enough to call myself a Writer and I’ve never tried to go for legitimate (paid) freelance work even during the times when I was one. But I’ve been trying to reframe writing to be more of a hobby than a planned career, which was how I spent most of my life wanting it to be. Fact is that I don’t have the drive, temperament, output, or self-worth to make writing a career – I can’t even bring myself to engage in conversation with the Hull Independent Cinema people after a screening unless I’m with someone who’s already talking to them, how the heck would I handle pitches? Plus, a decent writer would be able to tailor their work to the outlet they’re working for and write things that engage with the Hot Take Culture that people want to read, both things I clearly cannot do – and that first one is why Ed Sheeran is a garbage songwriter, for the record, since he too is incapable of doing that.
None of this means that I fully believe it yet or that it’s working – let’s be frank, if it did, I would have stuck out this catering job I did for two days in the Summer instead of having my third and fourth (of at least seven) breakdowns so far this year before quitting in shame – and this most certainly does not mean that I am feeling better in any or way, or have any idea what I am as I bear down hard on my 23rd birthday. It does mean that I am trying to deal with it, though. (This semi-breakthrough was facilitated by a run back through, and then the phenomenal new season of, BoJack Horseman over the last month or so, and you’ll hear about that later this week; that’s a promise.) So, this year’s fortnight down in London lacks the pressure of thinking it’s a potential step forward in my career. It is instead a holiday, right down to the work I’ll be doing whilst there, and that’s not a bad way to spend my 23rd.
Here’s what I’ve been watching this week.
mother! (Sunday 17th)
Dir: Darren Aronofsky
Allusions to SPOILERS
I am not even going to attempt to write properly about mother! until we hit End of Year time. At time of writing this entry, I am 4 days removed from seeing it and not only can I not stop thinking about it, I still don’t even know if I think it’s a maniacal masterpiece or the worst thing that everybody involved has ever done. This means that I am still in a very love/hate relationship with the thing, and that love/hate is entirely based around the different reads I have of the film. Is it a trashy Black-Comic ode to the rampant unchecked narcissistic God complex of Aronofsky, that equates his own artistic process to nothing less than THE ENTIRETY OF THE BIBLE ITSELF, as seen through his own brief moments of self-aware lucidity, here represented by Jennifer Lawrence’s frequently-ignored and marginalised muse, and represented on-screen by loaded and deliriously unsubtle religious imagery? Or is it actually lacking in all self-awareness that says nothing and that the trash he’s put out is really Important Serious Filmmaking? I honestly still don’t know, but on the better moments of this still-raging mental debate, my mind leans more towards the former, which puts mother! in my favourite films of the year so far, if for nothing else than the absolute audacity on the part of Aronofsky.
You know what would definitely help me decide for certain about this one, though? If Aronofsky could keep his goddamn mouth shut. I don’t know what annoys me more: the idea that the film’s Biblical allegories were supposed to be ambiguous – mother!, you see, believes that its rare moments of subtlety involve bashing you over the head once with a heavy club instead of five times around the face with a sledgehammer – or the self-consciously defensive “well that’s your interpretation” non-answer to the idea that much of the film is about himself. Dude, just own it! Own the fact that you made a trash piece about your own self-importance instead of trying to claim that you’re a Serious Artiste with things to say! If you’re going to this length to piss people off, no matter how hard it may be for you: don’t half-ass it by demanding validation from your deliberate mess, cos it just makes you more insufferable and pretentious! In your best moments, you make delirious trash cinema, and that’s more than fine since you’re a phenomenally-talented director! Own that shit!
So that’s where I’m at with mother!, at the moment. Mostly I just get the impression that Aronofsky would be absolutely fucking insufferable at parties. Please spare a thought for all Film Studies professors the world over, who are about to spend the next half-decade being inundated with innumerable dissertations on this thing.
Wind River (Sunday 17th)
Dir: Taylor Sheridan
Wind River has managed to successfully re-orient my expectations on Taylor Sheridan scripts to more reasonable levels. I don’t mean this as a burn, for the record, expecting anybody to write only Sicario-level scripts for the rest of their career is being straight-up unreasonable, and Sheridan writes damn, damn good scripts anyway. Wind River suffers from a few too many clichéd character details to become one of the year’s best – and, yes, the film would have been less inadvertently-problematic had our protagonist been a Native American rather than Jeremy Renner’s accepted-interloper; the film wouldn’t even had to have changed much, given the way Sheridan writes the character, and its metaphor as the soul of ideal American values – but it is a very engrossing mediation on grief, the wilderness, and America’s erosion (both literal and figurative) of its Native population. The characters are strong, the dialogue crackles but not too self-consciously, and, as with Sheridan’s other scripts, the reveal and the ending are both quietly clever and work as great examples of pure cinema.
The other thing holding Wind River back from true greatness besides the rougher edges of his respectful script, is that, at least right now, Sheridan’s a far better writer than he is director. He’s not bad, the film’s climax and extended denouement wouldn’t be so powerful otherwise, but he doesn’t seem capable of trusting his camera in the same way that Denis Villeneuve (Sicario) or David McKenzie (Hell or High Water) are. He can get some gorgeous shots of the snow-covered reservation, ones that stretch on for miles and emphasise the bitter cold and vast loneliness, but he too often switches to excessively shaky handheld cameras or awkwardly-composed two-shots for action and exposition scenes, neither of which fit with the feel of a classic Western that Sheridan’s works are spiritually indebted to. He also seems to have lacked the gumption to tell Nick Cave & Warren Ellis to stop over-egging the score so damn much, which leads to a few sequences threatening to tip over into being corny. Still, none of this ruins the film, and it’s nothing that can’t be ironed out in future attempts. Taylor Sheridan knows how to make a good Western, and Wind River is another fine example of that.
Semi-related thought: I wonder what a James Mangold-directed Sheridan screenplay would be like? Those two could be real good for each other.
Kingsman: The Secret Service (Tuesday 19th)
Dir: Matthew Vaughn
Objectively, Kingsman is a mess, inarguably thematically and tonally, and arguably also narratively. Part of this is due to the continued pairing of Matthew Vaughn & Jane Goldman with Mark Millar source material. Vaughn and Goldman are still, even with Logan being a Millar-adaptation in pretty much name and general concept only, the only people who have been able to make versions of his work that are actually enjoyable to experience from beginning to end, but in doing so they have to take massive liberties with the source material that leaves the films being ideological, thematic, and tonal messes. Kick-Ass and The Secret Service are deconstructions of superhero/vigilante comics and James Bond movies, respectively, but because Millar is an odious fuckboy hack with a hard-on for casual homophobia, misogyny, racism, and just being all-round shitty under the juvenile guise of “shock humour,” Vaughn & Goldman’s adaptations eventually turn into celebratory reconstructions of those genres by the time the final third kicks in. The problem here, of course, is that they essentially spend half the movie following Millar’s themes and ideology before switching it out for their own without doing anything about the dead-end subtext they’ve now left behind.
Resultantly, trying to find coherent subtext or ideology or even a real point in both Kick-Ass and Kingsman is cause for nothing but contradiction and confusion, and maybe also a minor headache. That’s the downside. The upside is that you don’t get Kick-Ass 2, in which Jeff Wadlow decided to follow Millar’s rabbit hole all the way down and came out with an ugly, nihilistic, spiteful little movie. Vaughn’s Millar adaptations have serious problems, but I cannot deny the pure fun and thrill I get from watching them. Kingsman is just fun. Sometimes in real bad taste, sometimes lacking in focus due to playing Alex Rider and late-Moore Bond movies simultaneously for much of its runtime, but always brilliantly stylish, always viscerally entertaining, and always just plain fun. I vastly prefer it, warts and all, to the actual Bond movie that was released in 2015 – admittedly somehow the worst spy movie released in 2015, even with another white noise generator masquerading as a Mission: Impossible entry, which makes that compliment less impressive than I intended it to be – and rewatching it for the first time since it came out, I was surprised by how much it just works.
Funny how the mere mention of Iggy Azealia immediately and horribly dates the thing within the opening 15 minutes, though. Was it really only 2 years ago that we thought she was actually going to stick around?
(Addendum: how about following up on this entry by reading my review of The Golden Circle, which was posted yesterday?)
His Girl Friday (Wednesday 20th)
Dir: Howard Hawks
Yes, an actual classic of American cinema released well before any of my immediate family members were born! I don’t mean to neglect most non-animated cinema released pre-mid-80s. Part of this is because many older films are being removed from streaming services like Netflix in order to make way for both original programming (which is increasingly becoming the new main selling point of these things) and super cheap generic garbage that you’d normally find nestled away in the corner of a petrol station for £1.99 but otherwise would never have heard of (cos those are cheap to acquire). Part of this is because television’s evolution to largely-HD channels means that old films in non-widescreen aspect ratios and black-and-white are dropped from rotation due to the work those in charge believe is required to make them presentable. Part of this is because network television channels in the UK like Channel 4 and Channel 5 have just full-on stopped showing films during the daytime in favour of reruns of shite. And, yes, part of this is also because I don’t watch films enough because I’m a lazy depressed piece of shit.
Anyways, I friggin’ loved His Girl Friday. I think I would have been more surprised if I hadn’t, given that it’s a screwball satire with dialogue so rapid fire that the term “rapid fire” actually undersells it, and ginormous personalities blowing their movie star charms all over the screen with such a gale force that resistance is ultimately futile. It’s kind of amazing just how sharp the film’s satire is with regards to the cut-throat, soul-destroying nature of the news media that sees people either as puppets in the grander narrative that they’re selling, or the vultures hawking said narrative, with a side-line on the corruption and manipulation of the justice system – albeit with a 1940s attitude to racial politics that’s one of the otherwise surprisingly-few ways in which this film has dated – and the great trick it pulls in making the consequences aware to the viewer without becoming bogged down in moralising or sapping the breezy fun. I have no idea how Hawks and co. pulled it off, but they managed. Ditto the decision to switch Hildy’s gender, which makes both the satire sting that much harder and the farce that much more hilarious, particularly with Rosalind Russell’s firebrand hurricane performance being exactly the kind I love in these things.
The Jungle Bunch (Thursday 21st)
Dir: David Alaux
The Jungle Bunch, apparently a feature adaptation of a French animated kids’ series I’ve never heard of, gets points for ambition, if nothing else. Most cheap foreign animation that gets a haphazardly-dubbed English cinema release for a quick buck have ideas and narrative imaginations stuck at least a decade past their sell-by dates – look at this, this is real, this is a real film made in 2017 due for release in two months that I will have to see – but The Jungle Bunch has at least a mildly inspired premise: what if The Avengers but for the animal kingdom? And since I knew absolutely nothing about this film prior to walking in, I was genuinely and somewhat pleasantly surprised to, after a brief series of hacky sitcom jokes that made me worried I was about to watch an Ice Age rip, witness an opening sequence that attempted to be exactly that. There’s a colourful cast of characters with their own ‘powers,’ a megalomaniacal villain that’s basically the kid-friendly version of Dennis Hopper from Speed, and one of the cast even pulls off a heroic sacrifice to save our eventual protagonist that almost properly works.
And whilst the film never stops being a generic superhero-type movie after this prologue – that initial team disbands, the tigress adopts the penguin they rescued who grows up idolising the old team and eventually leaves to start a new justice team without his mother’s blessing, just in time for the old villain to make his grand return, necessitating the old band get back together and team up with the new generation – this is one instance where ambition absolutely outstrips ability. Visually it’s fine, although the boarding is subpar and the insistence on giving all of the animals fingers is just creepy, and narratively it’s competent, even if the entire plot hinges on everyone being stubborn oafs which makes caring a real challenge. What truly sinks The Jungle Bunch, however, is the utterly atrocious dub and pacing that kills all attempted momentum stone dead. Vocal performances are grating, including an ape with a voice that sounds like a seal after 4 consecutive strokes, or embarrassingly flat; there are frequent noticeable instances of full-on dead air, lacking not only music but ambient sounds altogether; music always seems to die down whenever it starts building up to anything. The result just makes The Jungle Bunch borderline unwatchable, since it frequently feels straight-up unfinished. Points for trying, but the craft is absolutely not there to make this worth sitting through.
A Ghost Story (Thursday 21st)
Dir: David Lowery
I plan to rewatch this one nearer the end of the year at home. Fact is, I don’t know whether I just couldn’t get into it full stop, or if I couldn’t get into it because I had to spend almost a full hour of this thing listening to two people sat next to me munching loudly on their popcorn seemingly without end. Since A Ghost Story is a film that relies even heavier than usual on a specific, constant, deliberate quiet, with meticulously picked-over sound design that’s supposed to immerse you in its world (also known more simply as a mood piece), this became a rather large problem. Admittedly, there is still every chance that I just plain couldn’t “get” the film anyway – my reaction to the uninterrupted five minute sequence in which Rooney Mara eats a pie (this is neither a joke nor an oversimplification nor an exaggeration) alternated between being quietly moved, an indignant Tom Servo at the end of The Wild World of Batwoman, and a desire to force the popcorn munchers to choke to death on their own weapons of mass irritation – but thinking back on it every now and again these past few days has given me full-on anxiety-based panic attacks. So, who knows? I’ll report back when that rewatch occurs.
By the way, I really don’t care if this makes me come off as an elitist prick, but I think that all snacks of all kinds should be full-on banned from cinemas, or at the very least for non-blockbusters. You are not going to a goddamn monster truck rally or professional wrestling event! Leave your goddamn masticating megaphones at home and respect the motherfucking craft you’ve paid upwards of £9 a go to experience! This hardline stance extends even to my closest friends, for the record, as they are probably sick of hearing me go on about when they are ordering GODDAMN JALEPINOS IN A CINEMA… WHY!? WHY WOULD YOU DO THIS?! I DON’T UNDERSTAND YOU!
Again, if this makes me an asshole, so be it. At least I own that shit, unlike SOME critically-acclaimed filmmakers…
Virtuosity (Saturday 23rd)
Dir: Brett Leonard
You want a perfect example of a crappy mid-90s action movie? Look no further than Virtuosity, a film with an overcomplicated madcap premise – in the near-future, the police have built an elaborate virtual reality simulator to train cops, pitting them against an AI program called SID composed of the collective personalities of no less than 183 of the world’s most evil minds, only for the program to escape into the real world and start killing people, forcing the police to send a rogue cop with a cyborg arm after him – that is nothing more than window-dressing for a bog-standard “reckless cop v. ruthless serial killer” thriller, only with strains of a cheapo-Terminator strewn about the place. It seems actively ashamed of its own premise, what with its refusal to really do anything with it, and the result is a bad movie that is only the BAAAAAAD movie that it deserves to be in sporadic bursts. When it sucks, which is often, it sucks because everybody’s refusing to sink down to the level it should be and can never decide what tone it’s supposed to have. The only saving grace, outside of a fun opener that tries to depict mid-90s action gaming in live-action, is a then-largely unknown Russell Crowe having a ball playing SID as a digital Joker. He’s the only one who’s willing to work on the premise’s wavelength and the result is a fun performance stuck inside a self-serious snoozefest.
Callum Petch is in touch with his feelings.