Nuclear war, genial old people, killer tracks, and great great great great great great great great great great great aunts.
OK, I am running really late finishing this off, and waiting any longer will cause posting it to conflict with a review that’s going live tomorrow, so I’ll once again spare you an update on how I’m doing this time around. Still, some good news: I did finish an article this week! I wrote a whole bunch of words about The Chemical Brothers: Don’t Think and the art of trying to film live music, so go read those if you haven’t. I was supposed to have to it finished a week earlier, but I suck at powering through blocks and my depression has been extra dickish as of late. Also, over on Set the Tape, my review of Rex, formerly known as Megan Leavey, went live in time for its UK release tomorrow, so go there and read that – unless you’re reading this after the delay of being allowed to cross-post the review up on here, in which case you instead have options on getting that content. Finally, I was going to talk about Fifty Shades Freed here, but then I managed to expand the concept into a separate article by itself, so that’ll hopefully come at some point. I know I’m really unreliable when it comes to making promises like those, but that is how my Don’t Think entry turned into its own article, so let’s be hopeful!
Here’s what I’ve been watching this week.
A screener I’m not allowed to talk about just yet (Sunday 4th)
I’ll get to finally blab about this one tomorrow, so make sure you’re back here for then. It’s really good, I’ll say that much, and I’ll also clue you in to the fact that I have covered a film in a review format by this director on this site before. If that seems vague, then I’ve done my job properly because I’d rather not have access to future films by this guy cut off, thanks very much.
Finding Your Feet (Monday 5th)
Dir: Richard Loncraine
I am a bit partial to a particularly well-executed old-people dramedy, just look at my review of The Love Punch from 4 years back – or, rather, please don’t, because I’m going to become utterly terrified about the ceaseless march of time and my fast-approaching resting place in a ditch somewhere again – but this never manages to work. There are the seeds for a good movie here, with interesting characters, class divides, mediations on aging and impending mortality, and refreshingly liberal attitudes towards drug use for a genre that is usually all about whistling to the oldest and most conservative members of the audience. But the film is nearly 2 goddamn hours (and really feels like it), the jokes aren’t funny, and it careens so wildly between genres and styles – one minute we’re having a hilarious escape from a parking officer, then we’re watching Timothy Spall’s wife succumb to Alzheimers, then a bunch of aging character actors are part of a semi-elaborate but badly-staged dance sequence – without ever changing its presentation of these scenes (ALL of the film is shot like a Sun Life Over 50s Insurance advert and the soundtrack is largely ultra-treacly piano keys) that I never got an emotional connection from it. It’s so concerned with being pleasant that it fails to make its pieces cohere into something great.
Red Sparrow (Monday 5th)
Dir: Francis Lawrence
This just made me feel ill. Despite what the marketing campaign may have led you to believe, Red Sparrow is actually a vicious, accusatory deconstruction of honeypot spy thrillers that’s all about showing you, in stylish but unflinching detail, exactly how horrific, demeaning, and rapey life as one of those professional bombshell spies would be. Throwing up all of those unseemly implications that lay beneath the surface of one of these stories into the foreground and pointing out exactly how much of a loathsome shit you, the viewer, are for not recognising them, whilst also drawing very inadvertently timely attention to the mountain of misogynistic shit that women have to put up with every day when dealing with men. And whilst I know that saying this is me taking advantage of my White male privilege, I really did not want to see a film like this, especially one that runs for almost two and a half hours and spends this long kicking the absolute shit out of Jennifer Lawrence so thoroughly and gleefully.
See, that’s the other thing. I often find that a lot of films and television shows like this, and most especially any gritty historical dramas set before the 1900s, use their points of “women are constantly dehumanised and abused” as nothing more than an excuse to dehumanise and abuse their female characters relentlessly under the bullshit protective veneer of “but that’s how it was/is!” It’s a really fine line that one needs to walk, preaching the message without tipping over into hypocritical exploitation, and I felt that Red Sparrow largely dove headfirst, rather excitedly, into the wrong side of that divide. It finds a worryingly perverse glee in the sickening level of violence it inflicts on both J Lawrence and other characters, and the meditative length and pacing means that it marinates for ages in those acts instead of progressing the characters or story in any meaningful way – tangent but related: I will be furious if the substantive part of the 2013 reboot game that the new Tomb Raider takes is the “Lara getting 70lbs of shit kicked out of her = character development” part. J Lawrence is committed to a character who is frustratingly unknowable (partially by design and partially by screenwriting failures), F Lawrence is a visually striking director, and the cast are all good, but I wanted out within 45 minutes. I have seen this story far too many times these past few years.
Or, you know, maybe my therapist’s advice was bullshit and I just shouldn’t watch films in a bad mood. You be the judge.
Baby Driver (Tuesday 6th)
Dir: Edgar Wright
First time watching this post-2017 List-Making Season, and I don’t regret leaving it out of my Top 10. Wright’s directorial skills have never been better, the acting is great all round (especially from Jon Hamm), the soundtrack is fantastic, and those repeat viewings that are effectively required to fully appreciate an Edgar Wright movie have made me even more aware of the ways that the music of the film bleeds into the world of the narrative. But the film feels just a little too much style over substance compared to Wright’s other features, so I would probably rank it at the bottom of his filmography. Mind you, that just means that Baby Driver is a five-star movie instead of a five-star-double-plus-distinction movie, so it’s not exactly a condemnation or anything, and it’s still probably the most plain fun film of 2017. Even at home in my underwhelming set-up, I still frequently bobbed parts of my body in time to the beat and actions on-screen, so that’s Mission Accomplished on the aim of translating the feeling of music to a narrative feature!
The Shape of Water (Wednesday 7th)
Dir: Guillermo del Toro
Right, I WILL NOT stand idly by and allow y’all to undermine Shape of Water’s victory at this year’s Oscars! I am no longer on Twitter, so I have thankfully managed to largely avoid the likely-interminable debates on Film Twitter in the aftermath of it triumphing in the Best Picture race over Get Out, but that discourse has nonetheless seeped into my Internet-browsing-based timeline, and NO! Not this time! In the face of Get Out, a film that tackles many of the same themes of discrimination and Othering as Shape of Water but via a hearty and emphatic “fuck you” towards people very much like the ones that make up the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, yes, Shape of Water is the “safe” choice. But reducing it to that purely because it situates its fable in McCarthyism and displays a love of cinema that is always read as Academy pandering (regardless of whether it is true or not), and forever referring to it as just The Fishman-Fucking Movie even as a joke (and I fully admit to doing that second part a lot too), is undermining what del Toro accomplished here.
Guillermo del Toro made a weird, genre-crossing, fairy tale that is completely unashamed of its genre DNA. It is a bleedingly heartfelt film that bursts with hope and earnestness in every single frame. Despite this narrative that has sprung up around it – which I do concede has a point if you are in the business of Oscar Voter analysis instead of Oscar Film analysis – Shape is wholly unconcerned with pandering to anybody but its creators (both del Toro and co-screenwriter Vanessa Taylor); there’s too much tangible passion radiating from it to sincerely assume otherwise. And del Toro, a proud Mexican let’s not forget, was not only rewarded at the exact time he made the best film of his career (or at least since Pan’s Labyrinth), his film also took home Best Picture, only the second time a Fantasy film has EVER done that. So, no, it may not be “the most relevant film of the year” like the BBC would like to argue – Jesus Goddamn Christ, that institution just cannot stop embarrassing itself recently – but neither is it suddenly the kind of “safe” Oscar Bait that some are trying to recast it as (they would have given it to The Post if they really wanted to do that) and its achievements, both awards and artistically-based, are not suddenly invalidated just because Get Out lost! And I say this as somebody who also thinks Get Out was the best film of 2017! I will not let this baseless del Toro slander stand, YA HEAR ME?! NOT TODAY!
Also, despite that burn, I actually really liked The Post, for the record.
Black Panther (Wednesday 7th)
Dir: Ryan Coogler
Ryan Coogler needs to work on his action chops, some of the CGI is atrociously poor-looking for a film that cost $200 million by the biggest studio in the world, and it is a bit messy structurally at points, but otherwise Black Panther is everything I wanted it to be. I’m going to refrain from writing much now, partially because this will almost definitely be on my Top 20 somewhere, but also because I don’t have anything substantial to add that hasn’t already been covered by writers far better than myself – for just some examples, Karen Attiah on the film’s gender politics, Sincere Karabo’s even-handed review with anecdotes about his father’s reactions towards it, Jason Johnson refuting the cult of Killmonger that has somehow sprung up, and (although I know his name is apparently now a dirty word in Progressive circles, god I am so happy to be off of Twitter) Film Crit Hulk’s essay about how Coogler has made the true successor to Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. Go read them to start with, then find more articles like them. I just wanted it on record that seeing Ryan Coogler bloom into one of the best storytellers working today has been an absolute delight these past few years. Also, that Shuri is just the best.
Game Night (Wednesday 7th)
Dirs: John Francis Daley, Jonathan Goldstein
Colour me legitimately shocked that I had a tonne of fun with this. It doesn’t break any ground and it’s not got any all-timer gags in it, but Game Night is a heck of a lot of fun primarily because it, unlike 90% of other New Line comedies made this decade, has had tangible effort and thought put into it. The film is structured, effectively, as a parody of David Fincher’s The Game, and that means that Daley & Goldstein, as well as screenwriter Mark Perez, are locked into making a comedy with forward momentum and a narrative that’s as entertaining to watch as the jokes (even if it still boils down to the same self-actualisation nonsense that American comedies largely are nowadays). Daley & Goldstein get to play around with the false jump scares, twisty plotting, stylistic visuals, and blue-drenched colour scheme of a Fincher-style thriller, the latter of which even freshens up your bland cliché shot-reverse-shot/two-shot for blatant improv dialogue scenes that Judd Apatow needs to really answer for someday. The performances are funny, the jokes are a lot more hit than miss, and I just overall had a surprising amount of fun with this one. It’s almost like, whisper it, you can make a good comedy if you write your script and actually direct the thing! Who could have foreseen that outcome?
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (Thursday 8th)
Dir: Stanley Kubrick
What’s most striking to me upon watching Dr. Strangelove – and I imagine I’m not the first person to say this, because everybody has covered this movie to death – is how, despite its ostensible nature as a really funny comedy, it’s also not too far removed from your standard Cold War thriller. Even at its most farcical, even at the points where it most openly goes for laughs, and even at the times where Kubrick sets up an excellent sight gag, Strangelove still works as a rather bone-chilling piece about Cold War paranoia, delusional nationalism, the falsehood of masculine superiority, and the terrifying futility of world conflict in the age of nuclear weapons. I have watched actual horror movies with less tension than the bombing run sequence of Major Kong and his crew at the film’s climax. The laughs, ultimately, come just as much from the alternative being screaming in terror as they do the inherent hysteria of seeing Peter Sellers play a deranged paralysed ex-Nazi scientist, or George C. Scott drowning in manic flop sweat. Armando Iannucci clearly studied the crap out of this.
The Emperor’s New Groove (Saturday 10th)
Dir: Mark Dindal
Zootopia is the best thing that Walt Disney Animation Studios have ever done, but The Emperor’s New Groove is my favourite thing they’ve ever done. Aside from maybe The Many Adventures of Winnie-the-Pooh – side note: I was so ready to become a cynical “RUINED FOREVER!” prick about Christopher Robin, particularly since Mark Gatiss is going to have a seemingly-substantial role and he is just terrible, but then the teaser showed that they got Jim Cummings to voice Pooh again and water started leaking uncontrollably from my eyeholes – and Robin Hood, it’s the one that I’ve watched the most, the one that brings me the most comfort, and the one that most appeals to my sensibilities. Back when acknowledging the under-sung-greatness of Storks in my 2016 Year in Review, I mentioned that it was probably the closest Warner Bros. have yet come to translating Looney Tunes into a feature-length medium, and Groove works as the flipside to that coin. Storks gets the manic, improvised-feeling, anarchic energy of those shorts down to a tee, whilst Groove gets the character dynamics and slapstick/dialogue gag balance perfect – what are Yzma and Kronk, after all, but Disney’s equivalent to Rocky and Mugsy?
For a film that was largely rebuilt from scratch in under a year, it’s amazing to consider just how compact and refined Groove is. Not one joke outstays its welcome, every character is a well-drawn delight, every last sequence moves with purpose and meaning – I especially like how every single mishap that befalls Kuzco is entirely as a result of his own selfish hubris, like the universe is deliberately punishing him for his dickishness, and that the time he finally does something nice (saving Pacha instead of the vial) it responds in kind; that feels super Golden Age cartoon-y. Even with the Blu-Ray release revealing all of the cut corners in the animation that came as a result of needing to get it out for Christmas 2000 (in particular there’s the fact that speaking characters that aren’t right up close to the camera don’t move their mouths), they instead enhance that throwback feel, coupled with a more angular and simplified art style comparable to 50s-produced Looney Tunes. This is all without mentioning Patrick Warburton and Eartha Kitt’s all-timer comic performances, the necessary hard break from Disney’s Second Renaissance that it represented, the way that the emotional undercurrent actually works instead of being drowned out by the relentless gags, the genius way that the film deals with Kuzco’s narration…
It’s just brilliant, brilliant, brilliant – and, yes, I do sometimes break into an impression of that whole lab sequence when I’m down in order to try cheering myself up; be glad you don’t personally know me. If you don’t agree with me on this, then we just cannot be friends, sorry not sorry.
Callum Petch saw it coming, or, at least, he’ll claim he did.