Sequels, supers, assassins, ABBA, and White chicks.
This is a rather long one for once so, in place of anything substantial, here’s my reaction to this ceaseless heatwave that has been going on for the past fortnight.
Here’s what I’ve been watching this week.
Skyscraper (Wednesday 18th)
Dir: Rawson Marshall Thurber
I’ve seen it.
Incredibles II (Wednesday 18th)
Dir: Brad Bird
…good, not great. Whilst Incredibles II was playing, I had a damn great time. A couple of weeks back, I re-watched the original for the first time in years, so to see just how far Computer Animation has come in 14 years was legitimately astonishing. Much of the age of the original is hidden by strong art direction, but II gets to take that art direction, attach it to modern graphical power, and utilise it to realise the details you filled in with your mind back in the day – crowds of detailed extras, subtle facial expressions and body language that simply weren’t possible in the technologies nascent stages, stunning lighting effects, amongst so many others. The set-pieces are fantastic with Brad Bird continuing to prove he’s one of the best in film today at them, particularly the Elasticycle chase and the supers-free-for-all on the boat that, unlike so many live-action movies, takes full advantage of the technical possibilities of a mass brawl with supers who all have distinctly different powers. Whilst the Parrs remain Pixar’s best cast of characters by a good mile, their dynamics and individual quirks and traits meshing so well with each other that they feel like a real family.
But as soon as the end credits started rolling, and I do mean the very second, I started feeling rather deflated by the whole thing, in stark contrast to the first which leaves me in an adrenaline-fuelled pep for hours after. I had an inkling during the slower parts, mainly in Bob’s attempts at single-parenting, that I was forcing myself into enjoying it more than I actually was, because how could I not? It’s the sequel to one of the greatest films of all-time period! I’d been gagging for it for 14 years, and Bird & Pixar finally coming back to it means that they had something huge up their sleeves, right? This had to have been worth the wait, to put the rest of the modern superhero movie landscape and 2018 animation so far to shame, and to be just plain excellent! But… it’s not. It’s just kind of fine. In fact, it’s just the first film again, right down to the identity of the villain and the source of their ‘powers,’ with a few of the particulars rearranged and a beefing up on the technical quality. It’s a high-quality retread, but a retread all the same.
Incredibles II doesn’t find anything new to say or do, save for Bird at least passively grappling with the Randian criticisms that have dominated readings of his work for the past decade or so. Helen’s re-embracing of Elastigirl is just her arc from the first movie grafted onto Bob’s narrative from said, Jack-Jack’s menagerie of powers at least provides us with a fun Looney Tunes-esque slapstick sequence with a racoon but is otherwise the concentrated hysterics of the Jack-Jack Attack short stretched across 2 hours, Violet redoes her arc, and so on and so forth. The pacing is also inferior to the original; where that reached 2 hours because it took its time telling the story in such a way as to not waste a single second, II goes on a lot of detours and extended setpieces that are admittedly fun but eventually hurt the flow and shine a light on the lack of new story and story overall.
I think the thing that most encapsulates my overall disappointed meh feelings about Incredibles II comes from the film feeling like something Pixar and Brad Bird needed to make rather than something they wanted to make. Pixar cos they needed a safe bet in case their riskier jaunts like Inside Out or Coco or The Good Dinosaur flopped (only the last did), Bird because Tomorrowland was a borderline career-ender so he had to make this, and both because they had been promising for 14 years that they were gonna go back in some capacity and at some point with promises like those you have to shit or get off the pot. I had fun, don’t get me wrong, and it’s one of the current high points of a very underwhelming year for animation, but after 14 years I can’t help but having wanted and expected something more. I’d honestly rather everyone had left this alone than make something this inessential.
The Breadwinner (Wednesday 18th)
Dir: Nora Twomey
Second viewing confirms my hunch: this is one of the best animated movies I have ever seen. Breathtakingly beautiful, emotionally rich, never once condescending in its depiction of its subject matter or its mode of address, brimming with hope but spiked with a mature understanding of the reality of the situation, and so, so earnest and heartfelt. Not going to spend much more time on The Breadwinner because I already wrote near-enough 1000 words about this when I first saw it at last year’s London Film Festival, where it was also the best thing I saw all Fest in a walk, and I don’t want to repeat myself. But director Nora Twomey and every single person at Cartoon Saloon should be proud of what they created with this and carry that pride with them for the rest of their days, it is spellbinding.
One other thing to note: I saw this as part of Hull Independent Cinema, because Studio Canal chose not to send the general release up here for one reason or another. I’ve griped about audience reactions at these screenings in the past – one I haven’t done yet was for the preview screening of The Miseducation of Cameron Post (review coming soon) where most of the audience were in guffaws a lot more than the film intended, which was really distressing given the subject matter and the clever way the film was portraying it – and I greatly feared that this would fall victim to it too, because when this crowd started laughing at You Were Never Really Here all bets for the future were off. Yet, when the film finished, the strangest thing happened. Everyone just sat in silence. Nobody moved, nobody spoke, nobody ate popcorn offputtingly loudly. They just sat. Even when the credits were almost over, about two-thirds of the audience were still sat in their seats in relative silence, as if they needed that time to fully process what they had witnessed. I almost never see that anymore, and that silence speaks volumes about The Breadwinner.
Ocean’s Thirteen (Thursday 19th)
Dir: Steven Soderbergh
Finally polished off the Ocean’s series. Enjoyed this one a lot, but it’s maybe a little too complex and clever for its own good. I am one of those people who didn’t actually find Ocean’s Twelve that bad – I wouldn’t watch it again in a hurry, but I appreciate what Soderbergh was going for (homage-ing ALL the French New Wave movies) and there’s still a charm in both the cast and the absolute mess – but Thirteen is definitely a return to form and a quality close before our Debbie Ocean utopia. What stops it from matching Eleven and 8 for me is in the momentum and the heist. Narratively, the film is straightforward and simple, and when the con comes together in the last 30 minutes it has that same magic all the Ocean’s movies provide. Getting to that payoff, however, because of how intricate the job is, can come close to interminable at times because there is SO MUCH groundwork and set-up beforehand, leading to proceedings getting dragged down a touch. Still, it’s a lot of fun, the deliberate distaff nature of Willy Bank to Eleven’s Terry Benedict is clever (and the film does a far better job at making Bank into a properly hateable figure than Eleven did with Benedict), the cast is great, the score is excellent, and I live for the moments in these movies where everything clicks into place.
White Chicks (Saturday 21st)
Dir: Keenen Ivory Wayans
My name is Callum Petch and I love White Chicks. It’s a statement that comes with a whole load of qualifiers, of course – even by mid-00’s standards it can be super homophobic, it hopscotches back and forth across the line of full-on sexist, and the cross-dressing (which is something I must admit to not being as fully aware of the potentially harmful connotations of due to its ingrained nature as ‘just a thing’ in British comedy) sometimes trips over into trans-panic. But, not only did I find myself laughing, like a heck of a lot with many being actual sustained belly-laughs, having gone into it without any prior preconceptions of why exactly it’s considered bad (and only the recommendation of one of my few remaining online film friends), I actually found it surprisingly clever and, more specifically, a very incisive racial satire.
See, White Chicks is not really about White chicks, although the film does still take a bunch of shots at them, particularly in the only recorded instance in history of my actually laughing at a dance-off sequence in a comedy movie – a trope that is weirdly prevalent for some reason, but will regardless never top Heather leading off her squad’s super-White dancing by yelling “5, 6, 7, 8!” Rather, it’s a skewering of Black perceptions of White chicks, of snobby WASP-y socialite types who would feign shock at a fellow White person saying the word “n*gga” in conversation but will gleefully yell along to said word in their favourite rap song if no-one is around, of conventionally attractive White women who are needlessly self-conscious about their body types, of people born into privilege who have never known any real struggle and are too self-absorbed to see how clueless they look.
The Wayans – Shawn, Damon, and director Keenen, plus three other credited writers – derive much of their mockery from deliberate falsehood stereotypes for the broader laughs. Their trick, though, is how they are really only mining the same stereotypes of White women that White men have perpetuated for years, garnishing it with Black male observations of the same on top for good measure. And you can see this in everything to do with Terry Crews’ raucous Latrell Spencer, a former-footballer turned actor who has an obsessive thing for White women. It’s a gag that works on multiple levels, satirising the racist White falsehood that Black men are coming to take all of our White women by dialling Latrell’s obsession up to extreme Pepé-Le-Pew levels, whilst simultaneously clowning on a frequent issue (that’s probably not the word I’m looking for but I always get massive anxiety writing about race anyway) in Black male communities of Black men priding a desirability for light-skinned or White girls over darker-skinned women.
And even when White Chicks does get broad (and boy does it get broad) or wildly offensive (and boy does it get wildly offensive), it’s carried through by fully-committed performances by the entire cast. There is absolutely no reason as to why, on paper, the clothes shopping sequence shouldn’t be unfunny lazy hackery of the highest order, but when you’ve got Shawn Wayans wringing every last drop of physical comedy possible and Jennifer Carpenter’s hysterical over-the-top delivery of lines like “SOMEBODY THROW SHAMU BACK IN THE OCEAN!” it works. Plus, for as all-over-the-map as the jokes can be, the film never really tips over into meanness, which means the inevitable reveal of there being a heart after all convinces instead of feeling forced. In many respects, the film has become more indefensible in recent years – the gay panic, the trans panic, playing Latrell’s lecherousness for laughs is rather uncomfortable in our #MeToo times – but it’s also gotten equally more biting – White women like those in the film overwhelmingly electing Trump to office, plus taking even a cursory trip to The Root will find you a glut of White women being The Worst to Black people.
So, yeah, I think White Chicks is brilliant and sorely underrated, actually.
Mamma Mia! (Monday 23rd)
Dir: Phyllida Lloyd
Boy, did this test my ABBA fandom something fierce. Listen, I didn’t want to hate this. I love ABBA, I love musicals, I love light nonsensical fluff, and I love enjoyably bad films. But I need a film to meet me halfway, here. Mamma Mia! is atrocious, but it’s atrocious because absolutely zero effort had been put in in any capacity. There’s no choreography, shots don’t make any logical sense, characters are inconsistent and dumber than multiple industrial sized bags of rocks, the songs often don’t fit the threadbare plot, the few cast members who can sing instead get relegated in favour of a collective effort to stretch out that scene where Alan Partridge tries to sing The Carpenters to feature-length, it goes on for almost two hours for no reason, and, despite filming in goddamn Greece, everything looks super flat and cheap and dreary. Instead of being ‘turn your brain off’ campy guilty fun, it instead feels actively contemptuous, relying on the viewer having such a Pavlovian response to “Dancing Queen” that they’ll accept shoddy soulless shite. It’s still just about on the side of ‘would be fun to riff on with drunk friends,’ but also why would I ever want to watch this again when we now have…
Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again (Tuesday 24th)
Dir: Ol Parker
So, it’s almost like putting in the barest modicum of effort can make something kind of enjoyable to watch. Who knew! Genuinely, I found myself exclaiming out loud in surprise to no-one in particular during the first all-out number of the film, “holy shit, that’s some actual choreography and shot composition!” Soon after, I found myself legitimately laughing at lines like “Be still, my beating vagina,” and I realised there was some actual wit in the screenplay. Later still, they redid “Waterloo” – yeah, despite ABBA having a long and deep library of fantastic songs, Here We Go Again still reuses a few stalwarts regardless – and I was struck by the fact that Lily James is a really good singer and a shockingly good mimic of Meryl Streep. By the time that the younger versions of Tanya and Rosie made their way to prequel Greece, I had surrendered and admitted to myself that this was actually all rather fun.
Now, I’m not about to head off and join the growing chorus from certain critical corners in proclaiming this to be genuinely great – it’s still too long, some of the singing is below-par in a non-endearing way, Sophie and Skye are still some of the blandest leads in any musical I have ever seen, and I can’t help but wish they’d dropped that whole framework and instead beefed up and fixated solely on young Donna. But, for the deliberately low-key frothy trifle that it’s aiming to be, it does work and there is an infectious charm to proceedings. New writer-director Ol Parker combines the deliberate rough-edges camp of the first Mamma Mia! with actual production values, quality acting, and legitimate choreography and cinematography – the latter in ways that take advantage of the medium of film without sacrificing coherency or becoming slapdash and amateurish – and the resulting effort leads to a sequel that’s genuine fun and very easy to like.
Man, if you’d told me at the start of the year that I’d regard Incredibles II and Mamma Mia! 2 on about equal footing with one another, I’d have called you braindead. This weird-ass year…
Hotel Artemis (Tuesday 24th)
Dir: Drew Pearce
Don’t have much to say here because there isn’t much to say about Hotel Artemis, although for once I mean this as a compliment. Artemis is an intentionally modest, simple, character-driven alt-drama piece that prides aesthetics, world building and overall feel of cool above all else, and it succeeds completely at those aims. I really like the visual design and cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon (he of various Park Chan-wook features) sells the hell out of the interplay between low-tech high-tech sci-fi embellishments (it’s an alternate near-future but the technology featured still looks ramshackle and achievable). Pearce’s dialogue is snappy and his characters are all nice and distinct variations of asshole, which should be expected given his association to Shane Black. The cast are all having great fun with good chemistry. When action finally turns up, it’s competently filmed and at times stylish, and the film as a whole is in and out within 90 minutes without ever sagging or threatening to outstay its welcome. I have a special soft spot for movies like this, so I had a damn great time with it; it’s 2018’s Free Fire.
Callum Petch is gonna sin for his medicine.