Aliens, pirates and scientists, spunky reporters, and the boxing match that ended the Cold War.
Jesus, where has the time gone? Plotting to get one more of these out before we trap ourselves in the inbound Listmas Season, although it may be a struggle since the Year-End Catch-up/Rewatch line-up this year is A LOT longer than usual thanks to this past year and I don’t want to run the risk of repeating myself when those articles start coming along. Plus, lots to pen, life situations to sort, etc. My Listmas will start around about December 21st with the traditional Top 50 Songs list, so don’t worry about me joining those mad bastards who start putting out Best of the Year lists of things on December 1st, or even worse before December has even started, when there’s still a full month of the year left. It’s anarchy and unbecoming and I want it on record that any critic or publication that starts posting such things before AT LEAST December 14th will be subjected to a very thorough side-eying from yours truly! I love making lists, too, but let’s be goddamn reasonable about this shit, huh? You’re all the reason why nobody went and saw Widows!
Here’s what I’ve been watching this week.
The Handmaiden (Wednesday 21st)
Dir: Park Chan-wook
I genuinely don’t think I have seen the Theatrical Cut of The Handmaiden yet despite having now seen this film three times. Supposedly the version I saw at the London Film Festival back in 2016 was 144 minutes according to the Festival programme that I still have a copy of like an unprofessional hack (the Extended Cut is 168), but when I finally got the chance to rewatch the film in June of 2017 – delayed by both nonsensical release window disparity bullshit and the film not playing outside of London until a special Hull Independent Cinema screening, cos fuck the Midlands/North of England, amiright – I didn’t actually notice any new scenes. Like, I recalled basically all of the film from that first screening down in London, so maybe I still haven’t seen what the Theatrical Cut looks like? Quite honestly, even though I now own it thanks to Curzon Artificial Eye releasing both versions together in a reduced boxset price (that I picked up whilst down at this year’s LFF because I guess that’s the centre of my life’s orbit now), I hope that I never do since I can’t imagine the film in any other way. It’s nearly three hours and the only time it feels even remotely flabby is at the very end with the basement, and even then I get why it’s so drawn-out.
God, The Handmaiden is so brilliant! Now that I’m able to watch it in the ‘comfort’ of my own home, I decided to keep tabs on how long each of the film’s three parts were and ended up shocked to discover that Part I was a full 75 minutes, because it barely felt like 45! That’s the Park Chan-wook difference; the man is a master at purposeful propulsive storytelling, capable of making even the most minor of conversations burst with energy and, in this case, palpable sexual tension, and he’s clearly having the time of his life directing this thing. Each segment of the film shifts in tone and arguably even genre, but that first part especially is genuinely funnier and wittier than a large swath of British and American comedy features, Kim Tae-ri being a master of the perfectly-timed pratfall. That fun and propulsion even remains once the film starts properly engaging in its furious critiques of the hetero-patriarchy, misogynistic erotica, cultural appropriation, and sexual repression – I can’t believe I ever considered that last sex scene to be gratuitous, this viewing being the one where it finally clicked that it was a call-back to, and agency-focussed reclamation of, “The Sound of Bells on a Windless Night.”
If you haven’t seen The Handmaiden, I genuinely feel like you’re depriving yourself. I don’t know who couldn’t love this film. Make sure to watch the Extended Cut, though. Fastest three hours you’ll ever experience and Curzon fixed the subtitling issue I had with my non-LFF cinema screening – where the subs refused to visually differentiate between Korean and Japanese despite that being one of the main narrative and thematic cruxes of the film – for the Blu-Ray release. If anyone from Curzon Artificial Eye is reading this (for some reason), thanks for that!
Rocky IV (Thursday 22nd)
Dir: Sylvester Stallone
There has only been one properly bad Rocky movie despite them having made seven of the buggers, with an eighth out over here this Friday PUT IT IN MY EYEBALLS, and that one is Rocky V. I really like Rocky III and Rocky IV. They are bad films in the conventional sense, with IV in particular being approximately 50% montage and 15% reused footage from prior Rocky movies – it even stops dead at the 45-minute mark to create its own music video for “No Easy Way Out” by Robert Tepper via both of those techniques – but they’re also gloriously cheesy and oodles of entertainment so I love them anyway. Fact is, I adore me some Rocky, I am one of the easiest marks in the world for a Rocky movie. There’s something about this cast of characters, this underdog tone, coupled with the Reagan-era cartooniness of the overblown 1980s that does it for me every time and whilst, yeah, I vastly prefer when these movies are properly great in the process and Paulie just gets on my goddamn nerves, I’ll still gladly take the well-intentioned but hilariously-simplistic cartoon of Rocky IV over all your Southpaws and Bleed for This’ any day of the week.
As for Rocky IV specifically, I think it’s a sincerely good movie for at least the first 35 minutes? OK, not so much the robot, but Stallone really does hit upon something borderline-poignant with Apollo as this aging retiree who, despite his claims otherwise at the end of Rocky III, really can’t let go of his career as a fighter. He can’t be somebody else’s man, he can’t settle down into his life with a loving wife and like five dogs, he can’t admit that he’s growing old. Apollo suicidally feels that he needs to remain in the spotlight and that’s why he throws himself completely into the fight against Drago, why he needlessly escalates the trash-talk surrounding the fight, and why he can’t take that trash being thrown back at him. To Apollo, growing old as a fighter is to stop fighting and he’s too insecure and blind to see the damage that will spill out across the rest of the Rocky saga. Carl Weathers, an actor I feel is sorely underrated and deserves the kind of 80s legend nostalgia tour so many others have been granted in today’s pop culture, does genuinely excellent work in finding that wounded humanity beneath the cocaine-covered gloss and Apollo’s death may be melodramatic but it lays an excellent foundation for the remainder of the movie to explore the ramifications of…
…that, as you know, the film ignores entirely in favour of endless montages, rehashed and extremely simplistic storytelling, Cold War paranoia, and rendering Saturday Night Live’s parody of Every Boxer’s Girlfriend from Every Boxing Movie Ever completely redundant. Mind you, I can’t discount the movie’s second half entirely since, yeah, there’s almost nothing substantial in there but Stallone’s way with montage is genuinely skilful, condensing a good 45 minutes of storytelling already handled in some way in previous Rockys down to about 10 and largely sans dialogue. And whilst they’re largely cancelled out by the cartoonish simplicity of all the key characters, especially many on the Russian side, Stallone’s sincere attempts to bridge divides between Americans and Russians via a call to unity are rousing in their own rather adorable way. Rocky IV is objectively not a good movie, but I also genuinely enjoy it and not in the usual “good terrible” way.
Definitive Rocky IV Music Power Rankings: “No Easy Way Out” > “Heart’s on Fire” > “Living in America” >>>>>>> “Burning Heart”
Flavors of Youth (Friday 23rd)
Dirs: Li Haoling, Yi Xiaoxing, Yoshitaka Takeuchi
Times like these are why I love only having to score movies as a personal quick reference guide unless I pen something for Set the Tape, whereupon Owen and Tony effectively shove a gun next to my head in order to get a score out of me. 4 stars for Flavors of Youth feels more effusive than I otherwise am whilst 3 stars feels too harsh. This Netflix anthology by CoMix Wave Films, the studio responsible for mega-sensation (that I found to just be alright) Your Name, is largely very good and grasps infrequently at greatness but never fully gets there for me. Predominately, my issue is that each of the film’s three segments try too hard when grasping for profundity and tears, ladling their narratives with so much melodrama and bathos that they come off kind of desperate and cloying. That’s most of all a problem in the first segment, “The Rice Noodles,” a wandering monologue about a young man working in Beijing who charts the course of his life via his favourite dish and is simultaneously too long and too short – too long because the point (you can never truly go home again) becomes clear very quickly and too short because the character whose death the segment’s emotional power revolves around is barely featured, hence it coming off rather cynical and overwrought.
Still, it’s not a bad segment and the two which follow it, “A Little Fashion Show” and “Love in Shanghai,” are much better. “Fashion” never really boils over but I actually found that to be a strength of the segment, centring around the relationship between a pair of sisters that ends up genuinely sweet and has far more to say about the fashion and modelling industries within 20 G-rated minutes than all 117 of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Neon Demon. Whilst “Love in Shanghai” goes overboard on the emotional tearjerking attempts a la “Noodles” and the second half of Your Name, but at least the characters are more fleshed out than in “Noodles” and it’s largely in service of a series of observations about Chinese society. The brutally competitive and standardised educational system, giving one’s life over almost entirely to work, and the country’s attempt to modernise its standards of living being surface-level and amounting to an erasure of traditions plus low-income and aging families – “Love” jumps back and forth between 1999 and 2008, the latter date of which I do not think is in the slightest bit a coincidence given the Beijing Olympics and China’s resultant growth. None of the segments are particularly special or memorable, but they’re all solid efforts and the anthology as a whole is worth checking out, hidden away as it is in the mounds upon mounds of unadvertised Netflix gunk.
Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (Saturday 24th)
Dir: Kerry Conran
Watching Sky Captain, I couldn’t help but think of a general sentiment from Lizzy Goodman’s Meet Me in the Bathroom where the book’s interviewees all collectively believe the reason why The Strokes never pulled off a Nirvana-style bum-rushing of the mainstream was because they were the first through the door and the first ones through the door never make the lasting impact. There were, of course, many other reasons as to why The Strokes never cracked the mainstream – label mismanagement, poor choice of singles, a fast-whipped backlash based on authenticity debates, Room on Fire being Is This It 2.0, Internet file-sharing, most Americans not giving a fuck – but undoubtedly their being the progenitors of a new (old) wave of rock did not help them. It’s never the revolutionaries, it’s more the ones who refine the edges into something more accessible: The Killers, Kings of Leon… The Libertines especially, who formed almost immediately after hearing The Modern Age EP, would take Strokes-ian post-punk-revivalism to #2 on the UK singles chart barely three years after Is This It dropped.
Sky Captain is rather similar to the Strokes’ predicament, in that regard. Having now seen the film, I am pretty adamant that blockbuster filmmaking today would not exist like this if it weren’t for the Conrans’ vision (Kerry the writer-director, Kevin the production designer). How many blockbusters have you seen in even just the last three months where many of the big showcase setpieces take place on largely-green-screened soundstages? The Marvel Cinematic Universe’s entire lifeblood relies on them (and large open fields with enough room for additional CGI goons)! Steven Spielberg set almost two-thirds of his latest movie in them, when he wasn’t just handing those proceedings over to his pre-vis teams! Yeah, we would very likely have reached this point without Sky Captain, general advances in technology and all that, but I really do feel that a whole load of directors and movie producers saw Sky Captain and collectively realised that they had witnessed the future. It was maybe just too big of a leap for 2004 – and the technology was not quite there yet, hence the at-times oppressively bad framing and stiff action sequences – but it wouldn’t take long at all for other filmmakers to smooth the edges into something a lot more mass-market, namely Robert Rodriguez with Sin City in 2005 and Zack Snyder with 300 in 2007, the technology to markedly improve, and bigger-budgets to allow for better set-dressing and BAM! Welcome to 2018 Blockbuster Season in a nutshell! Marvel even translated this film’s throwback whimsy and earnestness from Golden Age comic books into something more palatable!
My thesis comparison breaks down somewhat, though, when the actual film gets brought into the equation because Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow is honestly just not very good. OK, that’s a little harsh: it can be good fun, Angelina Jolie is a riot in her brief cameo, and I really enjoyed its wholesale commitment to aping old adventure serials and late-60s/early-70s B-level sci-fi – visual references to Buck Rogers and Max Fleischer Superman shorts, character dynamics lifted from golden-age Hollywood screwballs, the willingness to dive headfirst into fantastical absurdity akin to works like Doug McClure’s The Land That Time Forgot. But I never got properly swept up in proceedings, always left at a slight distance, and whilst there are tangible faults like the issues with framing and dynamism in the action scenes or Gwyneth Paltrow being half-amazing and half-asleep, my biggest issue is that the film is so slavishly devoted to recreating its influences, warts and all, that it doesn’t bring anything of its own to the table. It’s a quality approximation of works like The War of the Worlds and Flash Gordon, but why wouldn’t I just go watch old Flash Gordons or Fleischer Superman shorts again instead? Hell, why shouldn’t I just rewatch Raiders of the Lost Ark, which beats Sky Captain on almost every conceivable level (although that’s also true of most films), or replay the Uncharted games, since I can interact with those? I’m glad I saw Sky Captain and I appreciate its uniqueness in the blockbuster landscape of the mid-00s, but I also see it as little more than a curio.
Unrelated but, immediately after watching this, I finally started The Good Place because I am determined to achieve Peak Film Twitter despite no longer being on Twitter.
Mac and Me (Monday 26th)
Dir: Stewart Raffill
HOLY SHIT! I thought I had prepared myself, because I knew of Mac and Me by reputation and of course had seen that wheelchair scene – one of my favourite things to do when I’m down, after rewatching every Kristen Bell appearance on The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson, is to rewatch every Paul Rudd appearance on Whatever Conan O’Brien is Hosting This Year – but it turns out I had NO IDEA. I had the same reaction to this that most other people had to seeing The Room for the first time, where it is simultaneously exactly as weird and bad as it was built up to be whilst also being somehow even more so than anybody could effectively communicate (I only felt that about The Room for its first half before it ran out of ideas)! It’s just so… mean and off-putting and weird in such a vile way that I nonetheless could not take my eyes off of. The abusive parenting, the cruelty of the aliens, the relentless product-placement, the nightmarish alien designs, the incongruous rude humour… I am so happy my first brush with this movie was via the new Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode because Jonah’s reaction to THAT was my own ab verbatim, although mine had 1000% more bewildered cackling!
Oh, yeah. This is DEFINITELY going to become a staple of my movie diet, especially with friends! When I get some more who also like watching bewilderingly shitty movies and don’t live several hours’ drives away, anyway.
The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists! (Tuesday 27th)
Dir: Peter Lord
This is a movie the deliberately scores its ALL IS LOST! moment to “Not Crying” by Flight of the Conchords. I love it, duh, even if it only ranks about the middle of the Aardman Feature-Film canon – above Early Man (which I am still immensely disappointed by) and Flushed Away, but below Arthur Christmas and Chicken Run (with Shaun the Sheep Movie and Curse of the Were-Rabbit switching pole position depending on the day). It’s a razor-sharp gagfest that runs entirely on whatever screenwriter Gideon Defoe (based on his children’s books) and Aardman’s murderer’s row of designers and animators (there are more hilarious gags buried in just the background visuals here than in anything Illumination has released in the past three years) deemed most amusing. The animation’s extremely impressive, particularly in the relatively few times the film spends at sea, Hugh Grant effectively started his career renaissance here with what at times amounts to a test-run for his scene-stealing turn in Paddington 2, and it’s just an overall fun time that may pass in and out without leaving a massive impression but there are few finer examples of such works than The Pirates! out there.
Oh, and it’s also a blistering critique of England’s romanticism of its colonialist past and desires to remake the world in its own privileged and egocentric image by deeming anything “exotic” as backwards and outdated, deserving of being literally devoured by the monarch’s might and nothing more. Plus, it’s got a funny chimp who only communicates via flash cards.
Callum Petch would love it if we made it.