Deloreans, little wooden boys, violent convulsions, and the start of my Year-End catch-up season.
There are a number of reasons as to why I don’t have many people around to my house. My Mum and her overbearingness, plus the still residual awkwardness of her boyfriend living and co-owning the house we moved to in 2015. My disgust and shame over continuing to live in Scunthorpe, a miserable dead-end stretch of town filled with often unpleasant people and nothing of any interest to do. Wanting to hold off until I got my own place as a chance to assert some kind of independence and express myself more freely and fully. Those, I feel, are all perfectly good reasons that I can’t do anything about for the time being. There is another, though, one which I do need to work on and which is focussed on my anxiety: I get really caught up in being a host of things.
Not in a “diva drama-alert Bridezilla” type of way, although that was particularly an issue growing up and which I have worked to overcome in my years. Rather, I get really anxious that I’m a bad host? That people aren’t always having sufficient amounts of fun at an event I’m in charge of or not engaging with one another and such and that this reflects a failure on my part because they’ve given their time to come and hang out with me etc. At parties and hang out stuff with friends, this manifests as my alternately pushing the thing slightly more or (more likely) apologising profusely for dragging someone along to something subpar or disappointing, followed by mentally beating myself up over how it all went even if that person insisted they were fine because what if they weren’t and they were just being nice to me to avoid hurting my feelings etc. etc. On home visits, however, I kind of freeze because I don’t do much and I think of myself as extremely boring and long stretches of time with other people without a conversation makes me feel like I’m being an antisocial asshole (because I had periods where I was kind of an antisocial asshole).
Therefore, my anxiety has a field day with this stuff. It did so when I was at uni and invited a few of my online friends over to my flat for a weekend at different times, which threw the realisations that I am incredibly boring, have a limited range of conversation topics, and don’t like talking about myself because then it gets really negative and I fear that will push people away from me into sharper relief. It does so in the (very rare) times I invite people around to my current house for visits when my Mum is off on holiday as Mac can only function as a conversation centre for so long despite his many adorable faces and behaviours. And it did so this past weekend when I invited one of my friends from uni over for company and an eventual road trip to go see Sorry to Bother You.
Again, none of this are my friend’s faults – and if any of them are reading this, please don’t feel bad or anything, it’s not your fault, that’s not my intention, and there’s nothing you could do to stop me being me. My brain, and all of its heavy attendant baggage, has simply wired itself into a manner where I am incapable of just turning off, enjoying nice things like seeing my friends, and being happy. It constantly feels the need to apologise for the lack of activities or entertainment options, for not being a better conversationist, for not anticipating that someone needs/wants another drink before they ask or even realise they did, for being so unremittingly boring. That’s the self-flagellation I give for perceived slights, actual slights like having to mentally check out for an hour in order to finish some deadline-nearing work I hadn’t completed yet get 40 lashings minimum! I’m constantly second-guessing other people, trying to put myself in their shoes and usually missing the point, which effectively means I’ve swapped out one kind of awful selfish party host behaviour for the exact opposite. Still, that’s something which can’t be fixed without first-hand effort and experience on my part, so check back in 20 years when I’m finally hosting my first flat-warming party to see how I’m getting on with getting out of my stupid awful head.
Here’s what I’ve been watching this week.
A Northern Soul (Friday 7th)
Dir: Sean McAllister
Thanks to BBC Two for sticking this on television before I lock in my End of Year lists rather than after, thereby allowing me to actually watch it. I’m in two minds about A Northern Soul. On the one hand, I really liked it. It’s always weird to see yourself or your life immortalised at least partially on film – here meaning: it’s super strange to see places in Hull that I frequent, and specific events in the city from 2017 that I went to, being featured in a proper film that other people will actually see – but it’s also kind of refreshing. McAllister himself came from a working class background and, unlike other “working class” directors that try to tell the stories of their people, is still working class even after becoming a successful filmmaker, so A Northern Soul carries a real feel for Northern working class life. The dead-end mundanity of low-paying factory jobs, the curious bewilderment of many residents over the City of Culture events, busting well-intentioned myths about a magical sense of community by those living such lives in such places. He’s clearly trying to redress a portrait of Northern working class life as either a wretched hive of scum and villainy or a pitiful parade of misery and injustice, and the fact that he does so with passion instead of condescension is what makes his efforts admirable.
That said… I kind of think he fails at those aims? Here’s the thing, and baring in mind I have not seen any of his other documentaries: McAllister is a really heavy-handed documentarian. He’s got a keen eye for the details and footage to include that other filmmakers would either ignore or omit – I, for example, got a firm indicator of my formerly working class Mum’s shift over into middle class over the years by her apoplectic response to Steve (our central figure) casually littering during a heart-to-heart conversation with one of his Beats Bus kids, which resultantly drew my attention to that detail I otherwise would have taken for granted. But as an interviewer and a narrator, he’s extremely forceful and borderline-manipulative. Sean and Steve Arnott were friends long before Sean decided to start filming Hull for the year – the doc ends up focussing predominately on Steve and his Beats Bus project – so that explains why the two are constantly conversing with one another, but there are multiple instances where Sean is practically dragging Steve towards the quote he wants him to say. Said quotes usually take the form of “[x issue relating to the lives of working class people living in poverty] is wrong and unfair” so that the audience knows when to tut and shake their heads at the injustices of society in much the same way, say, a Channel 4 doc on the same subject by one of those former/non-working class directors would do.
Ditto his narration which is portentous and booming, like Louis Theroux without any of the humour, and, even in the non-downer sketches, further makes A Northern Soul harder to separate in tone and function from something like Benefits Street even with the good intentions. Admittedly on that last point, I don’t really know how else McAllister could have avoided this – his voice is his voice and can’t be helped, it’s clear that he only chose to focus solely on Steve late into production so time jumps needed to be covered, and replacing the narration with title cards would have been even more condescending – but because he’s been so vocal in his aims with this documentary, it’s hard for me to ignore how far short he ultimately ends up falling. So, not great, but still an enjoyable watch at least. And as someone who spent much of the childhood working class, and still identifies with it despite certain (minor but not insignificant) changes in his parents’ financial situations over the years, I really did relate to and appreciate the picture that McAllister was trying to paint here.
Pinocchio (Saturday 8th)
Dirs: Ben Sharpsteen, Hamilton Luke
It’s really obvious how much old Disney movies like Pinocchio have to stall for time in order to hit feature-length when you get older and start paying any modicum of attention to them. Of course, in some ways, one can read them as less “stalling for time” and more “playing to the crowds of the day.” Film was still a relatively new medium in the late 30s, still at least partly indebted to the vaudeville and theatrical forms of entertainment that dominated proceedings before, and much of those opening 30 mins with sequences like Geppetto opening the window or the dance with a non-living Pinocchio or the search for intruders play in a very panto-esque manner. They’re broad, like the shorts Disney cut their teeth on, and they’re also blatantly marking time to get this up to feature-length. Ditto Disney’s “look at our shit!” moments involving long sweeping pans of gorgeously detailed environments, multiplane cameras, bits like Jiminy Cricket addressing the audience in front of a light with a perfectly-synchronised shadow at just the right angle.
None of these things are bad, for the record. Pinocchio is great, I love it! I just get fascinated by stuff like this. Seeing how nascent this kind of storytelling was back in the day, how certain sequences and gags and characters would be cut, trimmed, or heavily revised today – perhaps, for example, with 100% less Jewish imagery and analogues in Honest John and the Stromboli travelling show (here slightly reimagined as a prescient metaphor for child actors working in the studio system of Golden Age Hollywood) – how marked out sections designed to show off technological advances that would have blown everyone’s minds back in 1940 look quaint and stalling today (because that kind of thing always does). Animation, especially classic animation, is something I actually prefer to see the seams in, at least a little bit. My Disney Blu-Ray collection means that I now can’t watch these films without seeing the differences between animated elements in a scene and the background they’re animated on (the definition in colours can tell you what parts are going to be interacted with in that shot and which will remain untouched) and I genuinely adore that. It invests in me a greater appreciation for the medium and the ungodly effort that goes into it.
Nativity Rocks! (Sunday 9th)
Dir: Debbie Isitt
Debbie Isitt thinks that the plight of a Syrian refugee separated from his father and stranded alone in England with no means of help is equal to that of a very, very, very, very, very rich kid who has no friends and whose parents work too much to spend time with him. Put a pin in this, we’re gonna discuss it more at the start of January.
Sorry to Bother You (Sunday 9th)
Dir: Boots Riley
It’s now a dogfight for my #1 spot for 2018. No comments on the film itself this time since we’re nearing Listmas. Just wanted to mention that Sorry to Bother You finally came out over here in the UK, I saw it again, and adored it yet again. Also that seeing this movie with friends and other people is absolutely the way to go. In addition to my aforementioned friend who came up for the weekend, I’d arranged to trek out with another friend (who himself rounded up a group of his friends) that had been dying to see it basically all year and their collective reactions added so much to Riley’s deliberately provocative grace notes. The first appearances of WorryFree propaganda had everyone nearly falling out of their chair, the Temptations line got the biggest laughs of the night, they were almost ready to riot at the “rap” scene at Steve Lift’s party in a manner I had to chalk up as playing on their own personal experiences, and The Reveal brought about actual full-on “WHAT THE FUCK?!”s just like I and everyone else at LFF had back in October. If I could’ve, I would have done that Game of Thrones Red Wedding thing where I, the knowledgeable one who kept insisting to the group that they weren’t ready to deaf ears, instead set up a chair angled at them to solely watch their reactions. Of course, then I would have missed Sorry to Bother You and that just would not do. What a fucking film.
Nominate Sorry to Bother You for Best Picture, you cowards!
The Fits (Monday 10th)
Dir: Anna Rose Holmer
Beguiling. That’s the word I’d use to describe Anna Rose Holmer’s debut feature. Sitting at a crossroads between coming of age drama, mystery thriller, and supernatural arthouse horror, The Fits is an intoxicating mood piece about a young black tomboy trying to get in touch with her feminine side and find acceptance in a girl group after being drawn to the dance team at her local community centre. It’s compact, clocking in at barely 70 minutes, and spare, the cinematography making usage of much negative space and long stretches of film going without dialogue, and at times unnerving, Holmer filming the titular inexplicable fits in a dreamlike haze and the score (courtesy of Danny Bensi and Saunder Juuriaans) milking that bassoon for all its worth. Royalty Hightower, who plays the lead, is a great anchor for proceedings, Holmer quietly builds a haunting sense of place and economic status in the ghost town of Lincoln, and the movie as a whole never feels half-formed or overlong or rushed or anything like that.
I’m just not sure I get it? Part of that is by intention. The Fits is rather abstract and therefore has no plans to actually explain the mystery of what’s causing these violent fits – Holmer even sets up a Flint, Michigan parallel as a possible reason in the early stages only to explicitly shoot it down later on. They’re instead something strange and unknowable that begins terrifying the all-female dance team only for them to slowly welcome and embrace their onset. I think it’s a metaphor for maturity and an awakening of some kind? Of finding acceptance in a group? Of embracing change instead of resisting it? Again, it’s unclear and I think that may come from my being a White man unable to comprehend how these physical and psychological changes and tumults affect young Black women. Not knowing doesn’t spoil the movie in any way for me, the filmmaking is strong enough that I feel the mood carries it through regardless, it just leaves me a bit removed. Gonna have to do some reading about this later.
Back to the Future (Tuesday 11th)
Dir: Robert Zemeckis
…I guess I’m that guy who doesn’t like Back to the Future? Rewatching the film for the first time in at least a decade, I actually found myself cringing through much of it in a “why the hell am I watching this in the middle of Listmas Season?” fashion. As to why, that’s a bit harder to explain. It’s not because the film’s aged poorly (although it has in some respects), it’s not because of modern day wokeness revolving around Marty McFly inventing Rock & Roll, it’s not because the film’s a relentlessly referenced and parodied classic so it can’t hit as strongly as it could back in 1985. It’s more due to movie feel, which is personal and therefore considered bad criticism since you can’t root it in either objective fact or rational explanation – which also makes it rather surface-level as criticism and is why many online film reviewers/budding critics often suck at their jobs, since films that fail on feel then typically get ripped to shreds over supposed logical inconsistencies and other surface-level critiques that completely miss the point of criticism and etc. etc. Nevertheless, on certain good days I feel I am above-average at this whole thing, so here’s me trying to properly explain why BttF just kind of repelled me.
Two words diametrically opposed to one another: corny, mean-spirited. You might think that something corny can’t also be mean-spirited, since corny works are often eager-to-please, to comfort the viewer in a relentlessly upbeat and joyous ball of non-threatening positivity that triggers base stimuli like a chimp triggers a button that provides a new banana. Corniness seems antithetical to meanness, yet the two exist together in Back to the Future and their extreme contrasts create a film that I found to be deeply unpleasant. Now, of course the film is corny, it’s a Robert Zemeckis movie. Steven Spielberg’s protégé is effectively Spielberg but minus any sense of restraint, and that’s really saying something since Spielberg is one of the most bleeding-heart and eager-to-please filmmakers to ever pick up the bullhorn. So Zemeckis crafts some excellent setpieces that are both extremely fun and properly tense, like the skateboard chase and the lightning storm that forms the movie’s climax, but he’ll chase them with absolutely embarrassing storytelling contrivances and beats of extreme bluntness and borderline tastelessness purely because he values positive audience reactions above anything else. That’s why pretty much every anachronistic reference made by Marty in 1955 just drew drawls of embarrassment from me, although Zemeckis at least has the decency to largely front-load the movie with them rather than drag them out – it would be another decade before he’d run this into the ground by making an entire awful movie out of repeating the lame Marvin Berry gag (lameness being why I hate that bit so much rather than the oblivious racism).
But then you’ve got those corny gags about Pepsi Free and Marty inadvertently inspiring Goldie to run for mayor some day rubbing up awfully next to plots involving falsified sexual assaults, might making right, overblown meek nerd stereotypes based heavily on “nice guy” concepts that I’ve found in recent years to be kind of icky, and that horrible, horrible changed-Present ending. Now, it’s not that these opposites can’t click, you can even make a point about the ugly underside of America’s romanticising of its 50s “glory days” by doing so, but Zemeckis still directs the entire movie as a wide-angle crowdpleaser. Marty’s plan to fake a sexual assault in order to ensure his young Mom and Dad get together is wholesome and fun, George’s perverse spying on women in his neighbourhood is an endearing character trait emphasising his social inadequacies rather than deeply troubling, George socking Biff in the face giving him the bullish self-confidence to reimagine himself in the Present as the perfect upper-middle-class Reagan-era father, stuff like that. It’s the playing of everything as harmless fun for all the family that really rankles me, cos it feels so dishonest and disingenuous, curdling everything into something much meaner and borderline contemptuous. The attempted rape by Biff and save by George feels airlifted from a Paul Verhoeven movie despite the wildly ill-fitting tones.
Now, this is not to say that there aren’t parts of Back to the Future that I like; Zemeckis makes good setpieces, Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd are fun, “The Power of Love” is a bop. But the film as a whole just leaves me feeling icky. Not a fan.
Tully (Wednesday 12th)
Dir: Jason Reitman
Bare minimum here because, as of this posting, I may end up touching on it in my Year-End series, albeit in a good way rather than a Nativity Rocks! way, and I don’t want to repeat myself. Tully is great! Jason Reitman should lock down Diablo Cody to write all of his movies for the rest of time because these two really are made for each other, and also maybe make it a polyamorous creative partnership with Charlize Theron who, whilst I adore as rocking badasses (Mad Max and Atomic Blonde) and scenery-chewing agents of chaos (the otherwise dire Huntsman movies), has now turned in her two very best performances when working with the pair. Reitman combines his unsubtle directorial style with the mundane horror and biting wit of Cody’s script about the exhaustion of motherhood – which takes several turns I won’t spoil into a land much more existentially terrifying because of its ruthless honesty – plus Theron’s outstanding and brilliantly subtle central performance into a near-perfect character study. The big reveal doesn’t hit like many seemed to think it should have, but the more I reflect on it the more fitting I think that non-socking truly is. It’s not meant to be a game-changing blindside, I even guessed it almost immediately, but instead a moment of eye-opening clarity for two characters and Reitman not reigning himself in for it would have sacrificed a lingering haunting impact for a more immediate but less honest one. Really great stuff.
I also want it on record that somebody out there appreciated the montage of Marlo and Tully driving from the outskirts of New York into the city, where the distance and time elapsed are represented to the viewer by how far through Cyndi Lauper’s 1983 classic She’s So Unusual we are. That person is me, I appreciated it.
Revenge (Wednesday 12th)
Dir: Coralie Fargeat
FUCK ME SIDEWAYS! Same deal as with Tully here, but, sweet Jesus, is Revenge a white-knuckle film and a half! I have absolutely no idea whether it does manage to be a feminist decon-recon take on the (I’d argue inherently misogynistic) rape-revenge movie – its message, that even its protagonist (who would otherwise be punished in mainstream horror movies for being self-centred and vain and recklessly sexual) deserves not just revenge but to not be put in these situations in the first place, is more implicit than explicit. That’s something I’m going to have to go read more about from more authoritative voices (like with The Fits) and discuss with my female feminist horror friends after they see it. But even discounting that aspect, this is still one hell of a properly nasty-ass B-movie! Like if Jeremy Saulnier directed I Spit on Your Grave with the visual palette of Michael Bay and the gore reserves of vintage Sam Raimi. Idiots will call this an “arthouse” take on the genre when in reality it’s a visceral crowdpleaser shorn of anything extraneous. It’s unbearably tense, gruesomely violent, goosed with some expertly-timed jolts, and carries a streak of pitch-black humour that, in many respects, puts it not a million miles away from 2018’s breakout cult action-horror, Mandy. I’m already anticipating the day this gets ‘re-discovered,’ as it were, and the pair can rule over 2018’s entries in the cult cinema pantheon side-by-side cos this rocks!
Fuck wasting $10 million on Bryan Singer, put Coralie Fargeat on the Red Sonja movie and let her go to town on that bad boy! I mean, fuck Bryan Singer anyway, but especially in this situation.
Josie and the Pussycats (Thursday 13th)
Dirs: Harry Elfont, Deborah Kaplan
There is no way in hell that this should have worked. Taking on turn-of-the-millennium Capitalism, specifically through a ruthless indictment of the teen pop TRL craze and the music industry’s ruthless exploitation of both artists and consumers, one that arches its brow so severely it’s at risk of snapping off the film’s face altogether and taking flight, existing in this weird realm where it appears to tell its target audience that they’re stupid idiots for buying into all this but also cares too much for its intended older audience to give it a chance, as basically Fight Club for teenage girls? Josie and the Pussycats shouldn’t work. Maybe it still doesn’t, but I laughed my ass off and loved it all the same! In many ways, I feel Josie kind of resembles a live-action Daria in the way that it mixes snide snarky commentary about the insidious cynical and desperate moves of corporations trying to leech money off of their target audience, training them to be little more than mindless consuming drones (just going to leave this clip of Daria describing “edgy” here), with sincere earnest calls to action and the value of caring. The big reveal, after all, though couched in humour is about how everyone, and the film does mean everyone, collectively buys into the system in an effort to hide their insecurities and and flaws in some way because the system has been designed from the ground up to prey upon them regardless of your age, gender, or levels of evilness.
It’s easy to question whether this is just a defence mechanism. Josie is, after all, the feature film version of the popular comic and cartoon spin-off of the mega-successful Archie comics brand, coming out exactly at the point when TRL, Backstreet Boys, and Britney Spears were at the peak of their popularity and just a few years removed from the mega-domination of the Spice Girls. Again, drown something in enough irony and you’ve seemingly immunised yourself from any and all potential criticism. But Elfont and Kaplan clearly cared. They cared a heck of a lot and, whilst critiquing with stinging viciousness, they did their homework in a way that betrays a kind of admiration for this glossy vapid soulless time, or at least an admiration of its openness. The pair effectively weaponise the very tropes and stylistic tics of corporate-mandated teen media – the gloriously unsubtle product placement, the day-glo hyper-reality of the production design, the fish-eye lenses and music video-style direction that makes several passages inseparable from the real thing, the songs alternating between dead-on Max Martin impersonations and highly-prescient mall-pop-rock (in the vein of Avril Lavigne and early P!nk) that the record industry would soon move onto – back at their targets with gleeful aplomb.
At times, the movie can get too cutesy-poo in its methods, calling attention directly to itself in ways that definitely feel left over from the irony-drowned 90s, but this is one intelligent movie. It’s also just an absolute goddamn riot from start to finish. You’ve got Alan Cumming and Parker Posey (here effectively inventing Elizabeth Banks’ entire comedic persona) in a battle to the death for who can gloriously chew their way through the most scenery. You’ve got a lovable central trio in Rachael Leigh-Cook (whose being a dead-ringer for Emma Bunton here kind of heightens the joke), Rosario Dawson and Tara Reid. You’ve got an audacious free-wheeling plot that sings with a sense of fun which energises the usual beats of a “the record industry is evil” story. You’ve got those songs which are genuinely brilliant slices of pop-rock even once you get past the joke and examine them on their own merits as songs. You’ve got Carson Daly willingly taking the piss out of himself which is nice.
I still have no idea who Josie and the Pussycats is meant to be for or if it even fully works, but I love this magnificent mess all the same. It’s certainly far preferable to Bradley Cooper’s A Star is Born, anyhow.