Knights, pen-pals, magic feathers, and Malkovich Malkovich Malkovich.
The news has been absolutely fucking terrifying this week. Of course it has, its default state nowadays is to whip up hysteria and fear over every little thing, but these last few days have seen Brexit calamities pile up into overdrive and I keep making the fatal mistake of “caring” instead of doing what everyone else has been and disassociating from world affairs entirely and giving up for the sake of mental health. Good thing I’m not diagnosed with clinical anxiety yet not been prescribed a whole bunch of medication or taught various techniques to stave off the worst of its effects, otherwise my brain would be on fire and barely capable of functioning without a permanent sinking pit in my stomach right now! HA HA HA HAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHH!!!!
Here’s what I’ve been watching this week.
The Kid Who Would Be King (Thursday 7th)
Dir: Joe Cornish
Whomever was responsible for making the trailer to The Kid Who Would Be King probably shouldn’t be in the business of making movie trailers. I am on record as having been utterly perplexed by how bad Joe Cornish’s long-awaited follow-up to 2011’s Attack the Block looked in its pre-release materials, particularly with an utterly embarrassing main trailer, only to sit down in front of the actual movie and find it absolutely delightful! A true throwback Family film with an earnest sense of charm, a magnificent balancing of tone, and strong execution of solid storytelling fundamentals. The kids are all really good, which is always a risk in movies like these but they’re all super-charming and display good comic timing and capable dramatic chops, particularly Dean Chaumoo and, although he’s not actually a kid, the show-stealing Angus Imrie (yes son of Celia). Much like Attack the Block, Cornish’s visual effects are spectacular, he really makes the most of the $50 million budget to craft creepy monsters and believable fantasy effects which outshine even those in films with budgets 4x that.
At two hours, it’s definitely about 20 minutes too long with the narrative getting stuck in a minor rut roughly an hour in, so committed to hitting each major beat of the King Arthur mythos that it goes through the Breaking of the Fellowship motions a few too many times and I feel it could’ve been condensed. But the methods in which it recontextualises and updates said mythos surprisingly never come off as corny, plus Cornish’s slowly-revealed game-plan of subtly deconstructing and commenting upon Chosen One bloodline stories places this in the same lineage of films like The LEGO Movie and The Last Jedi in blockbusters attempting to build better, err, blockbusters. Meanwhile, the central timely political allegory – the present-day economically and socially-divided Britain setting is not just for cutesy Brit-movie window-dressing – manages to be specific enough to resonate in our current nationalistic-Brexit-inbound society but also vague enough to clearly allow the film’s message to be evergreen, whilst the allegory juices up the usual “kids rule and will make everything awesome!” pandering to its target audience into something genuinely powerful and affecting.
So, yeah, shockingly great! I mean, I guess it shouldn’t have been shocking since, y’know, Attack the Block and all that, but major Hollywood studios clearly don’t know how to sell films to people anymore. Except for the Detective Pikachu people; HOW DOES THAT FILM LOOK SO GOOD?!
Fighting with My Family (Thursday 7th)
Dir: Stephen Merchant
At the risk of writing cheques my work ethic and life can’t cash, which is something I’d ordered myself to stop doing this year, I’m going to wait until this becomes available on some form of Home Media before I go fully in on it. To anybody who thinks this is a damning indicator that I disliked the movie, please don’t get the wrong impression: I really, really liked it. Merchant has always been the true talent in the Merchant/Gervais partnership which you can see reflected in a directing style which willingly embraces both the light-hearted working-class dramedy and cheesy underdog sports movie tropes & iconography, and a cast of characters who are largely enjoyable, dynamic and not mere foils of the protagonist lacking lives of their own. He clearly either gets wrestling or understands why others get wrestling since the film works as an effective, if simplified, primer on the ins-and-outs of the artform, treating it with total respect and sincerity – film’s way closer to Netflix’s GLOW than last year’s excretable Walk Like a Panther which, no, I am not going to let everyone forget about. And the cast are uniformly great, headed up by the fast-rising Florence Pugh who just keeps knocking it out of the goddamn park and is so goddamn good here.
Again, I really liked it and I am almost definitely going to watch it a bunch more times in the future. But the reason I’m holding off on “going in” is because I also find the movie utterly fascinating on a meta level in ways I need to see a few more times so as to finesse my thoughts for a coherent article. There is, of course, the much-commented-on fact of it being EXTREMELY WEIRD to witness the WWE being depicted as this utterly-impartial and benevolent corporate entity – although I feel the extent has been somewhat exaggerated since Merchant does slide in some sly commentary on the organisation’s opaqueness in its creative decisions and quietly condemns their active disinterest in women’s wrestling without burying the performers pre-Revolution themselves (which is something WWE writers have often struggled with). But more the ways in which the film does the biopic thing of altering elements of real history into fake history to make a better film, only here it’s real fake history being altered into fake fake history and that’s a disconnect which is SUPER WEIRD to witness as someone who watched the real fake history unfold at the time (and which is equally as easy and cheap to access as watching Fighting with My Family itself). It doesn’t brick the film, again because the film works on its own merits and this is just a side-narrative, but it is something I find utterly fascinating. We’re going to have to discuss this in some way at some time, so put a pin in it.
Captain Marvel (Friday 9th technically)
Dirs: Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck
…*shrugs shoulders*, it’s fine. OK, even I’m starting to think that may be a bit harsh since I’m writing this entry five days after viewing and it is slowly rising in my estimations. Plus I saw it at midnight – which, and this could be me showing my age though I’ve only done midnight screenings thrice, is perhaps the worst way to watch a hotly-anticipated film – in a plush new ODEON Luxe which seats you about a football pitch away from the screen in goddamn reclining leather chairs with footstools and dinner trays like it’s a 5PM TV Movie on a Saturday evening. Admittedly, Captain Marvel was working from some serious disadvantages and perhaps a second viewing in a better equilibrium will make the whole experience ring better. For now: it’s fine, pleasant, entertaining, Goose is fantastic, and I was never particularly moved at any point even when focussing on the micro level of this specific film and blotting out the macro level of the MCU as a whole – which, as I have previously railed about to deaf ears (save my finding out that Patrick (H) Willems and I are basically the same person), has completely fallen apart for me thanks to Infinity War.
I had initially written a whole mess of words here trying to break down why I don’t think the movie works – mainly referring to its terrible opening act and Carol Danvers’ amnesia stunting her character until the very end, much of this film is side characters telling us who Carol is rather than her displaying much personality outside of snarks (which is hardly a rare commodity in MCU characters), despite Brie Larson’s herculean efforts. Except that it’s been a few days on from when I penned that excerpt and my feelings towards the film have warmed up a fair bit since? None of my criticisms have changed and the movie still feels like a 90s blockbuster in both the best and worst ways, but I actively want to see it again rather than feel an obligation to see it again due to being dog-tired on first viewing? Since I’m aiming to get at least one of these out a month from now on and there’s plenty of time before Avengers: Endgame arrives to frustrate me all over again – the latest trailer dropped whilst I finished up this here article and it turns out I’m excited again GODDAMMIT THIS IS ABUSE MARVEL JUST LET ME QUIT – so let’s table serious Alita-length discussion on Captain Marvel until next time we meet.
…must make sure not to do said rewatch on the same day I see Jordan Peele’s Us because that definitely won’t help it any.
Mary and Max (Saturday 9th)
Dir: Adam Elliot
Yeah, I am in absolutely no way ready to talk extensively about this one yet. What a surprise, the super-wry dramedy about a pen-pal relationship between a socially-maladjusted & parentally-neglected young girl (who grows up to repeat the spectres of her upbringing) in Australia and a hyper-anxious & clinically-depressed man with Asperger’s in New York City completely and totally destroyed me. Full-on ugly-sobbing at its complexity, empathy, honesty, and beauty. The awkwardly-proportioned and slightly deformed Claymation is an absolute treat, the cinematography and layout (by Gerald Thompson) is some of the finest I have ever seen in this subset of the animation medium, Adam Elliot’s wit is genuinely disarming and impeccably timed – aided by Barry Humphries’ narration reminding me of Kevan Brighting’s work on The Stanley Parable – and it’s just… so, so astoundingly beautiful. I genuinely cannot express in words right now how this film affected me as a depressed socially-maladjusted person with Asperger’s, but just know that this is one of those films I will forever be unable to shake and want to ask hundreds of questions of its writer-director whilst gushing non-stop. Someday I’ll talk properly about this, I promise, but I’m not there yet. Just typing this extract is causing me to well up uncontrollably.
Dear lord, 2009 may actually have been the greatest year ever for animated features, thinking on it.
Isn’t it Romantic (Sunday 10th)
Dir: Todd Strauss-Schulson
Since I already used up my Shrek comparison in the latest Box Office Report – which, don’t forget, you can always (for now) catch a fortnight early/read on-time over at Set the Tape – here’s a different and somewhat less-charitable starting block for my thoughts. At its worst, Isn’t it Romantic comes off like a dissertation by a performative Leftie going to great pains to explain to you, in excessively-cited and often smug detail, why rom-coms are Dumb and Stupid and Problematic™ before concluding with a “yeah, but I love them anyway.” The 80-minute movie equivalent of an insecure dudebro having to justify why his DVD collection contains a copy of Mean Girls despite the fact that nobody but him considers it a thing which needs justifying. For every joke at the expense of the form that lands and shows legit ingenuity, such as Natalie’s every attempt to have sex with Blake immediately cutting to the morning after without her actually managing to get any because almost all rom-coms are chaste to a fault, there are just as many which amount entirely to pointing at a thing and yelling about it being stupid with no actual joke, such as Natalie managing to skip the makeover montage by yelling about it or the slo-mo run to the church at the climax where she calls out the trope by name and (wait for it) yells “SO DUMB.”
There is a massive insecure stick lodged up the arse of Erin Cardillo, Dana Fox (who has legit rom-com experience with What Happens in Vegas and the sitcom Ben & Kate among others) and Katie Silberman’s screenplay and it can, at points, veer over into insufferability. Regardless, the film just about pulls through. For one, Rebel Wilson and Adam DeVine are extremely charming pros who have done this particular dance enough times that they can deliver lines and spark chemistry like second nature, whilst Liam Hemsworth continues the Hemsworth family tradition of being way more interesting as a comic character actor than a bland hunksome leading man. For two, Strauss-Schulson, although he goes overboard on the shakycam during our story’s prelude, has an absolute ball playing with the visual designs of a cheap, over-lit, shoddily-put-together rom-com in order to mine additional jokes at almost every possible turn; it truly is nice to watch a comedy which gives a shit about the comic potential and importance of decent shot and scene composition. For three, the script’s gags and messages land just as often as they don’t which isn’t the worst ratio to have. And for four, when the film mercifully gets out of its own way, it does still work as sweet little rom-com in its own right.
Worth a shot, particularly since it’s on Netflix everywhere other than the USA and Canada because why put in the effort to market a film that serves an underappreciated niche and might get some vital Date Night dollars for a market lacking in options when you can just shunt it onto a streaming service for a flat fee and call it a day?
Being John Malkovich (Monday 11th)
Dir: Spike Jonze
Charlie Kaufman really likes operating on the absolute razor’s edge of stuff, doesn’t he? The thin lines separating empathy and sympathy, understanding and endorsing, off-beat and quirk, progressive sexually and casually regressive – I still have no idea what to make of the often fluid sexuality and trans-themes of Being John Malkovich, definitely need to seek out writings by more qualified authors for that. Even if I somehow didn’t know Kaufman by name and reputation, I would’ve pegged this as from the pen of one of the main creative forces behind Anomalisa (still one of the decade’s best films btw) pretty much as soon as the orientation video explaining the bizarre and definitely “bullshit” history behind Floor 7 ½ was done and Craig faceplants an attempt to talk to Maxine. Thoroughly enjoyed this. Kaufman’s script is loaded with psychosexual and philosophical subtext (sometimes plain text) in ways that makes this a better horror-comedy than most actual horror-comedies, Spike Jonze’s direction has all the zip and fearlessness of his music videos without going full Michel Gondry into style for style’s sake, and I think this may be my favourite John Cusack performance; a repellent pitiable miserable entitled waste of a human being without becoming truly unpleasant to watch.
Manhattan (Tuesday 12th)
Dir: Woody Allen
Yikes on the whole Isaac and Tracey thing given what we know about Woody Allen – both the allegations surrounding Dylan Farrow and the proven ickiness surrounding his relationship with Soon-Yi Previn – but other than that I have to begrudgingly admit to enjoying this immensely. I’ve railed against Smart Person Comedies on this site before, films which are ostensibly comedies yet lack anything in the way of proper jokes and are instead so preoccupied with appearing “intellectual” that they end up utterly self-involved and sans any trace of wit or artistry (go here for better detail on this), but the better Woody Allen films sidestep that pothole by being properly funny. Allen’s better works do tackle complex moral themes and throw themselves into heady name-dropping intellectualism but he still takes the time to arrange those themes into dramatically satisfying narratives and the intellectualism into proper jokes the viewer doesn’t need to have taken three Masters Degrees in English Lit and Psychology to appreciate.
It’s not even a “high-brow/low-brow” divide going on, either. Witness, for example, when Isaac & Tracey are walking with Yale & Mary and the former start drifting apart physically from the latter when those two are off name-dropping obscure artists/theorists neither of the former understand or hold opinions they don’t agree with; it’s a brilliantly subtle piece of visual comedic storytelling. Allen’s also more willing to let the air out of his blatant author avatars rather than mindlessly and smugly agreeing with them all the time, unlike his lesser followers – Isaac shares Allen’s dislike in writing comedy for television but his attempted moral stand (by quitting) is played for pompous laughs and Isaac immediately regrets his impulsive decision. There’s also legitimate purposeful cinematography going on here (courtesy of Gordon Willis) which is clearly a foreign concept to people like Noah Baumbach and Sally Potter. So, whilst Allen himself is tiresome and the Isaac/Tracey relationship isn’t anywhere near as romantic as Allen seems to think it is – although a superb Mariel Hemmingway sells the hell out of it to such an extent that it sometimes does come close to shaking off the ick factor – Manhattan is still pretty damn great.
Dumbo (Wednesday 13th)
Dir: Ben Sharpsteen
Dumbo, the heartwarming tale of a huckster carnie taking advantage of a physically deformed, impressionable and trusting, vulnerable child whose an outcast and social pariah in order to further his way into glorious riches by exploiting said child’s deformity for fun and profit with little real care or interest for the wants or needs of said child he’s gleefully pimping out. And it’s also super sexist. For the kids! Revisiting this for the first time since I was a particularly young child, I was blown away by how super messed up this film is. Admittedly, this was not by intention on the part of the filmmakers, best embodied by the racial stereotypes of the black crows – the leader of whom, although not named in-film, was dubbed Jim by the Disney staff, JIM CROW – the only truly nice characters in the movie outside of Dumbo and his poor mother whom the film goes out of its way to make likeable but are still racial stereotypes nonetheless. It’s merely a reflection of the innocence(?) of the times and nobody really thinking too hard about how certain aspects can be reflected. Certainly more understandable in a 1941 film than, say, a 2017 film; The Greatest Showman is just Dumbo but longer and worse and with terrible songs.
Anyways, I appreciate the film for the animation (even if the recycled assets from prior works to save on budget are very obvious), the fact that it’s only an hour (even if that hour is still clearly padded), the few standout sequences (“Baby Mine” is a keeper and the initial clown act is genuinely something I’d be happy seeing in real life minus the animal abuse), what it did for Disney Animation (i.e. keeping them in business after Pinocchio and Fantasia bombed), and the fact that it won’t be Tim Burton’s two-hour live-action remake. But this is borderline bottom-tier Disney mainly because almost all of its qualities and unique selling points were done better in Pinocchio. Dumbo has giant ears, Pinocchio has a wooden nose; Timothy Q. Mouse is just Jiminy Cricket minus any semblance of scruples; both films have a trippy sequence where our lead gets drunk; setpieces in storms; perils of show business; so on and so forth. It’s fine, mildly enjoyable, but no-one’s finest hour.
Callum Petch’s lack of natural lustre now seems to be losing him friends.