Demons, spies, women’s wrestling, and the late-night Cat Bus.
Yes, this is about five days late. It’s late for the same reason my workrate has been all over the shop this past month (and why the site still isn’t fully updated with backlogs of Set the Tape articles at time of writing): my brain keeps dying and I can’t focus on anything. I committed to doing a What I’ve Been Watching for the period this piece covers since Mum and Terry went on their regular holiday which left me housesitting from the 26th for a week and those are always productive for viewing sessions, but I first had to crunch an Endgame piece – hence why there are no thoughts in here, cos it’s still STT exclusive at time of writing, but I really enjoyed it – then I had to help new STT management stay on top of stuff cos websites I frequent do not go down in flames so long as I can help it, then my brain just… pooped. Not sure if it was depression (probably), flu (also probably), burnout (who knows), or mercury being in retrograde (what even is that), but I just could not focus to get this piece done either as the week went on or in a crunch on Thursday the 2nd.
Anyways, now it’s done and I am technically still fulfilling my pledge to pump at least one of these out a month this year since we’re covering the close of April and the absolute beginning of May. I’ll update you on life status when I do another one of these a fortnight from now – no, not next/this week since I’m at gigs for several nights and I am swamped in “work” commitments this week – because this is way late as it is and I need to get the Summer Movie Guide done. Be grateful for the content and rejoice being spared another sob story. We’re #2! returns next month, it’s in hiatus purgatory right now due to the aforementioned change in STT management.
So, here’s what I was watching last week and some of the week before that.
Hellboy (Thursday 25th April)
Dir: Neil Marshall
I expected way more of a disaster, to be perfectly honest. Don’t misunderstand, Hellboy is still really, really, really bad, especially when compared to the still-excellent Guillermo del Toro films but almost equally so on its own merits, yet it’s not bad in the trainwreck fascination ways I was led to believe it would be. Instead, it sucks in exactly the boring ways you’d expect a cheap cash-in made by assholes and a director way more fixated on his ding-a-ling than the movie he was meant to be shooting would be: the plotting is a mess, the characters are unlikeable assholes, the dialogue is ripped straight from the latest revised edition of The Big Book of Clichés, and it’s confused juvenility for maturity – all ATTITUDE and poisonous testosterone and gratuitous blood and “fuck” every five seconds – just like James Gunn foretold three years back. The only interesting flaws are the relentless ADR-ing futilely attempting to paper over the many gaping cracks, the abysmal British accents from otherwise good actors (Daniel Dae Kim and Sasha Lane), and the fact that this movie is so damn loud. Deafeningly, headache-inducingly so either from actors yelling every single line (a bored as fuck Ian McShane and an honestly-terrible David Harbour), generic Hard Rock needle-drops (lazily treading through ALL the possible tenuous blood and demon links), and general mixing where levels seem to peak every few seconds and at times even outright clip.
Milla Jovovich gives good bad guy by hamming it up just the right amount, the practical effects look excellent (and conversely the digital effects which make up most of the movie are dogshit), and the very few times that the director of Dog Soldiers and The Descent is allowed to work the horror muscles I managed to catch a glimpse of the potential in a new non-del Toro take on the Hellboy material. But all of these positives are swiftly drowned out by the relentless noise, a mind-numbing two-hour runtime which arguably still feels too short, and so much boring posturing. Is it too much to ask for bad movies to start being interestingly bad again?
Red Joan (Thursday 25th April)
Dir: Trevor Nunn
What a dreary waste of a potentially interesting premise. Red Joan centres around the titular Joan (Judi Dench), an elderly woman living in middle-class English suburbia who is one day hauled out of her home on charges of espionage from decades prior in the Cold War. Rather than do anything remotely interesting with that set-up however – like examining compromised ethics in the 40s and 50s, fostering an engaging suspense drama based around whether or not the charges are true via novel playing with flashbacks in order to demonstrate conflict over the shameful skeletons we don’t tell even our closest family members, or just giving Judi Dench anything to do whatsoever – Nunn’s film, scripted by Lindsay Shapero and based on a novel by Jennie Rooney (which itself was based in part on the real-life Melita Norwood), instead focuses entirely on the past and the mystery of which insufferable condescending man Joan will end up sleeping with. Flatly directed and over-lit like a BBC Two drama from six years ago, thematically condescending (including shoehorning in token feminist moments about workplace sexism even though the film is not about that so therefore doesn’t do anything with them), and overlong even at a mere 100 minutes, Red Joan’s an utter bore. Sophie Cookson, who plays Young Joan, at least does an uncanny Dench impersonation; both actresses deserved way better than this.
Easy A (Friday 26th April)
Dir: Will Gluck
Easy A is prime evidence that a high-quality screenplay and an outstanding central cast can very easily cover for a missing 10 minutes of film and truly abysmal direction. Will Gluck sucks at his job and I can say that with confidence now that I have seen three of his movies (the other two being the dire 2014 Annie and the 2018 Peter Rabbit we are getting a sequel for WHY) where the biggest constant between them is his inept direction. With regards to Easy A specifically, his direction is caught in a real confused intersection between grounded (yet still slightly romanticised) Teen dramedies in the vein of John Hughes and an exaggerated semi-cartoonish hyperreality pushed by films like Mean Girls and Clueless. It’s very non-committal which leaves the visual style ugly and half-assed with moments of standoffish showiness, where an insecure child is desperately trying to show how their being above-average at this one specific trick means they are masters of whatever form they’re trying to do. The problem is not not-committing to a style, the problem appears more to be that Gluck never had any clue as to what style he wanted his film to be at any point during production, a trait which has very much followed him throughout his career afterwards. (He also straight-facedly needle-drops “Bad Reputation” like the hack that he is.)
Thankfully, Bert V. Royal’s screenplay is whip-smart in its examinations of social hysteria surrounding conversations about sex and social standing with an empathetic eye towards all of its characters no matter how ridiculous they may be. (The genius conceit of doing a Teen sex comedy minus the “sex” part to maintain that PG-13 rating, however, has been lost overseas by the BBFC’s 15 rating so the dodges are more obvious since there’s no need to do so in this country.) Hinging the film’s central conflict and character growth on Olive growing a backbone and not letting others walk over her prospective happiness is also a smart pirouette away from potentially falling into slut-shaming that works far better in practice than it has any right to. And then there’s the cast with Amanda Bynes giving one last great comic performance before sadly but understandably stepping away from acting, Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson as Olive’s dorky yet somehow-not-insufferable parents, but most of all Emma Stone completely and totally owning her star-making moment with a rapier wit and excellent deadpan comic timing. She can even make the relentless product placement which makes up a major plot point seem somewhat natural; truly one of the very best actresses alive and working today!
Overall, really enjoyed this. Would probably have enjoyed it even more had the last third been about 10 minutes longer, it went a little more risqué, and somebody who knew what they were doing were sat in the director’s chair. Still, it really says something about that screenplay and that cast for Easy A to still be as great as this even with the aforementioned handicaps.
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (Saturday 27th April)
Dir: Guy Ritchie
Kofi came over for the evening and, when presented with my 300+ Blu-Ray collection for something to watch, chose to be indoctrinated into the Man from U.N.C.L.E. Appreciation Society. God, this movie is so much fun; the perfect blending of Guy Ritchie’s overly/overtly-stylish (delete depending on personal preference) gangster movie preferences with the size and sensibilities of more mainstream Hollywood studio filmmaking. Henry Cavill’s magnetic smug dick charisma, Armie Hammer’s surprisingly nuanced take on the Russian brute trope, Alicia Vikander providing the perfect puncture to the macho boy’s club atmosphere without coming off as a humourless sop or flat straight woman, Elizabeth Debicki’s Bond villain audition tape. The innuendo-laced dialogue, the playful camp masking an affecting examination on the dehumanising effects of nationalistic spy work, Daniel Pemberton’s career-making score, Hugh Grant (just Hugh Grant)… In a just universe, I would be sat here right now eagerly anticipating the third of these movies, rather than cursing tasteless assholes for skipping U.N.C.L.E. entirely in favour of goddamn SPECTRE.
I really should have placed this at #20 on my Top 20 of 2015 list instead of The Martian. When even was the last time I saw The Martian? *attempts to check calendar, does not have one which goes back that far, remembers that he doesn’t even write down what films he’s seen on his calendar, lets unfunny bit sputter out*
Children of Men (Monday 29th April)
Dir: Alfonso Cuarón
I’m just gonna come right out and say it: I much prefer Alfonso Cuarón the pulse-pounding action filmmaker (of this and Gravity) to Alfonso Cuarón the slow and introspective dramatist (of Roma, Great Expectations, and Y Tu Mamá También). It’s not that I think the latter is bad – except for Y Tu, which I personally found to be absolutely insufferable when I saw it back in uni – more that the former does a far better job at engaging me. Where his dramas sprawl and revel in the relative mundanity with an almost languid effect which can tip over alternately into pretention or boredom, affecting reactions less of “this is a masterpiece” and more “this is objectively quality filmmaking which I am otherwise stuck on the outside of,” his thrillers are taut and relentless in their momentum with a precision in their construction and desire to leave the viewer breathless and on-edge in ways that his examinations of faith, hope, and cultural identity better operate within.
Children is a perfect example of this. Cuarón’s visual storytelling of a totalitarian mid-apocalypse Britain gains its unsettling power from how mundane and non-fantastical it looks, barely a stone’s throw away from the reality of 2006 Britain let alone 2019 Britain – with those refugee camps and prison cells, nationalistic British propaganda, and government-sponsored hate speech and xenophobic policies honestly only slightly exaggerated from Tory policy in today’s mid-Brexit hellscape. His signature long-takes serve the purpose of making the viewer a participant in a world gone to shit instead of merely showing off and compliment the tightly choreographed chaos of the various chase-based action sequences excellently. And because of both those things, the eventual spiritual bent Children ends up taking, culminating in the parting exit from the bombed-out building, is exactly as powerful as it is meant to be rather than overcooking the broth – although John Taevener’s rarely-glimpsed but overwrought score and the baffling choice of needle-drops Cuarón runs throughout the movie try their damndest to overcook that broth regardless. Perhaps this is because Children and Gravity have so far been Cuarón’s most collaborative works (Children has five screenwriters plus star Clive Owen heavily contributed) and he’s better when forced to work in a group answering to others rather than as a solo visionary who can indulge his whims however he sees fit?
This is all largely me preparing you for next March when I drop my basic-as-fuck Top 100 Films of the Decade list and out myself as a spiritual member of r/movies. Children of Men is fantastic, anyway.
The Villainess (Tuesday 30th April)
Dir: Jung Byung-gil
This was shockingly bad, a fact which hurts even more than usual because I had been deliberately saving it in my Netflix queue for a night where I would be feeling down by myself and need picking up; East Asian action cinema typically being the purest depression-nullifier for me. And yet, God, it’s so bad and dreary and dull and borderline incoherent. Nothing about it works, save for the screen presences of Kim Ok-bin as the lead and Kim Seo-hyung as the stern mission control figure. Narratively, it is both needlessly convoluted – working from a nested-flashback non-linear structure which is poorly communicated and adds very little to the story being told – and boilerplate as all hell, whilst also being too busy and too fast to allow any of its plot points to land – seen one “unwilling recruit to secret government assassin squad” movie, seen them all and this one very much wants to be all even though it only has two hours. Characters are thinly developed so their frequent deaths don’t register, time seems to ebb and flow with little rhyme or reason, and the last-second switch into being about how ‘the pursuit of revenge is all-consuming, hollow and bad’ is so crowbarred-in and half-assed that I’m 90% certain Park Chan-wook is going back to the revenge genre specifically to remind amateurs like Byung-gil how to do this right.
As for the action… yeesh. To bring in 2017’s other highly-acclaimed and brutally violent female spy actioner for comparison, David Leitch’s Atomic Blonde, I strongly get the impression that ambition has badly outstripped ability here. Much like Atomic Blonde, Villainess has a big centrepiece action sequence done in the style of a faux-one-take designed to make audiences and critics go “WOAH, SUCH TALENT, THIS IS WHAT REAL ACTION FILMMAKING LOOKS LIKE!” In fact, Villainess has two, each bookending the movie and the first of them largely done in Hardcore Henry-style POV gimmickry. But where these go wrong, besides Leitch and Blonde having a thematic and conceptual reason for a one-take sequence (the viscera and deterioration of an extraction gone horribly wrong) instead of showing off for coolness’ sake, is that Blonde hid its transitions between takes extremely well and used them sparingly since Leitch, Theron, and the stunt team were able to pull off complex longer-than-average sequences so the post-production warp “stitching” effects weren’t constant. Villainess and Byung-gil, however, clearly weren’t yet also weren’t willing to tone down their ambition so their faux-one-take sequences have those awkward and nauseous warp “stitches” roughly every three seconds in fights with heavy shaky-cam and claustrophobic framing which makes the action visually messy and the sensation of watching them discombobulating.
Things only get worse in the standard action setpieces where every “stitch” is replaced by a cut of some kind. And there are a lot of cuts in these action scenes, combined with jitter-cam, CG’d blood splatters and obnoxiously tight framing which makes spatial geography near-impossible to parse and strikes and slices to carry all the impact of wet tissue. The absolute nadir – and this one was so bad that I went back the morning after viewing to get the statistics I’m about to hit you with – comes during a pivotal dual in an apartment roughly 30 minutes from the end. This one-on-one fight scene, from first exchange to final official interrupting strike, lasts just under 25 seconds (24.95 according to my timings) and in that time there are an absurd 42 separate cuts. In fact, it may even have been more because I tried spacebar pausing each time to jot a tally mark only for the cuts to still be too fast and frequent! That is, on average, a cut just over every half a second. I expect that shit from Olivier Megaton, not a renowned South Korean action filmmaker!
About 40 minutes in, I found myself asking the question, “why am I not just watching Nikita again instead?” And whilst I could answer the La Femme permutation with the performative woke justification of Luc Besson being quite the creep – he’s still only an alleged sexual predator, but his films do show a warped and fetishistic view of women much as I love most of his work – I couldn’t find any such answer for the CW series permutation. Why should I have wasted my time watching this shockingly terrible version of this story when I could just run through that awesome TV show, which executes this premise way better dramatically and WAAAAAY better action-wise despite being on network television, yet again? So, there’s my advice to you if you’re thinking of watching The Villainess: don’t, watch CW Nikita instead. In fact, Life Advice for everyone in general: watch CW Nikita.
GLOW Season 2 (Friday 26th April – Wednesday 1st May)
I deprived myself of “The Good Twin” for close to a year for no justifiable reason and I am equally as furious about it as the two years I spent putting off The Good Place also for no justifiable reason. Yay for parent holidays which let me have uninterrupted control of the downstairs television with a comfy sofa so I can watch the shows I want to without having to deal with moaning or mocking family members who hate anything American! (None of that sentence was a lie or exaggeration and I swear I am not secretly a teenager.) GLOW is pretty goddamn excellent and Season 2 is a huge step-up from the already fantastic first season. The integration of wider and modern feminist statements with the more era-specific pro-wrestling examinations and GLOW’s nature as an ensemble character show is much more natural this time around, the ping-pongs between comedy and drama are smoother, Kate Nash is still shockingly stealing scenes like nobody’s business, I love how they’re handling Bash’s character arc and (most likely) his repressed homosexuality. Crucially, as mentioned in my review of IDW’s GLOW #1, it’s still that rare 80s nostalgia media to embrace and feel like a work from the 80s at its very core rather than overlaying 80s aesthetics onto a modern structural core for cheap audience pops *coughcoughStrangerThingscough*.
Nobody let me take this long to watch the third season of a show I have always liked whenever it finally arrives please thanks.
My Neighbor Totoro (Wednesday 1st May)
Dir: Hayao Miyazaki
Finally did it. For the past five years, I have been carrying around Studio Ghibli bags for day-to-day usage with the Totoro (and sometimes Susuwatari) design on them because I liked the Ghibli films I had seen and thought the designs were cute, yet had not actually seen My Neighbor Totoro. I was a Fake Geek Boy, I was that boy who wears a Ramones shirt yet is unable to name a single song off of their ninth studio album Animal Boy from 1986, I was that boy who only owns a Nintendo Wii and a copy of Wii Fit rather than any TRUE GAMES. I was a fraud! A charlatan! A poseur! But no longer! I have now passed the gatekeepers’ test and I can feel pride and security in the fact that nobody will call me out over my poseur-dom which is totally a normal thing that emotionally healthy people do to other human beings!
Anyways: Totoro. It’s utterly delightful, isn’t it? This sweet-hearted, pure paeon to the hope and possibilities of childhood which deliberately never raises above a minor simmer in terms of emotional or physical intensity yet still hits like a jackhammer to the heart all the same. With the possible exception of The Wind Rises, this may be the most Miyazaki film I have yet seen since it’s really got everything he’s known for: tomboyish girl protagonist, sentimental and earnest heart, strong environmentalism streak, explorations of and reverence for traditional Japanese values, flying sequences, an almost dream-logic sense of progression, and wonderfully off-kilter creature designs. In fact, since I have to sit through an UglyDolls movie at some point in the near-future, allow me to gush about Totoro’s design. So many ugly-cute designs nowadays become so petrified of scaring any potential consumers off with even the slightest tinge of the “ugly” that they just end up making standard “cute” designs as a result with none of the grotesquery that’s supposed to be their USP. By contrast, Miyazaki and art-director Kazuo Oga pull off some kind of magic trick with Totoro. It’s largely cute, obviously because it’s a giant rotund cat-like creature with lots of fluff and complimenting colours, but from certain angles it looks… wrong, monstrous, intimidating even. But that’s a deliberate design choice rather than an accident since Totoro is a giant non-human creature being seen by primarily and through the viewpoint of young children who are alternately in awe of and quietly scared by it depending on how it’s acting today. Neither aspect of Totoro detracts from the other, they harmonise and amplify seamlessly.
Completely unsurprisingly, then, I adored Totoro. Dub’s a little on the LOUD NOISES side from its cast, but I recorded it off Film4 at Christmas so what can ya do?
Callum Petch is tired and you are ridiculous.