Toys, jokes, footballers, and MAMA MIA!
Personal introspection write-ups are going to have to wait until we next talk together because this is already a day late and I have a shit-tonne of work I need to get done before I travel to Manchester on Thursday with friends for back-to-back gig nights, Janelle Monáe and Bloc Party. So, a brief content list of the next coming days [card subject to change]:
- On Sunday, We’re #2! finally returns. I’m writing the next entry tomorrow and it has to run on Sunday since I promised the feature’s return before the end of June. I genuinely did not mean for it to go on hiatus for this long, but Set the Tape changed editors without prior warning or with a back-up plan in place – but enough about the British government, FNAR FNAR FNAR – and the lovely new Ed had to decide whether the site was gonna stay up or not. It will, YAY! But on a reduced schedule, BOO (for this particular series, overall a reduced schedule is great for mental health since the Ed staff’s been gutted by 2/3)! She and I talked, she understood that I need the series to be weekly as motivation to keep writing, rather than intermittently, so it’s exclusive to this blog now, YAY! We’ll be sticking to Sundays for the first month or so whilst I get a backlog built up, then I’ll see where it best fits in the schedule, but I’m gonna do this. Gonna commit to seeing at least one task I start through to the bitter end!
- On Wednesday, the Men in Black: International piece I teased in this week’s Box Office Report (over at STT) will finally run, which is why the film is missing from this article. Been a busy week, my Chemical Brothers: Ranked piece took way longer than I thought it would (that’ll run on STT soon and the uncut version will be in the archives shortly after), spearheaded Mid-Year listicles which’ll be going up on STT this week, and maybe these new pills I’m taking are fucking with my stamina and sleep patterns? All of this is a longwinded way of saying, “I am bad at time management and timescales.”
- Speaking of archives, I have actually written pieces other than overlong in-depth Black Eyed Peas retrospectives this June. Just haven’t gotten around to dumping them here for reasons we’ll hopefully discuss next time. Those’ll hopefully turn up before Thursday. Just, y’know, gotta write a second We’re #2! AND honour my GLOW comic review duties AND go deal with my Diabetics Centre AND go to actual work (another time). I recognise these are normal Adult things and this is a normal Adult workload. Step off.
So, yeah, things will pick up again momentarily, with any luck.
For now, here’s what I’ve been watching this week.
Late Night (Thursday 20th)
Dir: Nisha Ganatra
Resoundingly frustrating. Late Night really should be a whole lot better than it is. It should have more bite, more anger, more struggle. The world of late-night comedy, and more specifically the heavily male-dominated boy’s club nepotistic world of late-night comedy writers’ rooms, is too ripe a well for material this surface-level and scattershot. Mindy Kaling’s script is extremely earnest and sincere, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but its relentless insistence on providing a non-stop string of victories and feel-good moments without any depth, true moments of defeat, or deeper insight into the mechanics of late-night television than a few oral histories on the subject defangs any potential satire and cripples the drama. In fact, she comes dangerously close to Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip-ing things at points, since the displayed difference between bombing jokes and “revelatory” segments comes entirely from onscreen laughter and characters reading off press clippings, whilst failing to understand the ephemerality of late-night comedy. It’s a parade of empty “you go girl!” epithets untethered from a reality or struggle which would make them sing, and unlike something such as Ocean’s 8 the lack of effort or tension isn’t meant to be the point.
Crucially, it’s just not very funny. It’s pleasant, don’t get me wrong, and charming and amiable, but funny? Sporadically, at best. Ganatra’s direction is serviceable but incapable of communicating the timescale of the narrative at all clearly – which, again, could’ve been a good satirical point about the pressures of late-night comedy, how three weeks can feel like three months, but the film doesn’t touch on it at all – and she and Kaling frequently lose track of what the film’s centre is meant to be. What is it trying to say thematically? Who is the central protagonist? The core relationship? It’s especially frustrating because Emma Thompson is on fire as Katherine Newbury, the aging complacent and thorny host Kaling’s Mollie works under. The script veers wildly between Newbury as a Devil Wears Prada Miranda Priestly-type and a misunderstood unfairly demonised feminist icon, but Thompson pulls both sides together through sheer bloody-minded force of personality, tearing through kiss-offs with compulsive charisma and communicating Newbury’s regrets and heartaches with affecting longing and wounded pride. She almost manages to elevate a two-star film up to a three singlehandedly, even minimising the damage of yet another sequence where a comedian has a breakdown on-stage during a bombing set, but ultimately can’t quite add a lasting sting to a movie too enthralled with its own comfort to offer any prolonged sensation. Shame.
Do the Right Thing (Friday 21st)
Dir: Spike Lee
Turning 30 next month and still as vital and exhilarating and distressing as ever. I never get tired of watching Do the Right Thing, Spike Lee’s complex and messy yet undeniable masterpiece on what it means to be Black. The riotous charge in his filmmaking. The poetry of his prose, how dialogue carries a rhythmic theatrical cadence which is infrequently delivered in stumbling natural fashion in a manner that throws the reality of the characters’ lives into stark relief and keeps things from becoming a didactic polemic. Lee’s surprising refusal to offer a clear-cut moral centre or answers to many of the societal questions he brings up (which is atypical for his work) by writing dozens of multifaceted characters who work equal parts as metaphors and human beings – Radio Raheem as both embodiment of proud unapologetic Blackness and the guy who’s the beating heart of the neighbourhood, Buggin’ Out as both Malcolm X if he misdirected his anger in all directions at full bore and the wannabe social crusader who’s the joke of his block.
It all still sings, it all still resonates, it all still works as drama and soulful filmmaking when – futile, since a work like Do the Right Thing is impossible to depoliticise – stripped of its cultural and social contexts both then and now. There’s a sense when one watches the climax, a tragic sequence which has become almost a daily occurrence in the era of social media and affordable smartphones, that this is a film which will unfortunately never be irrelevant for as long as our current human society exists. It’s one I agree with albeit not for the police brutality, but rather for the pervading questions of what it means to be Black, of how we all perpetuate discrimination through microaggressions and little hypocrisies in addition to major acts of hatred, and how we reconcile our inequalities, histories, and ingrained social behaviours in a manner that allows love to truly thrive. For as long as we struggle through those conversations without an answer, if there even is one to be found, Do the Right Thing will always be a vital component of our understanding and that conversation. Plus, again, it’s a really fucking good movie.
Toy Story 4 (Saturday 22nd)
Dir: Josh Cooley
THANK HEAVENS, IT’S GOOD! Better than good, actually. I’m even at the point where I’m willing to call it genuinely great. Toy Story 4 actually ends up as something like the distaff counterpart of Incredibles II: both years-later sequels which didn’t need to exist and are a step down from their legendary predecessors though are fun to watch in the moment, yet whilst Incredibles II’s charms dissipated almost as soon as the credits started rolling since it walked like a major work but was in reality a mere rehash, Toy Story 4 has been growing in my estimations as I think back on it. It’s very much an epilogue to the franchise, all about tying up the loose ends of Woody’s character arc in a manner which is thematically and philosophically richer than the ending of Toy Story 3 even if it can feel a tad rushed, an unfortunate side effect of focussing the film so heavily on Woody and Gabby Gabby that other characters are given a shorter shrift than they arguably should have – the joys of having one of the best ensembles in any media franchise and still growing.
It’s a riskier, more melancholic, existentially enriching work even whilst it’s simultaneously lighter and simpler than any entry in the franchise bar the first one. And you know what? I’m glad for that. When Toy Story 4 stumbles, it stumbles from trying new things – early fears from yours truly that this was a find+replace of Toy Story 2 were thankfully unfounded – and the simultaneous lightness and existential melancholy comes from it being all about the point in one’s life where their purpose seems to shift and reconciling how that change in personal philosophy will affect the life you currently lead. That uncertain toing and froing over what it is one really wants as the seemingly endless horizon of one’s life starts to encroach closer. Much of the film is effectively a series of well-meaning philosophy debates between the various characters, the value of communication and understanding, of compassion and love in all its forms, of selfishness and selflessness and the occasionally thinning line between the two. The screenplay is almost Good Place Michael Schur-ian in its handling of these subjects and that is the highest possible praise I can bestow upon any work right now, seriously.
Since I’m still trying (really badly) to adhere to my self-imposed goal of penning at least one of these a month, we may end up talking more about Toy Story 4 later in the year – it’s gonna run all Summer at cinemas, have you seen this miserable-ass line-up of films? That or perhaps Listmas season, since it’s been a week and going back over this for proofing prior to posting has seen its resonance increase, so I’m going to hold a few thoughts back and see if further viewings alter or enhance anything. For now, to reiterate: THANK HEAVENS, IT’S GOOD!
Diego Maradona (Saturday 22nd)
Dir: Asif Kapadia
I want to blame my underwhelmed reaction on having had an exhausting day by the time my screening started and it coming roughly 40 minutes after Toy Story 4 finished kicking me in the gut, but the truth is Diego Maradona sees Asif Kapadia making a rare misstep. For the record, we are talking about “misstep” in relative terms. Maradona is a very engaging, very entertaining look at the footballing legend that even helped me, a complete novice in the game of football with no major interest in the subject, understand why he was so majorly revered and later reviled by fans and the game alike. Much like with Senna and Amy, the appeal of football is effectively communicated and placed in a wider social context even if the various associations and hardcore fandoms involved in and surrounding the sport really do not come up smelling of roses whilst Kapadia doesn’t shy away from depicting Diego’s own role in his eventual drug-addled downfall, primarily through his refusal to publicly acknowledge the existence of his son from an affair for over 30 years.
But here’s the rub: I think Kapadia is either a little too enamoured of his subject or too much of a slave to the formula he cooked up for Senna and Amy to recognise that Maradona doesn’t quite fit like he wants it to. Maradona the man doesn’t fit the “pure-ish soul corrupted by fame and the seedy underbelly of his profession” narrative Senna and Amy operated within. He’s hot-tempered, consistently unfaithful, egotistical, and at times a hateful addict (still is to this day even) but Kapadia doesn’t allow Maradona enough rope to hang himself, doesn’t stick the boot in enough during those depictions of his worst behaviour in a way that feels compromised – either by formula or the fact that Maradona, unlike Ayrton Senna and Amy Winehouse, is still alive and appears to narrate most of the film with current audio interviews whose access could have been taken away if pressed too hard. Meanwhile, the exploration of his effect upon Naples as he rejuvenates their football team to championship-winning success, a city knee-deep in poverty and ruled over by a ruthless high-profile mob family whilst being spat upon by Northern Italians, is only deep enough to let us understand the basics in a manner that enables Maradona’s story to make sense. Brief annotations rather than a true exploration; especially disappointing since the bits we do get are more bountiful and interesting than another rise-and-fall cult-of-personality documentary.
Whether because he sticks too much to formula or because he’s too softball with his subject or because the scope of his story is too big for him to handle even with the focus on Maradona’s decade in Naples only, Asif Kapadia delivers his first documentary let-down. He even gets bogged down in the muck every now and again, those 130 minutes threatening to drag. Or perhaps it’s just because he can’t top Diego Maradona’s opening which races through Maradona’s initial rise, fall, and transfer to S.S.C. Napoli (which is clearly meant as a lifelong demotion for his antics at Barcelona) to the pulsating cocaine synths of Todd Terje’s “Delorean Dynamite” intercut with his initial motorcade entrance into Naples for the press conference announcing his signing to the rapturous adoration of seemingly the entire town. It’s the most electrifying filmmaking of Kapadia’s career and he, plus editor Chris King, never so much as scrape at that underside of that level for the remaining 125 minutes. Diego Maradona is still good and very enjoyable, but it’s also a missed opportunity.
Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (Monday 24th)
Dir: Adam McKay
What strikes me most about Adam McKay’s comedies, now that I have finally seen Talladega Nights (albeit the theatrical cut because that was the one on Netflix sue me), is how he and Ferrell have managed to make an artform out of doing the obvious joke then immediately pushing that joke to its ludicrous extreme right after. Take the wheelchair scene, for a prime example. Almost as soon as the gag is set up, the viewer knows that Ricky Bobby is going to stab himself in the leg with a sharp object, most likely a knife, and the scene escalates in tension until, right on cue, Ricky Bobby stabs himself in the leg. It’s a really funny gag which loses nothing from being seen coming a mile away due to expert delivery and timing, but then McKay and Ferrell take advantage of the audience’s guard being down to immediately vault to the unexpected yet hysterical escalation of Cal and Lucius sticking a second knife into Ricky Bobby’s leg in a misguided effort to either cut around the first knife or provide leverage like a jack for prying the first knife out.
That old simile of it being like a feint jab leading into a surprise uppercut doesn’t quite describe that technique because here the expected jab still lands flush with the uppercut building upon the initial heavy strike. Perhaps it’s somewhat due to McKay’s willingness to go all the way with a gag rather than cut corners. Talladega Nights, much like the best genre satires, works serviceably enough as a straight-laced version of the cheesy homoerotic rise-fall-comeback sports movie it’s otherwise parodying, like Days of Thunder, which only adds to the joke and the thrill. Even back in 2006, McKay and Columbia Pictures didn’t have to stage real over-the-top NASCAR wrecks, they could’ve cheaped out and used CGI, but the fact that they did enhances the jokes by adding a visceral physicality which can catch the viewer off-guard. My biggest laugh in the entire film came from the blindfolded driving gag or, more specifically, the fact that we actually see Ricky Bobby smash into the corner of a house which awkwardly collapses on top of the car with what looks like (I could be wrong) real practical effects. It’s the commitment to the bit, the incredibly dumb bit, which makes so much of Talladega Nights and allows the incisive slashes at Bush-era America to sneak up with lethal potency.
So, with all that positivity said, let’s talk about the disappointing but not unexpected given that it was 2006 and pop culture was less sensitive and aware RAMPANT HOMOPHOBIA! OK, OK, I’m being glib. The intention in McKay and Ferrell’s screenplay is very obviously meant to be “ironic homophobia” where the gag is not the fact that Jean Girard is gay and enjoys kissing men in a healthy loving relationship but everyone else’s complete and total inability to compute the normalcy of that fact. Again, mid-2000s Bush-era heartland America satire. But, for me anyway, I don’t think the target is always everyone else’s mental shutdown and uncomfortable reactions to perfectly normal relationship behaviour but with a man, especially when placed in context with Ferrell’s filmography which can hit the “NOT HOMO” button with gusto – which Talladega also slots into with the relationship between Ricky Bobby and Cal Naughton, Jr.. Plus, there are enough instances where the joke is just “HA, GAAAAY!” worst of them being the kiss at the movie’s climax, for the message to be muddied, and given the last decade I’ve honestly reached the point where “ironic homophobia” and “genuine homophobia” feel about the same to me. So, well-intentioned, but it’s already aging horrifically; a true zit on an otherwise comedic masterwork.
Nerdland (Tuesday 25th)
Dir: Chris Prynoski
Nothing else gets me off my ass to finally dispatch of mediocre-to-bad trash clogging up my Netflix List quite like news of its impending yanking from the service by the unaffiliated New on Netflix UK! That site is one of the main inflators of my Films Viewed This Year count, seriously. Anyways, Nerdland is utter tedium which is a real shame because the main production studio is Titmouse Inc. – of Metalocalypse, Megas XLR, Big Mouth, and soon the Critical Role animated spin-off – and they are one of the most fearless visually distinctive animation companies out there today. I won’t say that Nerdland always looks great, the hyper-commitment to raggedy-ass 90s skater-punk zine aesthetics mean that certain characters can just be unpleasant to look at, but the style is always eye-catching and at certain points, like a potential murder-pact handshake which bursts out demonic tendrils or a rapid-fire gag sequence involving various briefly glimpsed rundown restaurants, demonstrates far more imagination and spark than the screenplay ever does.
Because, make no mistake, this is primarily a screenplay problem. Nerdland is about two failing wannabe burnouts, actor John (Paul Rudd) and writer Elliot (Patton Oswalt), on the verge of 30 trying desperately to achieve fame and/or infamy before John’s birthday 24 hours from now in the hopes it may jumpstart their careers. It purports to tackle 2010s viral fame culture but has zero understanding of it before abandoning that altogether at the promise of hyperviolence, its swipes at the lowbrow degrading cesspool of Los Angeles culture (and pop culture at large) are played out yet entirely pleased with itself, the leads aren’t funny enough to offset being insufferable shits, and it can’t even fully commit to being a bad-taste wallow in the filth, pulling back in the last 20 of an interminably long 86 minutes to sputter out pathetically with a limp non-ending. This screenplay feels as if it’s been in deep-freeze since the late-90s, that same smug empty trolling for controversy characterising wannabe edgy adult animation like South Park and Family Guy that haven’t held up at all, which is a theory that checks out since writer Andrew Kevin Walker (of Seven and more tellingly 8mm) hadn’t written anything since 2002 save for that awful Wolfman from 2010. Of the bad-taste South Park-y adult animated features released in 2016, at least Sausage Party used all that bad-taste and raunch to make actual thematic points and was really funny.
Nerdland is ugly and unpleasant, albeit not in its intended manner. Worst of all, it’s incredibly boring. Titmouse deserve better.
Bipolar Rock ‘n’ Roller (Wednesday 26th)
Dir: Harris Usanovic
Showtime uploaded this documentary about sports-caster Mauro Ranallo and his struggles with bipolar disorder whilst attempting to maintain his highly acclaimed career onto YouTube this week for free and it’s worth checking out if you’ve got 80 minutes. I’m not about to armchair psychoanalyse/psychomoralise over whether the film, director Harris Usanovic, and Ranallo depict the illness in a respectful manner or anything cos what the hell do I know about bipolar? But for the most part, I think it does a good job at not conflating the mental illness with his skills as a broadcaster, it treats his situation as a specific case study rather than an all-encompassing representation of the bipolar experience, and most of the melodramatic presentation and bombastic delivery seems to be more endemic to Showtime Sports documentaries in general – I assume since I, a Brit, obviously have had extremely little experience with Showtime Sports documentaries – than specific to this doc.
I personally would have liked them to spend more, or any, time on Mauro’s pre-NXT WWE tenure, where his SmackDown play-by-play role had to be relinquished due to the stress of constant travel and (ALLEGED) bullying by broadcast partner John Bradshaw Layfield, but that’s obviously sped over in superficial detail in order to secure the WWE’s involvement in the documentary – they are notoriously petty yet inconsistent over negative public perception of their brand (see also: Fighting with my Family). For what it is, the doc is pacey, genuinely inspiring in multiple ways not solely relating to Ranallo’s mental health struggles, and does an excellent job at explaining why he is so beloved by combat sports fans, how crushing his condition can be, and how difficult it can be to fight against it. There’s a bit after the Mayweather/McGregor fight where Ranallo goes back to his room, checks his Twitter mentions to see all the positive responses to his commentary by fans and despairs about his inability to sink into that praise and instead fixate on what he could’ve done instead which I heavily related to. Again, worth checking out.
Callum Petch is lookin’ like a poor man’s Arthur Baker.