Buses, light shows, snails, and satire.
Well, this place has been a bit dead, hasn’t it?
It’s not been for lack of trying, honestly. I’ve been muddling through a write-up of Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time on-and-off for the past month and a half, cos I got it for my birthday and then proceeded to Spider-Man the thing so need to get my thoughts in a row lest my brain yell at me for wasting my life, which it’s done enough of following Desert Bus for Hope 2020. (Also cos I have thoughts I do need to get out in ways that don’t involve yelling at my disinterested friends.) Right now, it’s anywhere between halfway and two-thirds done, albeit already so long that now my brain is hammering at my self-esteem for being incapable of concise writing, having penned what is effectively a video essay minus the video aspect that supposedly makes such indulgence tolerable.
In the past month and a half, I have managed to complete two articles (now three with this one): a Mogul Mowgli screener review I finished so late that the country went into lockdown mid-writing and the film had to change its entire release schedule, and a How the Grinch Stole Christmas retrospective (the crummy Ron Howard one) I spent the entire writing of utterly despising and only finished because I had an actual enforced deadline. Both tasks suffered from the same non-length issue as my in-limbo Crash write-up, I keep finding myself somewhat paralysed mentally when I try writing. Writing for me has always been a feedback loop of self-flagellation, where I dislike almost every single word that spills out of these fingers and it’s only days or weeks after finishing that I am able to look back on what I’ve done and not immediately hate it. But I guess there’s also a quieter but slightly more influential voice in the back of my mind that clearly believes in what I’m doing, or at least just won’t rest until I get those thoughts out (very narcissistic I know), and so forces me on through to the end in spite of everything. When that voice wins out, I push out pieces in spite of myself. When it doesn’t, I spiral, nothing gets done and I mostly cease functioning.
In 2020, I feel like that small scrap of self-confidence has just… gone. I’m spending several days on first drafts of nearly everything I’ve penned since July. Not because of their lengths, but because I don’t know how to say. I know what I want to say, at least in the notes I scribble down to structure everything, but I don’t know how to say it as nothing I put down which supposedly expresses that want feels in the least bit right. This is probably my unmedicated depression and Asperger’s coming into play. According to my parents, I didn’t speak until I was 3 because, whilst I could communicate well enough with gestures and noises and stuff, I apparently knew I wasn’t able to verbalise what I wanted to say yet, so just waited until I was more able to before speaking. (That doesn’t sound the least bit medically plausible, to be honest, but sure whatever.) I do have problems communicating and major anxiety over being misinterpreted; the act of writing is basically constant self-inflicted torture and triggering which I am fairly certain emotionally healthy people don’t do. (And, yes, that’s why basically everything I write is several thousand words longer than really necessary.)
…as a self-demonstrating article, I was attempting to build to something with this ramble but nothing I’ve tried writing for this last paragraph in the past hour looks right to my brain. If it weren’t for the fact that I’ve finally managed to force myself to watch enough films this week to justify the WIBW, plus that it’s been several months since I’ve checked in with y’all and hence needed to provide some kind of explanation, I’d probably have just abandoned this like the last three times I’ve tried to do a WIBW. So, yeah. Still here. There’s going to be one more WIBW this year and it’ll come next week. Hopefully by then I’ll have figured out what Year-End stuff is gonna look like cos, err, I have watched sod-all in 2020. Also, I gotta finish that Crash 4 piece before then, I swear.
Here’s what I’ve been watching this week in my desperate attempt to get my No. of Films Watched in 2020 counter up to at least a not-atrocious 140.
IRIS: A Space Opera by Justice [Wednesday 2nd]
Dirs: André Chemetoff, Armand Beraud
Much like how I feel Woman Worldwide deliberately misunderstood the appeal of live albums, IRIS does the same for concert films. Cos that’s what both projects are, fundamentally; audio and video (disco) documents of Justice’s live show during the Woman era except without any of that pesky “live crowd” business which was all over their prior live albums, A Cross the Universe and Access All Arenas. I get and appreciate the intent behind both media, but that mission statement leaves both works lacking. Woman Worldwide ends up a self-remix album, but one attuned to a live experience so certain loops, edits and builds don’t work so well out of a live context sans the roar of the crowd. For just one big example, neither usage of the “We Are Your Friends” sample during the “Waters of Nazareth” re-work hits that effectively when played in isolation: the initial tease of small snatches of the phrase needs a crowd to play off as they fill in the blanks, and the mid-song pause before bringing back the sample is normally longer than the half-a-second it is here which creates better anticipation as the crowd teeters excitedly on the drop.
IRIS has a similar problem in that its semi-austere insistence in being a hermetically-sealed recreation of a Justice show visually – save for a few brief, not all that noteworthy cosmic CGI cutaways – means that it’s all flashing lights but precious little energy when the only guys there are the two sedate often-obscured musicians behind the boards. Sure, these are some very pretty flashing lights and I appreciate the craft required to choreograph and edit this thing together with so many reflective surfaces. But there are only so many ways you can shoot those pretty lights before it gets a bit dull. The vast majority of filmed live performances, with some exceptions, require the energy and immediacy and passion of crowd reactions as something to play off and elevate the atmosphere; it’s a symbiotic relationship where all parties involved feed off of each other. Without a crowd, and especially with how unshowy Gaspard and Xavier are personally, the results end up cold, impersonal, more like a publicly-released tech rehearsal. There’s little of the synaesthesia and inventive editing found in, say, Don’t Think which in turn puts excess weight on the mixes to do the heaviest lifting… and these ones aren’t Justice’s best. The charge added to “Chorus” is fantastic, taking the song from a gallop to a rocket-sprint, but the “Pleasure” mix eventually turns into an overcooked mess and I almost universally prefer the mixes from Access.
Commendable experiment, but a curio I don’t see myself returning to as a fan of Justice. Mainly just made me want to see them live, and not in the way concert films are supposed to stir that feeling. I was actually saving up to go to their Woman tour dates back in 2017 but they sold out just as I finally had the money required, a fact I am definitely not still bitter about in the least no sir. God, I miss live music so much.
We Are Desert Bus [Friday 4th]
Dir: Russ Pitts
Was finally released for general public viewing about a week before Desert Bus for Hope 2020, so that’s why I’m viewing it now. To be perfectly honest, I’m not sure how effective this documentary about Desert Bus (and specifically Desert Bus X in 2016) would be for those who aren’t already familiar with the concept. Pitts has Penn & Teller tell the tale about how the game came to be in the first place, the LoadingReadyRun crew explain the origins of their charity drive and the process of organising it each year, and Child’s Play is infrequently discussed, but it is all very much the most basic of strokes especially when it comes to the event itself. In fairness, the exact comforting appeal of Desert Bus for Hope is one of those where you really need to watch the thing in order to fully understand it so there’s not a whole lot Pitts could really do other than extend the runtime by another 30 or so minutes to include more non-behind the scenes footage from the event, and doing that would almost inarguably make for a bloated and weaker film. I just believe the best documentaries are equally of interest for newbies to a subject as they are for prior fans and We Are Desert Bus I feel leans a touch too much in favour of the latter.
Still, as a long-time fan of Desert Bus and LRR in general, I enjoyed this and got some warm fuzzy feels. Getting to peek behind the curtain of how an event like this is done, especially now that Loading Time segments on the LRR channel have (understandably) ceased, will always intrigue me and the crew are their usual charming, candid, humble selves throughout the interviews; I especially appreciated Jeremy’s post-shift debriefing admission that his experiment for that year (playing Desert Bus with his feet whilst simultaneously playing an entirely different game with his hands) didn’t work all that well in the spirit of the event. Plus, in general, the film is well-edited for both quality semi-comical juxtaposition – the feed v. reality depiction of Graham’s Bobby Roode driver entrance being the highlight – and to demonstrate the barely-on-rails ramshackle chaos of the event overall, how it swings from silly to serious at the drop of a hat but never in an off-putting manner. Also, EVERYBODY LOOKS SO YOUNG/DIFFERENT, GOSH! So much changes in 4 years…
Whilst I’m here, Desert Bus 2020 was especially needed for me this year – it’s generally a little self-care mental health comfort blanket whenever it comes around anyway, one I effectively and deliberately (for once) put my life on pause to watch, but that need was fortyfold this time. And even though it obviously wasn’t completely the same as usual due to the need to go remote, it still felt like Desert Bus more often than not and retained the same wholesome, entertaining safe space ideals and feels that I need each year. All hail Belopa.
Dredd [Saturday 5th]
Dir: Pete Travis
So, the elephant in the room: Dredd sacrifices much of the bitingly nihilistic fascistic police-state satire of the 2000AD comics at the altar of style, blood, guts and cool. Akin to Zack Snyder’s insistence on shooting all of the violence in Watchmen as ultra-stylish, powerful and cool as tits undercutting the point of Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons’ comic, director Pete Travis’ decision to make the cartoonish ultra-violence equal parts disgusting and beautiful, whilst writer Alex Garland softens the “bad vs. worse” dynamic of the Judges in Mega-City One to a degree where it kinda ends up serving as a justification for the totalitarianism of the setting, rips a lot of the pitch-black satire inherent to the property’s appeal out. Shunted to the side-lines during the opening 30 minutes via cast-off lines and little production design choices for attentive viewers to pick up on, then the action kicks off and the morality mostly gets left unquestioned for blood and guts in a manner that’s sometimes uncomfortable to sit with in today’s social landscape. That said, this also may be applicable to the Judge Dredd comics, particularly with how a Thatcher-era satire reads differently in a modern age; it’s been a while since I revisited the collections.
But the trade-off is an effective and nasty-as-hell little action flick which demonstrates that smartness in an action film doesn’t necessarily mean being ponderous over big ideas in between the firefights. Instead, it comes from the dozens of little decisions a locked-in creative team makes within potentially limiting framework to create maximum payoff. Take Garland’s screenplay. How do you handle the large amount of exposition required to set this world up and establish character dynamics and stakes in a manner that makes sense in presentation and isn’t clunky? Have our audience POV be a rookie Judge who’s on assessment during the story; constantly quizzed on procedure, city-wide trivia, strategies etc. How do you handle the “problem” that Dredd himself is supposed to be a pretty static protagonist who does not majorly change for most of the Judge Dredd series cos that’s the point? You instead focus on the subtleties, the way his inflexible nature can soften just a slice in certain scenarios through his time with Anderson that hints at potential further growth down the line without fundamentally altering the character. Set-ups and pay-offs, the execution of stakes, character behaviour; real nuts and bolts stuff that so many lesser action films get wrong.
You can see that smartness in Travis’ direction, even if again it sacrifices much of the bleak satire for 80s exploitation chic. How he stages the action on a constrained budget, with a visceral constant throbbing tension and whose corners you surprisingly can’t see being cut thanks to practical sets, big CGI only being used as deliberately unreal enhancements, and clever set dressing to hide the fact they only built one proper floor and just redressed it a bunch of different ways. How to make images pop even in spite of a grimier realist visual palette favoured by low-budget R-rated actioners; not just in the obvious gorgeously saturated Slo-Mo sequences, but also in Anthony Dod Mantle’s framing and touches like the reflection of the chain gun’s fire in Ma-Ma’s eyes. When to go big on the gore for gnarly impact and when to pull back so as not to desensitise. Even our three leads – Karl Urban, Lena Headey and Olivia Thirlby – are smart in how they invest in the memorable physicality of their performances, particularly Headey’s chilling sadism. Ma-Ma has tangible sadistic glee at the possibility of inflicting violence but also this nihilistic indignation that she might have to cut a motherfucker cos nothing really means anything to her which makes such a strong impression on me despite the relatively little screen-time she gets.
A film of smart decisions all round that lead to a fun-as-heck time. And, in case you’re wondering, yes, it has been 8 years and I’m still pissed I never got that planned trilogy.
The Spongebob Movie: Sponge on the Run [Sunday 6th]
Dir: Tim Hill
I actually really like the animation, turns out. There’s an initial adjustment period due to the drastic change from the series’ established traditional designs and 2D art, especially since Spongebob is still running and so visually iconic by this point so you get that “this feels wrong” disconnect. But Mikros, the studio behind Captain Underpants‘ fantastic animation, do a brilliant job at translating the show’s art into this new medium in a manner that best fits without losing the original essence. Facial and physical animations are often a riot, almost Aardman-esque at times; the lighting makes many a scene pop without succumbing to excess fidelity or unnatural detail; and taking a cue from The Peanuts Movie by working at a lower frame-rate to simulate rougher traditional animation brings a winning charm and unique rhythm. They took a risk by going full-CGI but it’s one that largely pays off, if for no other reason than it’s still distinctive in the feature animation landscape.
Shame the animation was the only area Tim Hill and his team took a risk. There’s a real dearth of ideas to be found in Sponge on the Run and a slowly dispiriting stench of stretching desperately for time. Fundamentally, it’s “Have You Seen This Snail” grafted onto a lesser retread of the original Spongebob Movie from 16 years ago (16 YEARS AGO I REFUSE TO ACCEPT THIS) with the same general structure, antagonist set-up, and even certain plot beats from the movie reused with only minor remixing. Poseidon standing in for Neptune, a road quest for Spongebob & Patrick to rescue something, the obligatory trip to the surface – this time taking the form of a way too long and completely pointless visit to the set of Deadwood. Some of the gags are genuinely funny, I laughed or at least chuckled consistently enough throughout the 90 minutes, but none even graze the B-tiers of the prior films let alone those of the show’s first three seasons. And the pacing is a mess, it stops stone-dead constantly for these detours and montages which aren’t related to the main story nor are funny or moving enough to justify how long they go on for. It kinda feels like they wanted to recapture the zing of the Bubbles the Dolphin bit from Sponge Out of Water (Matt Berry’s even back albeit voicing a completely different character) but they don’t have a single inspired idea like that so just resort to “DANCE PARTY.”
By the time the film stops to feed some pretty severe and not very effective retcons – in the most blatant attempt at a backdoor pilot for a spin-off I have seen in anything in years – through a similar framing device to “Truth or Square,” I was very much on the verge of being lost. That didn’t quite end up happening cos I just like Spongebob and these characters too much to truly be turned off by sub-par Squarepants, but it’s still disappointing to watch something lacking in ideas actively flail around in an effort to sufficiently pad out the runtime, especially when that thing used to have ideas in spades. More outside-the-box thinking was needed here, more risks and energy. Too often, and even with its relentless self-cannibalisation, Sponge on the Run threatens to feel like any other generic animated kids’ film. Otto was great, at least.
Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan [Tuesday 8th]
Dir: Larry Charles
First-time viewing (yes, really)
Not sure which fact I’m going to be more castrated for: the fact that I have only just now seen Borat for the very first time, or the fact that I didn’t find it all that funny. Although, to be very clear, I don’t believe that second fact was a fault of the film nor an indication that its comedy has become outdated in the past 14 years like I assumed would be the case. In fact, I believe that Sacha Baron Cohen and his assembled creative team nail exactly what they set out to do with aplomb and I admire them for being able to do that. Borat is extremely cohesive and exceptionally well edited in a manner that many of these semi-scripted-semi-real mockumentaries can struggle at doing, with no setpiece outstaying its welcome and sometimes finding these great circular comic rhythms that really enliven a piece rather than just relying on drawing out the cringe comedy. Its satirical aims are clear and (mostly) land on-target. And, if absolutely nothing else, one really does have to give props to Cohen for his complete and total commitment throughout everything; always being game to do anything in the name of gaining a laugh, that’s admirable.
I just didn’t laugh all that much. When I did laugh, they were proper loud guffaws, often due to being surprised by the sudden appearance of something especially smart-dumb, but they were shockingly rare for a compact 84-minute comedy often hailed as one of the greatest of the century. And, honestly, I’m fairly certain the problem is me rather than the film, its reception, or almost 15 years of having its catchphrases driven into the ground by unfunny tools. I think I’m just over the specific kind of satire and usages of “ironic” sexism/homophobia/racism/antisemitism etc. Cohen has to use to make his points. Like, especially after this year, I don’t really get a kick anymore out of seeing people be made to show their (metaphorical) arses both openly (in the case of the travelling college bros) and subconsciously (in the case of everyone who doesn’t push back against Borat’s most odious tendencies) through careful prodding. I get the appeal, I get the vital necessary good it can do in provoking much-needed introspection and conversation, but I get more than enough of that non-satirically from just logging online nowadays or turning on the news and it just makes me tired. Not to mention the gnawing sensation that there’s rarely that thick of a line separating ironic discrimination utilised for comedy from actual discrimination – this is a line of thought that’s been raging since the film first came out, the last decade I feel has only made it more relevant.
Once again, this is not a criticism against the film, per se, nor am I some hyper-sensitive SJW snowflake or whatever who can’t take a joke. I’m just telling you where I personally am at and why I didn’t find Borat that funny even whilst I understand why so many other people love it and believe it succeeds at what it aims to achieve, which is all I can do as a critic. Dad re-upped his Prime Video in time for the last season of Vikings, so I’ll be watching Subsequent Moviefilm soon enough to see how that one holds up and if 14 years + cultural ubiquity have caused Cohen to change his satirical track anyhow. I’m interested to see. Hopefully there’s at least significantly less “ironic” gay panic in that one.
Callum Petch says the wrong thing at the perfect time.