Weddings, musicals, cabins, and male entertainers.
Gonna skip the mental health preamble this week since my plate just became a lot fuller these past few days and I’m bad at time management, and this laptop did its “screen dies suddenly without warning, necessitating a reboot and loss of all work” trick once more before I switch over to a new one for old time’s sake. (Also, cos said mental health preamble would’ve just been about my Dad’s cats, thus completing the transition into a late-40s agoraphobic divorcee I’ve always threatened to become.) Besides, I promised you an update/clarification on Listmas this year so let’s get on with that.
Listmas is still happening sort of. What’s definitely not happening is the fortnight of movie lists, awards, and other junk which has otherwise made up Listmas for the past five years of this site. No Top Films, no Bottom Films, no x Annual Awards, no Best Performances, not even the Meh-gnificent 7. The simple fact is that I have not seen anywhere near enough films this year to justify them – as of post-time, the no. of new UK release films I’ve seen in 2020 is at 63, my lowest since 2013 (the last year before I went full-time on film criticism and got a Cineworld Unlimited card that made watching easier), and that number is almost entirely sans the big streaming names from this year (still haven’t watched Mank yet). But even more than that, I’ve struggled to think about films this year. They don’t linger in my brain long after viewing, I’ve found it difficult to even get in a film-watching headspace to begin with, and I’m honestly worried that I’m not enjoying the act of watching films so much anymore with very rare exceptions. So, even though all year-end lists are just snapshots in time and subjective state of mind rather than anything definitive, I don’t think it’s fair to the films which did come out this year for me to do a list series for something I’ve not been properly engaged with.
But I do have pitches and a rough schedule I’m gonna try my best to adhere to in an effort to send my awful writing year out on a higher note than there has been up to now. So, here it is:
- 24th: Some kind of editorial-y type piece on the past 12 months in music, cos that’s honestly been the medium I’ve most engaged with and am most knowledgeable on this year. This one’s likely going to Soundsphere because I want to give them something for being so patient with my mental health this year and I might be doing the bullet point after the next one for them too, so this would work well as a prelude for that later entry. Of course, if they don’t want it, I’ll dump it here! I’ve been mentally writing the thing for the past fortnight, so it’s gonna happen if only to get outta my head.
- 25th – 27th: Top 50 Songs of 2020 countdown. I know we normally do that trilogy the weekend before Xmas, but things have been a bit hectic, my commitment last week to one last WIBW before year’s out, and the fact that music has not stopped in December mean I’m only just now locking in my list so there’s no way I’m getting any part of it finished before Friday. But tradition shall not be denied and I will indeed dump objectively too many words about my favourite songs onto this very site!
- 28th – 29th: Top Albums of 2020. This one’s Soundsphere-bound unless they change their mind at the last minute – which they might when that alternative-and-punk music site gets a look at my list.
- 29th: 2020 – The Year the Movies Stopped (For Me). Basically an expanded version of that paragraph up top where I explained why I’m not doing proper Listmas this year, only aiming to both look at the industry at large, with some speculation on what’s gonna happen going forward, and to get a bit more personal and mental health-y on why films just couldn’t pull me in as the world went to shit.
- 30th: My Films of 2020. I do have a few films from this year which did manage to stick out through the malaise and existential dread, though, so I’m gonna give them props here and explain what they meant to me. Not the same as a Top Films list, if only cos there’ll just be three.
- 31st: the usual self-indulgent and excessively-revealing self-reflection essay. This time with big important news, unless I correctly realise at the last minute that it’s a bad idea and instead choose to dance around the topic incessantly and waste everyone’s time.
Those are the tentative Listmas plans. We’ll see what I stick to and how they shake out as readable articles. There also might be something pretty cool (to me) coming along in the middle of all this unrelated, assuming I don’t fuck it up. Stay tuned.
Here’s what I’ve been watching this week.
Dublin Oldschool [Wednesday 9th]
Dir: Dave Tynan
For the most part, my thoughts are quite the same as when I first saw this back at the 2018 London Film Festival – and, to toot my own horn a bit, I’m amazed that Past Me managed to pick up on the observations and criticisms featured in said write-up given how deep into the gruelling Fest I was. So, I’m gonna leave a link to that here rather than repeat myself. Instead, here are my three major changes in opinion from that first showing which have taken the shine off on a second go-around. Film’s still good, enjoyable, just not great. 1) Jason’s kind of a prick and, whilst the film knows it, I get the sense we’re supposed to like him anyway? That his Irish swagger and bursts of quick wit are supposed to make him not just entertaining to watch in spite of his prickness, but also someone the audience is meant to sympathise with. There’s a reason why Trainspotting never asks us to sympathise with Mark Renton even whilst his antics can be fun to watch.
2) Yeah, actually, you can very much tell this started off as a play if you know where to look. The extremely verbose beat poetry monologues in particular are remnants of a stripped-down abstract-by-necessity medium which are completely unnecessary when the visual storytelling (and an accompanying decent budget) can just depict the things Jason would otherwise describe. Comes off a touch pretentious here. Weirdly, the central relationship between Jason and his junkie brother Daniel is what most betrays those stage origins. It’s so disconnected from the rest of the movie in all facets – the staging of all their scenes in particular are super theatrical in their isolation and basic blocking – that the depiction feels very unreal in a film otherwise physically grounded. It’s coded more like a series of metaphorical conscience-wranglings rather than something tangible, so nothing hits emotionally like it should.
3) Much more than the Human Traffic comparisons I had at the time, I feel this really suffers now from the existence of Beats, Brian Welsh’s magnificent Scottish rave dramedy also based on a play which came out just over six months after I saw Dublin. Even if they’re not 1:1 similar, Dublin gets outclassed by Beats in pretty much every criteria. Better script, better translation into film, better style, better heart, and about equal on tunes. I still like Dublin and think it’s worth your time if you like these kinds of tales as I do – it’s witty, Emmet Kirwan is a solid leading man, the setting of Dublin provides a unique feel and sense of place, and the tunes are great – but now I just wanna watch Beats again. And not just cos Beats is hella gay.
Hamilton [Thursday 10th]
Dir: Thomas Kail
Now that I have finally experienced Hamilton after five years of hype, discourse, memes that I didn’t understand, and intentionally not listening to the soundtrack cos I wanted to see the thing properly in some capacity first (and also cos I didn’t realise it’s nothing but songs), I can at long last join the conversation! It’s pretty great, isn’t it? Whilst I can’t fully deny the critiques I saw on Letterboxd after viewing – there aren’t really characters per se so much as personified concepts, representations, and historical analyses in the skin-suits of characters; it can be more simplistic and hagiographic than it’s fully aware of; the founding fathers were terrible people and this is basically propaganda, we know, Jan – I was shocked by just how much I found myself swept up in it all. Even as a fan of musicals and someone who tries their best to vent The Discourse out of mind when approaching something hot, I honestly didn’t expect this to be as fun, engrossing, surprisingly affecting (for what’s basically a sung Wiki summary), and brilliant as the years of hype and instant canonisation into pop cultural greatness had built it up to be.
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s singing voice is… ok, but the man’s a fucking beast when it comes to songwriting. Oh sure, Moana, the best modern Disney musical (fight me nerds) already made that abundantly clear, but the way he infuses musical theatre songwriting with the self-mythologising soul of hip-hop storytelling and blatant pop song bites for the basis of certain numbers – I’m surely not the first one to realise that “Helpless” steals most of its melodies from Beyoncé’s “Countdown,” right – pleases my music nerd brain to no end. Not to mention how he plays around with reprisals and tropes in ways that my basic ass will always pop for. The one-two punch of “Helpless” into the show-stopping “Satisfied” gives legitimate chills, or how Burr’s “I Want” song (“The Room Where It Happens”) takes about halfway until he finally says the words “I want” which is also the first time in the whole show (I believe) Burr actually professes to want or believe anything (the desire of power for power’s sake). That stripped-back theatre-stage staging is a fantastic design choice too, really emphasising the themes of political manoeuvring and chancers waiting to take their shot, whilst the rotating circle provides some striking choreography and a sensation of forward momentum.
As for points relating specifically to the filmed take presented on Disney+ rather than the musical as a whole, it mostly does what it needs to do. Namely, get the fuck out of the way to let the show and its brilliant cast – imagine being somebody who would seriously write that Daveed Diggs “has the charisma of a metronome and the expressive range of a sock puppet,” imagine being that wrong about something yet publishing it online for thousands of people to read anyway – do the talking. Show director Kail also directs the film and mostly sticks to semi-wide relatively-flat levelled camerawork throughout, trusting that the cast’s energy and the award-winning choreography can stand well enough on their own. It’s unshowy and does the job it’s supposed to, rarely pulling a “wow, what a shot!” reaction independent of what someone might see from the crowd but also rarely pulling the viewer out of the musical’s spell from sloppy cuts or intrusive camerawork. I’m not a fan of the occasional pick-up shot where a physical camera will go on-stage for proper close-ups because they add little to the overall experience other than a minor distracting incongruence by still playing audience audio despite this clearly coming from a different rehearsal performance; the lone time this intimacy works is, fittingly, “Room Where It Happens.” But other than that, I can’t complain.
The censoring of the “fuck”s is weird, though. Takes the wind out of “Yorktown” and “Washington On Your Side,” especially in a musical where every single word has been carefully chosen for maximum precise effect. But that’s a wider societal convo we don’t have time to get into. Point is, I have now seen Hamilton and Hamilton is Good, Actually! I look forward to finally joining the discourse! Now lemme just open up the ol’ Letterboxd and Reddit to see what folks ar- (*immediately has face melted off by sheer number, strength, and vehement viscosity of hot-takes*)
Magic Mike XXL [Friday 11th]
Dir: Gregory Jacobs
It’s been half a decade and I still cannot believe Magic Mike XXL exists in the perfect, feminist, slyly-radical manner that it does. With every single thing we know about the Hollywood film industry, its attitudes towards the female and queer gazes, relative contempt for those very audiences – to such a degree that the original Magic Mike is one of the more notorious examples of misleading advertising last decade, especially with how desperately the film (which is still mostly good) wants to be a “real movie” – and rigid attitudes towards masculinity and inclusivity, and that’s with what little has changed in the five years since… Magic Mike XXL, existing in the wide-released manner that it does, is frankly a miracle movie. That’s even before you take into account the fact that this joyous, hopeful, steamy, fun antithesis to the gloomy, despairing, heatless, and cynical original was made by almost the exact same creative team as the first. (Same writer, and Steven Soderbergh still handling basically everything else other than the director’s chair he gave up to long-time friend Gregory Jacobs.)
God, I love every second of this perfect movie. I haven’t smiled this hard in months. The second Mike starts busting some movies to “Pony,” this giant unstoppable beam spread across my cheeks and refused to subside for the rest of the film. It’s just so wholesome, which I recognise is a supremely weird usage of the term in a film that makes every single viewer pregnant at some point during its runtime but it’s honestly true. Everyone involved puts their all into creating such a safe, inviting and inclusive fantasy free of conflict, judgement or shame. It’s such a supremely confident movie; confident in itself, what it likes and what it wants to be. At every turn, the film rejects artificial conflict or toxic ideas of masculinity and prideful toughness; each time some kind of resentment or potential jealousy seems like it’ll rear its head, the cast instead just talk it out through heartfelt straight-shooting and a willingness to accept their own mistakes rather than deflect or resort to macho posturing. There’s an ever-present respect displayed towards not just the needs of women, many of whom are casually plus-sized and non-White because they are also queens and deserve to be treated as such, but also of men’s needs and mental health; they rib each other, but never cross the line and are always so lovingly supportive when chips are down.
Genuinely, this is a quietly subversive little movie. It’s subversive in its attitudes towards masculinity. It’s subversive in its acceptance of women’s desires and gay subcultures; always loving and welcoming, never judging. It’s subversive in its commitment to casual inclusion (even if it’s somewhat limited in terms of speaking roles and Asian representation). It’s subversive in the validity and dignity it affords the stripping profession – the conversation Ken has with Andre in the car-ride from Rome’s where Andre just sounds so happy to be finding joy in what he does night after night effectively functions as the film’s thesis statement. It’s subversive in the camerawork and editing choices, how they transform traditional power depictions of male bodies into something sensual and ogle-able without being exploitative or crass. It’s subversive in how Jada Pinkett-Smith almost steals the entire movie for herself and everybody involved is ok with that because it fits the fantasy.
I love it. It’s perfect. It’s near-perfect. If you don’t agree on this fact, I want nothing to do with you, sorry not sorry.
folklore: the long pond studio sessions [Saturday 12th]
Dir: Taylor Swift
There are many things I would not have bet on occurring this year. A raging global pandemic shutting everything down. My Dad becoming paralysed from the waist down. The perplexingly fascinating return of G4. And what, for my money, seemed like the least likely bet of them all is also manifesting ever stronger as the year crawls towards the finish-line: I am slowly becoming a convert to the music of Taylor Swift. Turns out that all she was doing wrong as a musician in the eight years since crossing over in the UK was *checks notes* constantly release the absolute worst possible lead singles that made sure I’d never want to check out the albums as a whole. Far more than folklore and now evermore being her “indie” records – and, frankly, that pitch wasn’t as done a deal as it might sound cos *whispers* I honestly find The National quite boring – all she needed to do was just drop an album with no saturated pre-release singles and let me come to it sans expectations, then bam! It’s “mirrorball” and I’m stood in my kitchen saying out loud to no-one in particular, “wait, has Taylor Swift actually been good at music this whole time?”
I’ll have a little more to say about folklore (evermore’s not been out long enough to make an impact on my lists but is also v. good) during the music portion of Listmas. As for the long pond studio sessions, it’s a fine compliment to the album that, just like the record itself, I liked a lot more than I thought I would going in. There is an air of the calculation and defensiveness that follows Taylor in everything she does – not just the fawning chats she has with Aaron Dessner and Jack Antonoff, but also the way she makes sure to catch a camera to deliver specific lines down-barrel during the performances. But I’m always down to hear musicians talk about their craft, for good and ill, and some of the chats here really added to my appreciation of the songs; hearing the story behind “epiphany” turned it from what I felt was one of the weaker tracks into a knife straight to the heart here with that context and a more anchored musical arrangement. The presentation, meanwhile, gave me real From the Basement vibes in that relaxed practice room intimacy, instruments strewn everywhere, warm lighting, cameras and editing artfully fixating on the act of playing, and y’all know that is exactly my shit. Can’t say I’ll return to long pond often – the stripped-down arrangements of an already stripped-down album don’t do much either way, and subjecting “betty” to the Disney+ censorship is a goddamned travesty – but it’s an enjoyable bonus to a great album.
Also, Jack Antonoff is like if Octodad became a musician. …that’s a very niche joke/burn basically nobody is gonna get but, trust me, it’ll kill the 14 people who do.
Love Wedding Repeat [Monday 14th]
Dir: Dean Craig
No. Absolutely not. I will not stand for this.
*dials number on phone*
Hello, Operator? Get me the C.E.O. of Comedy. They need to know something terrible has happened here.
Ava [Tuesday 15th]
Dir: Tate Taylor
Ok, I think we have now fully established the complete spectrum of Tate Taylor being a boring incompetent filmmaker across a range of different genres. He’s proven himself to stink at hacky race-relations awards bait, he’s proven himself to stink at music biopics (Great Man variant), he’s proven himself to stink at campy Gone Girl-esque mystery thrillers, he’s proven himself to stink at vaguely-exploitative psychological horrors, and now he’s proven himself to stink at action thrillers. It’s time we start giving other, better people a shot at mid-budget star vehicles. Like, what if Coralie Fargeat had been allowed to direct this? Or Lexi Alexander? Or Lynne Ramsay? Or Ava DuVernay? Or Karyn Kusama? Or Ana Lily Amirpour? Or Lesli Linka Glatter? Or, hell, even Bryce Dallas Howard? Think of how much better this would’ve been with directors who have a sense of fun, a sense of style, a woman’s eye to the material, and are all capable of directing action scenes that are actually legible? (Seriously, what is even the point of a ‘big movie star does a John Wick’ stunt movie if you can’t see them doing the stunts half the time due to incomprehensible editing and lighting?)
I mean, it probably still wouldn’t have been particularly good, cos the script by a known serial self-admitted abuser is absolute dogshit, but it might have at least been mildly engaging. Instead, Taylor’s dreary direction just ends up highlighting how Matthew Newton’s script is barely one; an absolute mess of conflicting themes, plots, characters, and set-ups without payoffs, all so under-baked they’ve barely risen a millimetre between entering and exiting the oven. The secret assassin half of the story is so disconnected from the ‘borderline-relapsing alcoholic returns home to broken family’ half of the story that the former’s central “Ava must be closed” conflict requires everybody to act like gullible short-sighted morons whilst the latter ends up not factoring into the last half-hour in the least despite constant foreshadowing. Even Ava’s eventual relapse has no bearing on anything despite its alleged centrality to her character. It looks pretty bad, every (bad) action scene feels inserted out of perfunctory necessity and has at least two moments where I couldn’t tell how somebody had actually been hit or flipped, and everybody other than Jessica Chastain or Geena Davis stinks up the joint, most especially the hilariously flat Common.
To close: does anyone else think it’s weird that Jessica Chastain keeps utilising her industry clout and spokesperson status for female equality in movies to create star vehicles for herself… that keep on not having women involved in any major part of the creative process? I mean, I don’t think it’s a controversial take to say that Tate Taylor and Simon Kinberg (who’s doing The 355) are firmly in the bottom-tier of currently-working directors. You telling me there are no female directors who could outmatch them and wouldn’t jump at the chance to direct a lady spy flick? And that Chastain has the pull to get these projects greenlit as a producer but not so much that they MUST HAVE a mediocre man in the director’s chair else they get canned? I dunno. Maybe/probably there’s just petty sexist industry politics tying her hands. But, perception-wise, she’s looking a lot like the Taylor Swift of the film world; someone who talks a big feminist game, but refuses to share with female collaborators on her songs.
Callum Petch is knocking flat-earthers off the block like Q*Bert.