Corrupt cops, pop stars, and punk icons.
This was supposed to be up two and a half days ago, for the record. I didn’t purposefully stretch this out so I could artificially pump up the numbers because, as you can probably tell if you skimmed to the end and then raced back up here hoping I wouldn’t notice, I still didn’t watch anything in those additional 60 hours. No, this didn’t go up until now because I didn’t finish writing it until about 30 minutes ago because I have slept through the last three afternoons, and I slept through the last three afternoons because these anti-depressants that I am on have been striking me down with a real bad case of insomnia.
Mark Oliver Everett was absolutely right when he sang that depression “is a motherfucker.” When I wrote at the conclusion of my London Film Festival coverage that I felt re-energised and filled with a desire to knuckle down and throw myself back into the world of writing, I wasn’t lying or writing to a pre-conceived happy ending where our hero, having spent the time prior to his trip being beaten down and pushed to absolute misery and near-hopelessness, vanquishes the demons that prevented him from doing what he loves and rides off into the sunset content and ready for anything. I really did think that this time things were going to be different, that I was all set to start again, and once I took a day or two to recover from the hectic schedule that London had put me through, that I would be able to sit down and get right back into shit!
Depression, however, as previously mentioned, is a motherfucker, and absolutely nothing erodes hope and energy faster than the realisation that you’ve not actually made any real progress and are still stuck in the same empty, adrift, directionless rut you started the Summer in with absolutely no end in sight whilst all your friends run off to far-flung corners of the country and/or get jobs. I keep being told by my therapist that I am making progress, but said progress is so negligible and so personal and so minor that I never really believe it. I can tell myself that I’m fine with the fact that I will finish the year still unemployed, but the truth is that I am not, because my days consist of waking up, existing for 15 or so hours, and then going back to bed if I’ve even left it in the first place because there’s nothing else going on in my life. The creative spark is hard to keep aflame in the face of a monotonous and miserably lonely day-to-day cycle.
At the end of last month, the day I saw Doctor Strange to be precise, I decided that I could not go on living in such crushing misery and resolved to finally try anti-depressants. So I’ve been on those for the last fortnight. They, as you may have gleaned from the fringes of my recent Box Office Reports, have not been helping; if anything, they’ve been making things worse. The constant shitting may have somewhat subsided, but the insomnia has just been getting worse and worse – I sleep for, at most, six hours a night and it’s a horribly uncomfortable, restless, and frequently interrupted sleep, at that. Worse than even that, though, is this weird contradiction where I simultaneously have more energy than I did before and even less than ever. Like, I have enough energy to feel like I should be doing something with my life, but not enough to actually do anything. So little energy that I’m sleeping through the day to make up for the sleep I’m not getting at night, but enough energy that I feel shitty for wasting the day after it’s done. And I’m not feeling any of the positive effects that are supposed to counterbalance all this – if anything, the crushing needy loneliness and lack of self-worth have only gotten worse since I started taking these.
So that’s why this piece is two and a half days late and why the site has not been swimming in content now that I’m back from London. It’s because depression is a motherfucker.
Here’s what I’ve been watching this week. Last week. Whatever.
War on Everyone [Monday 14th]
Dir: John Michael McDonagh
Writers far smarter and far more knowledgeable than I: why are all the new British/Irish auteur directors seemingly collectively deciding to trade their stock in trade (resolutely and distinctively British/Irish films in terms of feel, style, and theme) in favour of empty stylish 70s American cult movie homages? Ben Wheatley and Amy Jump with Free Fire, John Michael McDonagh with War on Everyone, Andrea Arnold with American Honey – I’ve heard, that’s one I need to catch up on at year’s end… Each made their name and cut their teeth on British/Irish films yet all three have now decided to jump at the opportunity to make a Sam Peckinpah film, a profane 70s buddy cop movie, and Easy Rider respectively. What gives? Why now have all three decided to throw their time and money at homaging their film school favourites? I don’t have any ideas as to this theory, I’m hoping somebody else can make something of that.
Anyways, War on Everyone is fine. It is gleefully and intentionally offensive and in bad taste, throwing shots in almost literally every direction – race, gender, sexuality; you name it, its two lead characters will cross that line and make 200 cracks about it as they do so – and at such a rapid-fire and often over-the-top pace that there’s a guilty yet undeniably debauched fun to be had in wallowing in the muck that the film slings about the place. It’s also noticeably completely empty, particularly once it runs out of steam about an hour in. McDonagh very clearly set out to make a 70s buddy cop film as written by somebody who adores Tarantino – all style, zero substance, desperately trying to be cult – and it works up to a point. Skarsgård and Peña are clearly having the time of their lives playing such thoroughly terrible people, and the script is primarily composed around tangents and asides, most of which are super well-constructed and very funny.
Things deflate, however, once the film tries to pivot from that semi-free-form vignette structure into something approaching a climax with stakes and, what else, attempts to turn our degenerate protagonists into something approaching a genuine moral centre in the hopes that we’ll magically become properly invested in the big (and honestly pretty terrible) shootout during the finale. Unsurprisingly, this all rings hollow – in fact, I want it beaten into every Tarantino wannabe that this tactic not only never works, but is also completely pointless because one does not need to sympathise with any character in a work in order to feel invested in its outcome – and that slow realisation that the film could only just kinda stop unsatisfyingly does bring things down retroactively. I did have fun with War on Everyone, in particular there’s a trip to Iceland (that makes just as much sense in context) that is one of the year’s funniest gags, but I think the most telling thing I can say about it is that my 46 year-old Dad who adores Tarantino and these kinds of stylish macho films, listens near-exclusively to Planet Rock, is super into The Joker, and has a goddamn soul patch declared it “the best film I’ve seen this year” as we left the cinema.
Layer Cake [Thursday 17th]
Dir: Matthew Vaughn
I’m glad that enough time has passed that we’re no longer comparing Layer Cake to the films of Guy Ritchie, just because Matthew Vaughn used to produce Ritchie’s films and deigned to have his directorial debut also be a British gangster film. See, neither Lock, Stock nor Snatch are really old-school British gangster movies, or at least not in the way that critics like to point to. Both films lack the menace and, for lack of a better term, grit that inflects classics of the genre like The Long Good Friday or Get Carter. They’re capable of reaching that menace from time to time, most prominently with the burning of Mickey’s Mum’s caravan in Snatch, but mostly they carry an overt stylishness and intentional silliness that puts them more on the level of farces like The Italian Job than, say, Scum.
By contrast, Layer Cake is all about that menace. The film radiates it, putting back in the livewire danger that dealing with the alternately chess masters and complete-fucking-morons of a British gangster movie would feel like to that poor sod stuck in the middle. It’s aiming for something different than Ritchie’s cartoon capers and that resultantly makes Layer Cake a more accurate throwback to those old-school British gangster movies than any of Ritchie’s films, whilst still indulging in a style and sense of hyper-reality both cribbed from Vaughn’s time producing Ritchie’s works – in particular, the way he employs needle-drops, most obviously “Ordinary World” – and in ways that hint towards Vaughn’s metamorphosis into the big-time Hollywood director he is today, like with the opening monologue. It can be more than a little too self-serious for its own good, Vaughn hadn’t quite mastered the control of tone that he displays in his other works here, but it’s very smart and well-written, stylish but not overly so, and gets great performances out of all of its cast. It’s a particular joy to see an alive Daniel Craig performance again; those years as Bond have really sapped the life out of him.
Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids [Saturday 19th]
Dir: Jonathan Demme
It’s a cliché for those amongst the film critic/film snob elite to state, but there really is no better director of the concert movie than Jonathan Demme. That also feels weird to say since Demme has only directed six concert films across his incredibly long and storied career, and three of those were about Neil Young! But the shadow of Stop Making Sense looms large over the history of filming live music, and deservedly so. I’d say you could make a drinking game out of every time I get incensed over the BBC’s direction of Glastonbury footage every year, but I’m pretty sure those participating would be dead within 30 minutes after my tenth tirade against the cameras cutting to mugging shots of the audience. Demme and his team get that one watches a concert film to watch the band, to watch the stage show, to catch stuff they may not have gotten being there in person, and that the best way to fulfil those desires is through long takes with steady cameras that are both immaculately-framed yet just off enough to catch a slight irregularity or break in the artifice that serves to make everything more endearing and human.
So, you know, who better a subject than Justin Timberlake? On paper, it seems like a mismatch or even, gasp, “selling out” on the part of Demme, since he’s worked with either cult or deliberately low-key artists up until now, and a bonafide Pop Superstar like Timberlake could create an enterprise that’s too chilly and mechanical to play to Demme’s strengths. Except, of course, that that’s all bollocks. Timberlake is a Star, his songs are Pop in 500 point emboldened Impact, and his live show, as evidenced here, is meticulously planned and constructed, but he and his work and his show still carry that same kind of tangible auteurship that one would attribute to Talking Heads or Robyn Hitchcock. There are no other Pop Stars like Justin Timberlake because there is nobody else today making songs in the way that Justin Timberlake does, and nobody else who can carry themselves with an equal balance of pure joy for the gifts they display on a daily basis, a sincere “aw, shucks” humbleness, and a legitimate coolness that you want to even just slightly rub off on you like Timberlake can.
Yeah, I’m a real huge Timberlake mark and Demme’s directorial style is pretty much exactly how I like my live music shot – as a brief side note: I still pour one out on a daily basis for the demise of From the Basement; it was too beautiful for this world – so there was no way I wasn’t going to adore Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids. Even with that said, though, both parties went above and beyond the call of duty. Timberlake is an absolutely mesmerising showman whom Demme’s camera suitably adores, particularly whenever it captures a tiny aside of him sharing a disbelieving giggle with his band at the sheer reaction he gets from his audience, Demme makes sure that the Tennessee Kids part of the title isn’t a case of mis-selling, quietly drawing attention to the featured players that make the star look and sound a million bucks whilst getting spotlight moments of their own, and the sound mixing is superb, particularly in the volume of the crowd. Really, the only misstep in the entire 90 minutes is the awkward goofy transition between “What Goes Around” and “Poison” that breaks the flow of this condensed performance and pulled me out of the experience, however briefly. Otherwise, it’s Jonathan Demme filming a Justin Timberlake concert. So, you know, inject it into my veins please.
Premium Rush [Saturday 19th]
Dir: David Koepp
Michael Shannon is one of the absolute best actors working today, that much I don’t think people will attempt to dispute, and his performance in Premium Rush is one of his best to date. I’m serious, and I would like to back that claim by citing Al Pacino as evidence. Al Pacino was a great actor, that much you cannot deny, but he was (and has proven himself for about two decades) also capable of being hammy as shit. Now, being hammy is not an inherently bad thing, despite what others might claim, but you need to know how to pitch your hamminess, because get it wrong and you get, well, “HOO-AH!” But sometimes a role requires you to cut loose and have some hammy fun, otherwise you’ll drag the rest of the film down with you. It’s a tough balancing act, but it’s one that Shannon pulls off with aplomb in Premium Rush.
This film is so very, very dumb – it’s about a gang of secure bike couriers in New York City and is basically as faithful a film version of Mirror’s Edge as one could ask for, how can it not be dumb? But it’s also perfectly aware of just how dumb it is and so takes itself only as seriously as it needs to in order to remain endearing and entertaining rather than irritating. That’s the register that Shannon operates on throughout the whole film. The film wants you to see him as the Wile E. Coyote to Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Roadrunner, particularly with the fact that JGL’s character is actually only referred to as Wilee. But he’s honestly closer to a live-action Yosemite Sam, all sputtering barely-contained rage with an active contempt for everybody he has to interact with and a faint self-awareness of how stupid his life currently is. It is, quite frankly, perfect and fits the film to a tee, which is never anything less than gloriously entertaining for the lean 90 minutes it runs for.
The Punk Singer [Sunday 20th]
Dir: Sini Anderson
The Punk Singer is near-enough a hagiography, but I honestly would consider that a positive for once rather than a negative, and not just because I consider Kathleen Hanna to be a legit badass icon who I wish I could be even a smidgen as amazing as. As the film itself points out, around about the time that Bikini Kill were reaching the height of their notoriety and when Courtney Love infamously punched out Hanna at Lollapalooza, there’s a tendency in mainstream patriarchal society to play down a woman’s accomplishments, or to asterisk them, or place them in competition with other women regardless of whether they have asked for such a thing. They’re never really allowed to just have a victory, to let their accomplishments stand unchallenged and just be, regardless of how momentous they are. For just one example, love or loathe her, but the constant downplaying or outright ignorance of Hillary Clinton’s being the first female major party Presidential nominee in American politics, despite that being genuinely historic in the same way as Obama was back in 2008 (and which was similarly downplayed or ignored), is maddening.
So, in that respect, why not go for a super celebratory and hopeful retrospective where, for 80 minutes at least, Hanna’s art and influence and icon status are allowed to just be? Where, for 80 minutes, we can rally around an inspirational figure without having to qualify those testimonies or pick her apart and tear her down? In fairness, I most likely would not be so willing to let all this slide if I didn’t essentially agree with the film that Kathleen Hanna is an extraordinary woman – I have my favourites and biases, sue me – and I definitely am not willing to let slide the poor timeline signposting that plagues the film, where even those who are already familiar with Hanna’s work can find themselves lost every now and again. But The Punk Singer is also a super well-made, entertaining and informative documentary about a feminist wave and subculture that deserves more attention and exposure. The last third in particular, when Hanna divulges about the Lyme Disease that unwillingly ripped her from the spotlight in the mid-2000s, is powerful stuff.
Also, if Leeds tickets for The Julie Ruin next month could not sell out before I get money, that would be swell, thanks, Life.
Callie Petch is betting on the bull in the heather.