Porn addiction, mystical masks, Churchill, and wholesome ventriloquism.
It’s a little too close to the big old mopey self-reflection piece I did to send 2017 off into the personal history books for me to feel justified in writing another thousand words on that. Nothing much has changed in the past 20-odd days, anyway. So, instead, let me use this pre-amble to provide a little hub area for all of my Year in Review 2017 pieces, since I wrote a lot of words over that fortnight, and the articles came thick and fast without once missing their assigned posting times of 4PM GMT every day (7PM for the self-reflection piece as I deliberately wrote it from scratch on the day)! Depending on how this year goes, that could be the last time I pen a series like it, so at least I left everything on the table with them, barring a few typos and formatting troubles. More grousing about life and writing, meanwhile, can wait for another day.
26th December 2017: The Meh-gnificent 7
27th December 2017: 20 Best Scenes
28th December 2017: Top 20 Films, #20 – #11
29th December 2017: Top 20 Films, #10 – #6
30th December 2017: Top 20 Films, #5 – #1
31st December 2017: 2017 self-reflection
1st January 2018: 10 Best Performances
2nd January 2018: The Obligatory “Is Netflix Killing Movies?” Piece
3rd January 2018: 3rd Annual Awards, Part 1
4th January 2018: 3rd Annual Awards, Part 2
5th January 2018: Bottom 10 Films, #10 – #6
6th January 2018: Bottom 10 Films, #5 – #1
Here’s what I’ve been watching this week.
Don Jon [Sunday 14th]
Dir: Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Re-watching Don Jon for the first time since I saw it in theatres, I was largely struck by just how close to “it” that Gordon-Levitt gets before falling victim to both his own limited viewpoint and the fact that he’s framed his story within the genre conventions of a rom-com. Don Jon wants to be about the ways in which people objectify and dehumanise each other for sexual or romantic pleasure – Jon through a vivacious addiction to pornography, Barbara through Hollywood romantic comedies, both of which condition their consumers to see sex and romance as possessive, one-way streets that don’t allow for the input of the other person – and it comes so close to fully pulling it off. Gordon-Levitt clearly thinks he gets it, particularly in how he has Thomas Kloss’ camera begin in full-on leery sex-sells mode before pulling back into more human indie dramedy mode as time rolls on. And I like how, even whilst pointing out the hypocrisy of Barbara, he understands that Jon is kind of an asshole manchild who needs try harder, be less of a douchebag, and learn to see women as people rather than impeccably proportioned orgasm machines with no autonomy of their own and a willingness to give oral sex.
But, oh, does Gordon-Levitt also just not get “it” at all, since every female character in the film predominately exists solely to further Jon’s character development in certain different ways. Casting Brie Larson as his sister and then making her the Silent Bob of the movie is perfectly emblematic of his good intentions missing the mark, no matter how many amazing eyerolls she gets to give. Whilst hooking Jon up with Esther for real in the climax creates the unintentional messaging that all Jon truly needed to get over porn and respect women was to find the right lady to teach him to be better and how to do sex properly. That’s also not counting how Jon and his boys casual objectification and disinterested womanising, whilst at least not Barney Stinson levels of tolerated, largely passes without comment, which is less easy to shake off in 2018 than it was even four-and-a-half years ago. Blame that on Gordon-Levitt and Lauren Zuckermann’s pulsing, super-stylish editing, the double-edged sword that it ultimately ends up being, although it does make the film propulsive and fun with an excellent sense of routine that works for the narrative.
Again, his heart is in the right place and he comes so close to getting “it,” but it’s the film’s last two minutes that ultimately make it impossible to ignore the fundamental hypocrisy at the centre of Don Jon. It’s an entertaining watch, though, with Gordon-Levitt’s direction being particularly strong, and his performance here is the best of his slide into “Adam Sandler but for dramas” in recent years.
Fun and Fancy Free [Monday 15th]
Dirs: Jack Kinney, Bill Roberts, Hamilton Luske, William Morgan
I bought this back when they first issued it on Blu-Ray in the UK late in 2015, and only got around to watching the Fun and Fancy Free portion (it was doubled up with The Adventures of Ichabod & Mr. Toad here) on Monday. That’s kind of a recurring theme with my vast-ish Blu-Ray collection, I’m really bad at making myself watch stuff. Anyway, it’s not very good. I haven’t been much of a fan of any of the three Disney Package Movies I’ve seen so far – this, Melody Time, and The Three Caballeros – but at least the other two had enough shorts and segments to fill their runtimes somewhat painlessly. Neither “Bongo” nor “Mickey and the Beanstalk” have enough content in them to justify the 25-odd minutes they each get, and the result is stunted pacing and lots of padding. “Bongo” is the weaker in terms of pure content but does have the better presentation gimmick (it’s the visualisation of an in-universe audio record narrated by Dinah Shore), whilst “Mickey and the Beanstalk” has the better content but is fatally hobbled by the framework involving the woeful ventriloquist stylings of Edgar Bergen. Walt Disney was enamoured with the man for inexplicable reasons, so here he is narrating proceedings with two of his incredibly annoying dummies who keep interrupting at every turn to crack terrible jokes that kill the segment dead. Nobody’s finest hour, then, so it’s doubly disappointing that this was Walt’s last time voicing Mickey Mouse.
Ex Machina [Tuesday 16th]
Dir: Alex Garland
Alex Garland cannot write a decent ending to save his goddamn life. Experiencing an Alex Garland work is therefore all about deliberately setting oneself up for imminent disappointment and resigning yourself to being ok with it even as you know that it’s the one thing stopping him from becoming the must-watch talent he arguably should be. I distinctly remember reaching the end of his novel The Tesseract and being overcome with anger at how unsatisfying the entire final section was. Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, Sunshine, 28 Days Later as a result of caving to test screening pressure, Ex Machina… Arguably the only reason why Dredd turned out fine is because the only way that you could possibly have screwed up the ending to a story as simple as Dredd’s would have been to have the film irreversibly eat itself five minutes from the end. Garland can nail dialogue, characters, complex existential themes, hooky beginnings, but he cannot write a satisfying ending no matter how hard he tries.
Ex Machina, for about 90% of its runtime, is near-faultless. The mood is suffocating, the design is stifling, the dynamic between Caleb and Nathan and Ava is smothered in tension, and Alicia Vikander is so, so, so good in this – it’s nice to be reminded of just why I and everybody else in Hollywood fell for her so totally whilst she’s in the middle of her pre-Ben Wheatley-resurrection shit-streak. Then the ending happens. On paper, it likely reads fantastically. Ava murders Nathan with the help of Kyoko (who dies in the process), dresses in the skin and clothing of her “failed” former selves, then seals Caleb in the building to die whilst she escapes into the outside world. But in execution, Garland bricks it.
When Ex Machina starts, it’s about transhumanism, artificial intelligence, god complexes, can something constructed have a soul, and all that usual jazz in stories like this. But by the mid-point, the film has instead largely pivoted to questions about patriarchal power dynamics and misogyny both blatant and repressed. This is what makes Nathan so interesting and despicable as a character instead of just being well-trod ground. If a douchey tech-bro were the person to make the breakthrough of artificial intelligence, then of course they’d use it primarily to create sex bots with no autonomy and no means of communication designed almost solely to satisfy their own misogynistic views of women. This is why Kyoko’s character is a commentary on Asian female representations in White male stories like these, rather than a disappointing straightforward example of one. And it’s why Caleb has to be sealed away to die, because his “nice guy” internalisation still doesn’t envision Ava as somebody with her own thoughts and autonomy; to him, she is a helpless damsel in need of rescue, and he’s not that much better than Nathan.
Ava’s escape should be the moment where the narrative becomes hers, where she becomes her own person and finds out about life outside of her cage, and, in a way, it is, like how she expresses such joy over the simple sight of natural light… except that Garland keeps cutting back to Caleb trapped in the house, failing to get out. These cuts happen three times, totalling maybe twenty seconds of screen time, but they take the focus away from Ava and, in doing so, pivot away from the themes of gender-based power dynamics back to the vastly less interesting ones about the morality and nature of artificial intelligence in such a way as to render the gender themes moot points. In the name of unsettling downer endings, Garland ends up sacrificing so much of the groundwork laid by Ex Machina’s second half in favour of well-covered ground. Worse, it’s the kind of bad ending that sneaks up on you. Formally, it’s solid and does technically fit the film’s true aims. But it’s the kind of bad ending which just keeps nagging away at you as the minutes and hours roll on from it, slowly deflating any strong positive feelings you had towards the film as a whole, until what largely remains is the feeling of disappointment and missed opportunities. In 2018, we call this “The Wonder Woman Syndrome,” but it was why I left the film off of my 2015 Year in Review altogether and revisiting it three years later has only solidified the disappointment.
Oh, well! Super excited for Annihilation, which is due out in UK cinemas on… NETFLIX?! WHAT?!
All the Money in the World [Wednesday 17th]
Dir: Ridley Scott
Meh. It’s better than Alien: Covenant, at least. Michelle Williams and Christopher Plummer are great, it’s engaging enough, but I never managed to make the leap to really liking this one. For one, it’s about 20 minutes too long, just like basically everything Ridley Scott has made the century. For two, and more critically, David Scarpa’s screenplay never seems to figure out what angle it wants to take on the John Paul Getty kidnapping. This isn’t like other sub-par biopics where they just don’t have anything to say other than “this was something that happened,” because All the Money does touch on capitalistic greed, sexism, trial by media, the vapidity of the rich, and a whole bunch of other avenues. But it never manages to decide which one it wants to settle on, leading to a lot of hopscotch and underdeveloped themes. And for three, although this is a personal take, I found the events on screen to be too darkly farcical for how seriously the film plays them? Much of the Getty case is a farce, practically an early-Coen Brothers car-crash of dark farce-based imbecility, but the film rarely taps into that comic well. I get why – to do so would be to effectively make a more high-profile Pain & Gain, and the chances of anybody else managing to successfully walk that high-wire again are one in several million – but it ties back in to the film never figuring out exactly how it wants to tell this particular story.
But speaking of sub-par biopics…
Darkest Hour [Wednesday 17th]
Dir: Joe Wright
Even setting aside the fact that Winston Churchill was a racist shitbag of a human being and my resultant bias to any work that continues to fellate his alleged “greatness,” Darkest Hour is bad. Gary Oldman is the worst kind of stunt casting, hidden behind the kinds of prosthetics we used to doll Mike Myers up in, and giving the kind of blustering, yelling, ACTING that’s bad in the Blatant Oscar Pandering manner instead of the so bad it’s perversely enjoyable manner that we know as The Gary Oldman Special. The film doesn’t have any insights or new takes on the man at its centre, even sharing the same softening dynamic with his new typist that the better (as in: So Bad, It’s Hilarious) Churchill had from earlier in 2017, so he’s just an unquestioned saint with few flaws and no arc whom everybody comes around to for effectively no reason. 90% of the movie doesn’t even happen due to any of the characters we do meet, which, whilst maybe true, makes for dreadfully boring storytelling, ditto my complaint about Churchill’s unquestioned sainthood and static arc. Despite Joe Wright dropping every single excessively showy visual trick in his repertoire to try and alleviate the fact, it’s also over two goddamn hours long and feels every last crushing second, particularly when it gives time over to Kristin Scott Thomas despite there being no material for her to work with.
There are bright spots. Namely in Ben Mendelsohn blowing everybody else off-screen with his turn as King George VI, since he acts like a human being instead of Yosemite Sam (Oldman) or a G.I. Joe villain (basically anybody in opposition to Churchill). And I did appreciate the look into how, even at a time of war, party politicising and gamesmanship still ran rampant, at least until it turned out that this was being done in service of reducing anybody not on Churchill’s side to Snidely Whiplash-type villains who need to be bellowed into submission. There are very interesting ways to deal with the futility and inbuilt privilege of aiming for peace talks in the face of fascism – Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus goes all-in on it with regards to America, and the results are amazing in every possible sense of the word – but Darkest Hour only utilises this as Chamberlain and Halifax trying to further their own political careers against Churchill. It’s a film with nothing new to say, and very boring ways of saying it, and the last thing that the world needs is more mindless Churchill veneration. He even gets a Spider-Man 2 type scene when he boards the Tube to speak to the common folk, which just so happens to be a perfect cross-section of the British population, all so they can react to him like he’s the reincarnation of Jesus and go on about fighting to the bitter end. There’s even a sweet innocent little girl, because this movie was made by goddamn hacks.
Churchill even makes nice with the one Black guy on the train (and in the whole movie) rather than acting like the guy is of an inferior race, like he is on the record calling Aborigines and Native Americans. WINSTON CHURCHILL, NOT RACIST, BEST BUDS OF ALL PEOPLES, CONFIRMED.
The Mask [Thursday 18th]
Dir: Charles Russell
This was one of my absolute favourite films as a kid. I almost wore the cassette out from playing it so much and had pretty much every line of every Mask scene memorised in full. I also hadn’t seen it in over a decade before finally recording it off of the telly over Christmas, so I was preparing for that moment where you discover something you loved as a child is actually kind of awful, especially since I’ve yet to properly have that moment with any of the things I loved as a kid and I figure by law of averages it has to come at some point. That’s gonna have to wait a little bit longer, though, because The Mask is still phenomenal and absolutely hilarious, even though it turns out I can still recite it pretty much line-for-line to the second.
Watching it now, I couldn’t help but think of how it may have influenced the way in which Edgar Wright makes genre-busting comedies, because it shares his same sense of visual flair, fun, wordplay, and affinity for genre homages and musical numbers. If Marvel had let him make his Ant-Man, I imagine it would have turned out a lot like this. Yeah, for every joke I now get due to being old enough to understand them, there’s also a tonne of uncomfortable nice guy-isms that sour things slightly, but they’re at least understandable within the film’s aim of mashing together the style and values of 1940s gangster movies and Golden Age cartoons on a 1990s mid-level budget. It looks fantastic, the score is immediately distinctive in a way I wish modern comic book movies’ were, the gag rate is off-the-charts, and Jim Carrey really was one of the best to ever take to the profession of comedic acting; nobody else could have made this movie the way that his dual performance does.
Fun Fact: back in the mid-90s, this film was rated PG in the UK. We used to consider The Mask wholesome family entertainment. How times change.
Callie Petch… break!