What I’ve Been Watching: 23/04/18 – 29/04/18

Muppets, lawyers, Russian mobsters, and stand-up comediennes.

OK, if I don’t get this up now, it’s going to get lost in the mess of my Infinity War hot-take – spoilers: not a fan – so we’re going to have to delay happy introspection updates for next week’s entry into this series I am trying super hard to make more regularly than I have done before now.  Shame, too, cos it was gonna pay off one of my resolutions from the 2017 self-reflection piece I did at the end of last year and be legit upbeat for once!  Still, I deliberately choose to hold off writing these preambles until after the rest of the article is done so that they can encompass how I feel at time of posting, my mood being the fragile ever-changing thing it is, and it’s my fault for spending much of yesterday napping exhaustedly from the thing I was gonna write about.  Next week, I promise!  House is still to myself for another three days so I can get a tonne of films watched in that time in order to justify the next one of these!

Here’s what I’ve been watching this week.

The Muppets Take Manhattan [Monday 23rd]

Dir: Frank Oz

Year: 1984


I should probably come up with a third designator for when I’m technically re-watching something but said rewatch comes after such a long gap between viewings that it’s almost like seeing the film again for the first time.  Saying that about The Muppets Take Manhattan insinuates I’ve been a Fake Muppet Fan this whole time, particularly since writing it out that way makes it sound like I’ve never watched the film in question and have just lied over the years to make myself seem more knowledgeable, but it has been at least 10 years since I last saw Manhattan.  In fact, it was the only Muppet movie I owned on DVD when I was a kid (the rest were on VHS)!  I remembered it being very downbeat and melancholy for a Muppet movie, which obviously made it my least favourite as a kid, but coming back to it with more grown-up eyes it’s actually really not?  I mean, not in the same way that The Muppet Movie and The Muppets are, at any rate.  There’s still an undercurrent of melancholy, but none more so than in most Muppet productions, and there’s still more than enough silliness and slapstick running about, so I dunno what Kid-Me was thinking.

In any case, unsurprisingly, I frickin’ adore Muppets Take Manhattan because I frickin’ adore The Muppets.  The songs are all top-tier, the puppetry continues to astound me all these years later in a way that 90% of more expensive and intricate CGI showcases in other movies never will, and though the plot is very perfunctory by Muppets standards, the gags they manage to extract from it are the exact mix of smart and dumb that I like from my comedies.  Piggy in the park, the penguins, EVERYTHING with amnesiac Kermit and the ad frogs with extremely similar names, the Muppet Babies sequence; I could go on and on.  What I most noticed from this watch, however, was just much all of those complaints people had about the 2015 Muppets TV show were severely misguided, at best, and just plain wrong, at worst.  You know the ones: “Kermit would never snap at the others!”  “Kermit wouldn’t play others against each other to make the show work!”  “Muppet-on-human sex jokes go against the spirit of The Muppets!”  “It’s too downbeat!”  Cos, err, yeah, those seeds were already prominently there in Manhattan, the last of the classic Jim Henson movies that everybody rightly cherishes so dearly.

One day, I’ll write the overdue re-evaluation defence that that series deserves.  You watch.

This is Spinal Tap [Tuesday 24th]

Dir: Rob Reiner

Year: 1984


Same deal as Muppets up above, and not too much I can say about it upon revisiting.  It’s Spinal Tap and it is still funny as fuck.  Maybe less so since I’m no longer as staunchly into rock music and its accompanying iconography and attitude as I was as a teenager, and since works like the still-magnificent Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping and much of Christopher Guest’s own films have iterated and improved upon the formula Spinal Tap originally laid down, but I was still laughing for almost the entirety of its svelte 80-minute runtime.  There’s not an ounce of fat on this thing, it just moves, the editing is impeccable.  I also love how, barring a few scenes and shots that break the faux-documentary conceit, the film works equally as well as a straightforward narrative as it does a raucous absurdist comedy (no wonder a tonne of rock stars of the era reportedly found the film hit too close to home).  More comedies should be cognizant of that, it really elevates them when pulled off well.

Funny Cow [Thursday 26th]

Dir: Adrian Shergold

Year: 2018

First-time viewing

Funny Cow is quite the mess that I don’t think fully coheres, and yet it may end up as one of my favourite films of this whole year when all’s said and done.  Everything about its set-up, description, and talent involved seems laser-guided to be either a feel-good story about overcoming adversity or a gritty downer working class drama.  It’s set in Northern England in the 70s and 80s where a working class woman tries to live her dream of being a stand-up comic, facing systemic sexism and domestic abuse along the way, written by a former Emmerdale actor (Tony Pitts) and starring Maxine Peake.  Except that: 1] the stand-up barely figures into the story, 2] it is really not a comedy despite some humorous moments, 3] it is directed with style and legit composition instead of having the entire production design consist of one Steadicam and a shit-load of grime, 4] it is decidedly unsentimental about the comedy scene of the time which deliberately undercuts certain big scenes, and 5] it is a lot more emotionally complex than most people may be expecting.

In fact, to those who have been very middling on the film or written it off because “nothing is learned” or some other such shite, I can’t help but feel like you’ve missed the point.  I’d argue, as somebody who has spent much of their life as Northern Working Class, that Funny Cow is probably one of the most authentic depictions of the feeling of being that very thing to come along in a long time.  Not to take away from works like This is England, but many of them very much have a condescending Middle-Class view of what Working Class life and people are like; not in a malicious Channel 5 documentary way, but still in a way that betrays little knowledge of what that particular life experience is.  You know, either relentless misery with horrible oft-violent people or Even Flow-level depictions of wizened suffering nobility.  Instead, Funny Cow captures the contradictory pride and self-loathing that those born and raised in those sorts of conditions can have about them.  A desire to be more than they are but feeling totally out-of-place no matter where they go, of feeling condescended to by those who are more middle-class yet legitimately feeling too stupid to fit in with “intellectuals,” of wanting to escape but still needing some kind of roughness and push-back to feel fulfilled.

I’m trying to avoid talking specifics because I want people to go and see this movie without having massive spoilers dumped all over them, but there were multiple scenes throughout this film where I felt like somebody had been overhearing conversations myself and several of my fellow Northern Working Class friends have had about our kind of life and its depiction in film, and set about transferring them onto this screen.  It feels lived, deeply human, and resultantly is extremely hard to distil down into simple binary emotional terms like most would want it to.  Whether that be in its attitudes towards the stand-up scene of that specific class and era, its subversion of both typical types of story arcs you often get from this set-up, or Peake’s extremely specifically-drawn and multifaceted title character that she welds an utterly sensational, likely-year-best performance to.  Funny Cow is a deliberately messy film, and sometimes that leads to creative choices that hobble the film from unquestionable greatness – too many go-nowhere subplots, a strange lack of clear forward momentum that means it just sort of stops after 100 minutes, Richard Hawley’s songs are distracting and make it feel like a prime-time television drama bumped up to the big leagues – but I was so pleasantly surprised by this.  And when everything lines up in place, as it often does, I found the results gutting.

Every Day [Thursday 26th]

Dir: Michael Sucsy

Year: 2018

First-time viewing

All three films listed on here that I saw on this day covered suicide in some way and, somehow, the one where the suicide was prevented was the most tasteless depiction of the subject.  Every Day is atrocious, an absolutely creepy as hell Young Adult romance weepy with no idea of just how creepy it is – imagine Quantum Leap but the guy keeps using these random bodies in order to fall in love with a specific girl, and that said random body-switching is more like possession, right down to the fact that he can just stay in someone’s body for more than the pre-ordained 24 hours if he wills it hard enough.  The romance is dead on arrival, the tone is schizophrenic as hell (leading to random detours into suicide prevention that are as tasteless as my usage of schizophrenic as an adjective), the philosophical insights are sophomorically simple, and the entire film is shot without any life or passion whatsoever.  It’s not even bad enough to be unintentionally entertaining, which is what happens when you put the director of The Vow and the writer of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl on this; it’s mostly insipid in an immediately forgettable way and has the gall to only shock itself into offensively memorable light once every 25 or so minutes.  Blech.

The Leisure Seeker [Thursday 26th]

Dir: Paolo Virzì

Year: 2018

First-time viewing

Whilst there is no such thing as an objective review, there are certain types of films where a critic has to admit that they can’t give truly helpful reviews for, for various reasons.  For one example, I should be the last person people ask for advice about horror movies on, because I am scared super easily and often can’t focus particularly well on the craft or themes in the moment as I’m on edge cowering in fear of the next jump scare.  But another example for me are films about old couples confronting their mortality.  I lost my Granddad to cancer five years ago this year, my Nan is still barely coping with the loss, and I also have a crippling fear of aging and death that can manifest into a panic attack over even the slightest and barely-related of things.  Therefore, I am an extremely easy mark for films like The Leisure Seeker to get exactly the kind of flood-of-tears reaction that they aim for, because my brain latches onto them with my life and feelings.  So, it doesn’t matter that the film doesn’t really have much to say, that its tone swings wildly with little warning, that its comedy is out-of-place and hackneyed, that it is almost two goddamn hours, that its ending is super-tasteless and out-of-nowhere…  None of that matters because Donald Sutherland and Helen Mirren are fantastic performers and, therefore, my brain automatically latches onto the cues that trigger me and cause the tears to flow.

I can’t help it, I’m too close to this film, and every scene of Sutherland’s Alzheimer’s taking his precious memories broke me a little more.  Maybe it’s brilliant, maybe it’s terrible, maybe it’s neither; I can’t comment either way.

Eastern Promises [Friday 27th]

Dir: David Cronenberg

Year: 2008

First-time viewing

Steven Knight is a real hit-or-miss writer.  When he’s off, he’s really off and writes excessively ponderous and pretentious male antihero drama guff that really tests the patience and often comes off as unintentionally farcical (Burnt, Taboo).  But when he’s on, he’s really on and writes nail-biting, morally-complex, dramatically satisfying thrillers that I love experiencing (Allied, Locke, early seasons of Peaky Blinders).  With Eastern Promises, he was most assuredly on, mainly by leaning just enough into a slightly campier side of this super dark-and-gritty story about the Russian Mob, child sex trafficking, babies almost being drowned, and other subjects befitting wholesome family entertainment.  I mean, of course, that could also be Cronenberg’s touch – I must confess that I have not seen much of his work yet – and “campier” isn’t exactly the right term I’m searching for, so let me put it like this.  In a lot of these sorts of British stories about this subject, there is such a palpable desperation for the presentation to be “respectable” and “clinical,” to ooze “prestige filmmaking,” and it means that there is a major disconnect whenever a non-dialogue scene is occurring, because the tone and presentations of the two types of scenes are at odds with one another and it makes them both look quite silly in retrospect.  This is what sank Hossein Amini and James Watkins’ BBC drama McMafia, for just one example.

By contrast, Eastern Promises does a far better job at letting the two parts feel like they co-exist with one another, since Cronenberg and Knight put some dirt into the production design and feel.  There’s actual melodrama here that the film happily allows to flow through it, not winking at it or anything, but also not shutting it down wholesale because it disrupts the “prestige” they’re aiming for.  As a result, the whole film hits viscerally right in the stomach, even when it arguably shouldn’t – like, in no world should Vincent Cassel’s wild overacting in a story such as this work as well as it ultimately does.  It does have a few too many unnecessary tangents, and I think that Naomi Watts suffers from Knight’s inability to write female characters (even if the P.O.V. switch from her to Viggo Mortenson is really well done), but otherwise I thoroughly enjoyed this one.  And that bathhouse knife fight is just spectacular, Cronenberg does so much with so little and I actually had to look away at the coup-de-grace as a result.

Michael Clayton [Sunday 29th]

Dir: Tony Gilroy

Year: 2007

First-time viewing

Nope, not a fan.  Something I’ve found to be all too common in writers that try and make the jump into being directors, ones who use their own screenplays for said jump, is that they fall way too in love with their words, and the resultant films are ghastly overwritten.  Too much dialogue, too many characters, too many go-nowhere subplots, all ultimately losing track of the central protagonist and making the otherwise relatively simple story needlessly hard to follow, whereupon I lose interest.  Michael Clayton fits this to a tee, practically vomiting words, over-long shots, and scenes that don’t go anywhere from minute one and not stopping for almost two ceaseless hours.  I was largely lost, when I wasn’t annoyed by the number of scenes that just talked in circles for ages, and even when things began slotting into place as it entered the home stretch, I just found myself incapable of caring.  None of the characters were particularly well defined, the film wasn’t thematically interesting, it barely moved for ages, and other than the constant cross-cuts during Tilda Swinton’s scenes that demonstrate the anxious wreck behind her perfect corporate façade, Gilroy’s direction was uninspired and uninteresting.

I do, however, find it a fascinating example of how difficult it is to talk about acting.  See, I thought George Clooney put in a really strong performance, especially during that last scene, but he still wasn’t able to become Michael Clayton for me because the screenplay (at least as presented in-film) doesn’t even seem to know who Michael Clayton is.  He’s giving fantastic line readings and conveying strong emotions, but I never got a sense of what it’s in service of, and that’s not Clooney’s fault, because he’s simply giving the best interpretation of what Gilroy has written, which is largely blank and ill-defined.  Clooney is hobbled by a very sub-par script, which means that he’s giving a tangible “this should be fantastic” performance but it can’t stick the landing despite his best efforts because there’s no foundation supporting him, if that makes sense?  For me, I can’t help but feel like the script is just as integral to the quality of a performance as the performance itself is, even if that is completely antithetical to how we’re supposed to rate performances?  I want to hear other writers’ thoughts on this: leave a comment or hit me up through my About page if you’ve got anything to say about all of this, I want to learn.

Callie Petch is gonna sit on their fence when you’re not there.

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