What I’ve Been Watching: 30/04/18 – 06/05/18

Eccentric hitmen, mistaken identities, talking gnomes, and Multipasses.

So, remember back at the end of last year when I posted that self-reflection piece and made an attempt at some resolutions in the hopes that I would be able to better myself from them?  Well, the one that was an actual resolution instead of a useless vague-ary that was no help to anyone finally came around two weekends back – as mentioned in the beginning of last week’s piece, this is what I wanted to talk about at the time, but was so late in getting the piece finished that I had to defer to this week.  Yes, after seven months of anticipation, build-up, and lots of “I hate you for dragging me into this” side-eying from Lucy, it was time for the Inflatable 5k.  An Inflatable 5k that neither me nor her had done any proper training for – me because of my anxiety, self-loathing, and often-inadvertent snipes from my family; her because she is proudly lazy(-ish) and hates running – being woefully unfit with low stamina, and with it turning out to have a lot more plain running than we’d both anticipated.

And yet, I happily check off that resolution with no clarifiers.  We did it and I had genuine fun doing so!  Now, I don’t feel a sense of pride over it or anything – before anybody acts like I achieved something, we only ran, at best, ¾ of a kilometre and walked the rest – but I’m honestly not letting the fact that I didn’t run most of it bother me.  Fact is, had I tried running it, I would have likely spent much of it caught up in my own head cursing my crap physical ability, seeing so many better people pass by me, and eventually wondering what the point of the whole thing was.  (Plus, I would have left Lucy behind for long stretches of time, and that’s a bad friend thing to do.)  Taking it easy with a friend, only really running when getting near an obstacle, and shooting the shit about the thing and whatever else came to mind made the experience as a whole really fun, even when I wasn’t clambering over a whole bunch of giant inflatables and vicariously yet belatedly living out my childhood dream of being on 50/50.  (No, not the cancer film.  Look it up, kids.)

I’m trying to get over the most crippling parts of my anxiety, the parts that catastrophise and ruminate and actually pay attention to the non-stop cynicism my parents largely express about the world on a daily basis.  A lot of it I can’t do until I finally move out (as detailed here), but I’m still trying to push forward and enact some change whilst my life is ostensibly stuck on pause.  As an example: at the start of last month, I finally tried Circuit Training after having been mulling about it for at least six months.  I remembered doing it during early Secondary School, you see, as one of the very few PE sessions I actually enjoyed (so it naturally got discarded completely the higher up the educational ladder I went in favour of MORE TEAM SPORTS OH BOY), being a series of short cardio-based exercises done in intervals and entirely solo, so I figured I’d like it.  But my brain instead paralysed me with many self-conscious thoughts about my garbage body and out-of-shape being and how everybody would look and judge, and so much else that I couldn’t make myself go alone and I couldn’t bring myself to ask anybody to go with me cos I don’t have many friends in the Hull area anymore, less who like physical activity, and it’s a weird/sad request on its own.

Eventually, after an especially messy therapy session, I asked Lucy to do one with me in order to get me through the door and so I could tell my therapist that I at least tried.  So, we did, and it was good!  Exhausting, and I discovered that I have absolutely zero co-ordination between any of my various limbs (which is frankly what bothers me the most rather than general unfitness), but good.  Since then, I’ve been going without her and it’s been getting somewhat better.  The first time without her was effectively my worst nightmare – about halfway through, I felt like collapsing/vomiting and had to sit out most of the remainder of the session, at the behest of the leader and certain staff members who were clearly worried that I might die on their watch, which is a big no-no – but the week after that was much better.  I’m hoping that doing these sessions will make me feel better about myself, less self-conscious about my own shittiness in relation to other people and more at ease with me, and consequently spend less time in my own head and more willing to try things that scare me without having to drag my friends down with me.

Maybe even a proper 5k!  (Not a proper 5k.)

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

Smokin’ Aces [Monday 30th]

Dir: Joe Carnahan

Year: 2007


Some evenings, I just want to watch something that’s busy enough to keep me from falling asleep but not so involving that I need to become emotionally invested in the proceedings.  You know, something fun but not overly simple and not, like, immediately forgettable or straight-up bad.  In this instance, I threw on Smokin’ Aces from my Netflix queue, a film I first saw about 7/8 years ago on actual television and remembered to be a fun-ass ride in the vein of early Guy Ritchie, early Quentin Tarantino, and the various lesser-imitators of said that cropped up in their wake.  I have a real soft spot for those kinds of movies, primarily because Ritchie’s Snatch and Lock, Stock… were the first adult-aged films I ever saw and were somewhat instrumental in developing the appreciation for film that led to me writing these words before you today.

Revisiting the film, Aces is admittedly pretty fun, but it suffers heavily from writer-director Carnahan’s seeming belief that he’s penned some kind of grand emotional tragedy piece?  And, I mean, yeah, maybe I can kind of see a version of this film where the pathos he is so desperately reaching for from the second half onwards works and Carnahan resultantly pulls off a surprise switch on his audience.  But, well, Smokin’ Aces is a wacky hitman movie involving close to 47 different characters and plot threads smashing into one another in wild and unexpected ways.  One group are a bunch of redneck Neo-Nazis that shoot literally anything that moves and one dies from falling arse-first onto their own chainsaw.  Another side-plot forces us to spend time with a hyperactive White kid off of his pills who speaks exclusively in gangsta slang with a blaccent and does a bunch of karate moves, all for no apparent reason.  Threads like those are supposed to rub shoulders alongside deadly serious examinations of betrayal, self-interest, governmental shadiness, and empty revenge without somehow detracting from the power Carnahan is desperately trying to wrest from the serious scenes?

Regardless, I did enjoy Smokin’ Aces, particularly since it hits a lot of my sweet spots.  I do enjoy these kinds of forty-car-pile-up plot fests from time to time because they appease the parts of my Asperger’s that enjoy seeing disparate things fall into place in different ways (hence my shared love of heist movies).  The cast list that makes up this slice of low-brow, January-release schlock is utterly insane, especially coming back to it a decade later into everyone’s careers – Chris Pine as a redneck Neo-Nazi, Taraji P. Henson as a foul-mouthed lesbian sniper, Joel Edgerton as a dumbass Eastern European bodyguard, Ryan Reynolds, Andy Garcia, Common, Jason Bateman, Ben Affleck, among so many others.  Plus, even if the tone is a mess, it is shockingly well directed.  No, really, Terrence Malick was not kidding.  The vast majority of the film takes place concurrently in the same building over a 20-minute stretch – as we cut between Buddy in the penthouse, each of the assassins making their own ways up, and the FBI trying to shut this shit down – all with their own plot lines and escalating action.  So, with each change, the film effectively has to keep rewinding over and over again to fill in what’s going on with, say, Henson and Alicia Keys whilst Common’s confronting Buddy, without this constant cycling back feeling like watching wheels spinning interminably.  And, somehow, Carnahan and editor Robert Frazen pull it off without needing to draw attention to this fact like other films do.

North by Northwest [Tuesday 1st]

Dir: Alfred Hitchcock

Year: 1959

First-time viewing

Remembered why I rarely watch films during the middle of the day unless I’m out at the cinema, because I had to stop it halfway through in order to have a nap.  This is not a slight against North by Northwest, a film I really enjoyed; I am just a constantly tired sack of human garbage who hasn’t had a good night’s sleep in years and lacks energy 90% of the time.  I strongly dislike being me.  As for North by Northwest, again, really enjoyed it, didn’t quite love it.  Not just because I needed to fall asleep, you understand, but for this very personal thing: stories about misunderstandings that nobody listens to simple explanations about really grate me.  You know, “I’m not a spy!  I’m just an advertising executive!”  “You can drop the charade, spy!  That’s just what a spy would say!” etc. etc.  Stories like these are intentionally exasperating, of course, meant to put the viewer in the same sense of exhaustion as the protagonist being subjected to such a thing, but on me they work too well.  It’s hard for me to explain or even fully understand why, maybe something to do with being such a relentlessly honest person growing up or maybe issues relating to control?  In any case, stories like these often leave me extremely frustrated and unable to enjoy the work in question.

Fortunately, North by Northwest gets the worst of that sort of thing out of the way within about half an hour and then settles into being a dryly humorous spy movie, one that very obviously drew up the blueprints for the next several decades of spy movies.  Technically, yeah, North by Northwest is a thriller as described by most people (and even the official Wikipedia entry), but let’s be honest with ourselves, this is really a comedy.  Sure, you’ve got your crop duster chases and your Mount Rushmore finales, but at its centre, this is a bone-dry comedy of misunderstandings, absurdities, and impeccably-performed quips delivered masterfully by Cary Grant.  I better understand Jordan Peele’s comments about how much in common horror and comedy have with one another after seeing this, because Hitchcock’s direction, which mainly situates itself in the thriller mould he’s known for, enhances the comedy since the timings and rhythms of the two are really quite similar.  Extremely abrupt cut to the ending – perhaps a result of my having recorded this off of a daytime BBC Two screening, so UK TV standards and practices and all that – and the aforementioned personal hang-ups aside, North by Northwest gets my utterly meaningless seal of approval!

The Fifth Element [Wednesday 2nd]

Dir: Luc Besson

Year: 1997


You know what I like?  Luc Besson movies.  You know what else I like?  Future-based sci-fi stories.  You know what else I like?  Undiluted cheese.  Stands to reason, then, that I would love The Fifth Element, and you would be absolutely right to make that assessment.  Besson is a filmmaker with basically no impulse control, he has an idea that sufficiently catches his attention and he will drop whatever he was doing at that moment in time to go all-in on that idea no matter how tangential or gauche it may be.  And whilst that means that his films are often wildly unfocussed, more often great individual moments that either fail to cohere into or are swallowed up by the whole, and that he absolutely has, let’s be blunt, creepy ideas about women and gender, I love the hell out of him for that fact – the willingness to follow his muse against all concepts of good taste, not the creepy gender attitudes.  Fifth Element is mad, the most 90s blockbuster to ever exist, and very obviously the barely-changed product of a teenaged boy, but I love it.  I love its production design, I love its Looney Tunes sense of humour, I love its pace (the thing that Valerian lacked and consequently sank the movie), I love every last ridiculous detour, I especially love Chris Tucker’s Ruby Rhod who seems shockingly prescient of YouTube culture, I love the crimes against fashion, and I especially love the cheese of it all.  Fifth Element rules.

Three [Thursday 3rd]

Dir: Johnnie To

Year: 2016

First-time viewing

Allow me to now officially ruin Three for anybody who has already seen and enjoyed the movie: this is just one of those event episodes of Casualty except made by somebody who is too good at what he does for it to even be entertainingly bad.  Johnnie To is a director whose works I go back and forth on.  I’m not denying that the man has talent, let me be clear, but I either really like his films (the madcap unfocussed satire of Breaking News is nevertheless riotous fun) or am left so cold by them that I question why I spent two hours of my life watching them (I am the one guy who was bored by Election).  Three disappointingly falls into the latter, particularly since To plays the entire film so deathly seriously, yet is working from a script utterly uninterested in exploring any themes, serving up interesting or memorable or even understandable characters, or committing to the moral greyness that To’s works root themselves in.  When it finally gets to where it’s going, the resultant shootout is extremely slapdash and amateurish, and the payoff of a runner involving a verbally abusive patient who has been left paralysed from a botched surgery, a payoff that should be inadvertently hilarious, is just insulting and borderline offensive.  No part of Three works, and even with my needing something short because of the time I watched it at and my tiredness, I’m still annoyed at myself for choosing it over finally seeing Wolf Children!

Gnomeo & Juliet [Friday 4th]

Dir: Kelly Asbury

Year: 2011

First-time viewing

Not exactly surprising given the title and accompanying “premise,” but, goddamn, this was fifty shades of terrible.  Just a relentless grab-bag of everything I hated about late-00s animation.  Ugly character designs, pedestrian boarding, stunt-cast celebrities in every single role no matter how minor delivering flat and unconvincing performances, Dance Party Endings, ripping off the premise of Toy Story but failing so badly at committing to it that there are logic holes viewers over the age of 7 can’t help but dwell on, pop culture references instead of jokes (including a goddamn Matrix reference in 2011), and snarky characters shitting all over the classic literature they’re using as their base because it’s old and therefore automatically uncool – news flash: even 7 year-olds don’t think that the ending to Romeo & Juliet is “rubbish!”  The characters are all uninteresting, the drama never once lands, the jokes are duds…  Pretty much the only thing I even slightly appreciated was hearing the score interweave itself with snatches of Elton John’s classic numbers (this was a passion project of his for some unknowable reason), but even that got old quickly.  The only reason I saw this was because I have to watch Sherlock Gnomes today (and may have already seen it depending on post time), but there’s no reason for anybody else to.  Not even to introduce your kids to Elton John; that one Bob the Builder episode guest starring Elton is far better than this.

Proud Mary [Saturday 5th]

Dir: Babak Najafi

Year: 2018

First-time viewing

I enjoy myself a simple generic action thriller every once in a while, no matter how generic.  My early teenage years involved lots of evenings viewing Jason Statham movies thanks to my Mum’s insatiable crush on the man, so this kind of movie is sort of embedded into my being, plus I like a varied movie palette.  This is all to say that I think Proud Mary could have been really good.  Not great, it is extremely lacking in imagination for it to even begin tickling the edges of great, but really good.  The script is simple but solid, the drama is there even if Mary and Danny go from “contentious and distrusting” to “Red Dawn-levels of connection” far too quickly, and the kid (Jahi Di’Allo Winston) is more than capable of holding his own.  But, of course, the star of the show is Taraji P. Henson, who throws herself completely at the movie, trying to add emotional depth to Mary, developing an easy chemistry with Winston, and, when the film lets her, looking like a million bucks as a gun-toting, knee-sliding, unstoppable badass.  This specific version of Proud Mary could have been really good…

Except that they gave the director’s chair to Babak Najafi, and the result is that I got to witness, in real time, a really good film be brought down to the level of “boringly bad” purely as a result of garbage directing.  For what little it’s worth, Mary does represent a minor improvement on a technical level from Najafi’s previous work on London Has Fallen by virtue of no longer employing Shaky Cam, but he is still utterly clueless as to how movies work.  He displays no understanding of scene geography, lights his sets atrociously, occasionally has out-of-focus cameras, and the cuts!  Dear God, the cuts!  The relentless, hyperactive, disorienting, ceaseless cutting!  In almost every other scene, I could count the number of unnecessary cuts and insert shots on both hands, and the endless cutting drains any weight, emotion, or investment a particular scene can have because the film is forever overloading and never lets something just breathe.  It’s not even that Najafi has no style – I’m not even mad that the Blaxploitation movie the trailers were selling amounts, in the finished product, solely to the opening titles and some incongruous music choices that clash badly with the actual score of the movie – as I see no demonstrable passion in his filmmaking.  At one point near the climax, Danny Glover audibly flubs a line (“…or I will take that from me” instead of “from you”) and yet that take has somehow been left in the movie without any fix!

Again, Proud Mary could have been really good.  This specific version of Proud Mary could have been really good, since Henson is on a goddamn tear here.  But almost anybody other than Najafi needed to have directed this.  His work here is a fucking disgrace.

Callie Petch has got some shit to shoot.

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