What I’ve Been Watching: 20/02/19 – 26/02/19

LEGO, Lolitas, long gestating anime adaptations, and lots of bull-butter.

So… it’s been a couple of weeks.

For a good while, my friends have been trying in their own little ways to make stuff happen for me, whether that be through trying to boost my confidence, setting me on goal-based task plans, or (in this particular case) wittering into semi-mutual acquaintances’ ears about getting me involved with their stuff in some capacity.  The last of which I do deep down appreciate but mildly recoil from partly because I am a terrible salesman of myself with almost zero self-esteem and mainly because I get extremely anxious about the optics of potentially using people to get ahead in my own life.  Like, I don’t want to be that guy who cosies up to people in order to wrangle myself a job from them, either intentionally or unintentionally, y’know?  Nobody with basic decency wants to be that guy, but especially so me since I’m rather lacking in the physical friend department and really bad at reading social cues.  And also because, again, I do think I’m just shit.  Hence why, despite constant pushing from my friends and the man himself’s repeatedly stated desire to do stuff with him, I put off working with Kofi Smiles for so long.

Kofi Smiles was the Face of Hull back in 2017, when my former residence during those blissful uni years was the UK’s City of Culture, which basically meant that he worked for BBC Humberside as on-air talent and reporter for all manner of the year’s events in the city.  He was really good at it in the pieces I saw and managed to parlay that work once the year was up into a position working for them full-time, now hosting a weekly radio show (No Filter) and running a local youth-focussed short-form video outlet of the same name (also No Filter).  Kofi also, as it turned out, ran in many of the same friend circles that I happened to during my time at uni, although we never actually met one another until late-2017 when a mutual friend took their own life and we all held an impromptu wake prior to the funeral.  Not exactly the best way to meet somebody, obviously, but he was really nice and charming and it was good to finally meet the guy my Hull-based friends were always going on at me about needing to meet.  About a month later, one of those friends who witters into people’s ears did so about getting me on an episode of one of Kofi’s podcasts and having not podcasted in an age and missing it dearly (plus the fact that I don’t want to let my friends down when they go out of their way to do things for me) I figured “what the hell” and went.  You won’t find the episode online anywhere cos it never got edited, but recording was fun and Kofi became adamant about us doing something more substantial another time so we swapped phone numbers and… that was it for a while.  Life got busy for him, I got in a rut, we never managed to meet up.  Y’know, adult stuff.

Then me, him, my friend from the intro in the last one of these, and a few others went on a trip to watch Sorry to Bother You and things have sort of been off to the races since then.  We’ve hung out more, both of us plus one of my friends went and had a life-changing experience watching The 1975 in Sheffield – must discuss that some other day as I’m pretty sure a chunk of me is emotionally still at that gig even now – and I had a brief moment of self-worth and, with those abysmal BAFTA nominations let loose, I pitched doing a video about the inherent biases of awards ceremonies.  All of that is an ultra-long-winded explanation of how this video came to be and why I was on local BBC Radio on Monday night talking about the Oscar results like I had any clue what the fuck I was on about.

Neither I think are objectively any good, at least on my part of the bargains (Kofi’s editing and production on the video I really like) and despite what my well-meaning circle of friends and family have been saying, although for once my beliefs are rooted in quantifiable elements and constructive criticisms rather than the insecure lobe of my brain just screaming “SHIT!  SHIIIIIT!  YOU LOOK AND SOUND LIKE SHIIIIIIIIIII-” over and over again.  The video suffers from my obviously being super uncomfortable in front of a camera and novice experience in short-form video content (almost all the content creators I view are longer-form).  The radio appearance suffers from my failure to fully modulate to a more casual listener base, not deciding on a basic structure before going on air, and failing to account for the time – also, with no offence meant and an acknowledgement that this kind of egocentrism is rare for me, being paired with another expert guest who lead the segment yet openly admitted to not having seen almost any of the films or performances nominated (although in fairness he’s a respected writer who has an actual job with out-of-office hours whilst I’m an unemployed hack who wastes entire days at a cinema pretty much because I can).

More importantly than self-criticism in this instance, however, I am actually wanting to do more.  A part of me feels like the reason I reject or run away from efforts to try this whole thing even slightly legitimately is because I’ve been doing it on the verge for so long that trying for real and getting rejected or failing would destroy me psychologically in some way.  That whole thing of the intangible hopeful dream being violently burst by cold hard reality – see: Gina being forced into a singing audition in BoJack Horseman and bombing, that fantastical dream now permanently destroyed by the reality of her mediocrity.  But the experience overall was fun and enlightening and gave me a purpose to work on for a few weeks before I begin serious job searching, so why not try and parlay that into a regular thing?  Go watch and share the video if you have Facebook – apologies to those who don’t have Facebook; the video’s only on BBC No Filter which is currently only in full on Facebook – and listen to my appearance on the show at about the two hour mark – apologies to those outside the UK or who are reading this after 25th March 2019; iPlayer is region-locked and archives get taken down after a month.  If you do those, Kofi and his producers at the Beeb might ask me to make more which means I’ll have to watch/hear myself back more frequently, and isn’t the promise of additional torture for me a good enough reason for you to do something?

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

The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part [Wednesday 20th]

Dirs: Mike Mitchell, Trisha Gum (animation)

Year: 2019

First-time viewing

No, it is obviously not as good as the first LEGO Movie, it all falls apart on a narrative basis – not on a thematic or metaphorical basis, though, that’s important – when one starts thinking too hard about the mechanics of the Real World vs. the LEGO World, and a key emotional beat almost pole-vaults the film right over the border from Sincere Artistry into Nakedly Commercial that Phil Lord & Christopher Miller (who only appear as writers this time) have situated their entire careers on.  But, that all said, this is still easily the best film I’ve seen so far this year excluding the hold-over of If Beale Street Could Talk.  It’s hilarious, obviously, the animation is fantastic, obviously, and the vocal performances are excellent, obviously.  What most got me about the film, though, and also why I think it’s not doing as hot as the original LEGO Movie (if we take a moment to discount the fact of mild oversaturation), is how vital that central theme is and how it’s specifically targeted at teenage boys way more so than anyone else.

With the benefit of age and hindsight, most of us come to the realisation that we were pretty shitty teenagers.  We hoarded, we brooded, we could act extremely spiteful, and we desperately tried to prove our maturity in aggressive and often stupid ways that only further exposed our immaturity and hurt those around us.  One of those ways involves violently rejecting or dismissing childish things we loved as kids out of hand, another (should it have applied in one’s household) exacerbates conflict with younger siblings and especially younger sisters since “girliness” is misconstrued as weakness by our excessively masculine society.  Therefore, many older viewers maybe aren’t going to relate as heavily to the very specifically-teenage metaphors at play within the story, it all effectively being a battle for Finn’s emotional development, as they did with the first LEGO’s multigenerational examinations about the nature of play.  But I think Lord & Miller thread their needles astonishingly well and, with any luck, might manage to speak to that audience – that teenage is a difficult period of time, sure, but that doesn’t give you license to be a dick, so learn to control your emotions, accept that you don’t know everything, and that girly and childish things do have value – in a way that helps them through that stage of their lives.  Maybe that generation won’t grow up to fruitlessly review-bomb female superhero movies they haven’t seen yet just because FEMEJISM AND SJW CONSPIRICIES!!!

Also, for what it’s worth, I have had “Super Cool” stuck in my head for the last week.  That thing is a certifiable BOP, fam, and I’m sure the producers of 2Pac’s “Changes” will be receiving their royalty cheques for that opening melody line any day now.

The Matrix (Thursday 21st)

Dirs: The Wachowski Sisters

Year: 1999


20 goddamn years old next month.  I first saw The Matrix just shy of my 10th birthday, an act brought upon by the continuous hyping up of Enter the Matrix in my monthly PS2 magazines and knighting of The Matrix in general as A Big Deal, after much coercing of my Dad.  (His relenting on this effectively sprang the leak which led to me being allowed to watch just about anything regardless of its age rating so long as I cleared it with my parents first.)  It equal parts scared, confused, and amazed me, but it just generally blew my mind even with the fact that this was about four years after initial release and everybody had already strip-mined The Matrix for parts – video games, other movies, TV shows, even cartoons – much like how the Wachowski Sisters strip-mined Japanese cyberpunk anime and Hong Kong action movies for parts with this film.  It was truly something else and I am adamant this was one of those movies which left a profound imprint upon my developing mind even though I couldn’t understand half of it at the time.

That’s about all I have to say.  I, of all people, am not going to find some unique heretofore undiscovered avenue to look at The Matrix through, nor do I have any spicy hot takes to share.  I love The Matrix, it is still an impeccably made and fantastically written film – obligatory link to Patrick (H) Willems video on the Wachowskis’ brilliant usage of scene transitions – it is so extremely of the moment (late 20th century) that it should feel dated yet miraculously isn’t, and reading the narrative through a pansexual trans-lens based upon what we now know of the Wachowskis (in particular Lana’s aborted suicide attempt at an empty subway platform) not only heavily enriches the movie but also makes so much “DUH!” sense.  Also that the Trinity romance is still excruciatingly awkward in execution despite the thematic work it represents making sense; it really says a lot that the most convincing non-Bound romantic relationship that Lana & Lily have managed to pen is the polyamorous pansexual group orgy of the Sense8 clan, yeah?  The Matrix is awesome, I will forever go to bat for the sequels as being sorely underrated and Reloaded being a largely-great movie (must confess to not having watched Revolutions in about a decade), the Wachowskis are precious beings whom we must always protect, and I am not ready for this film to turn 20.

Lolita [Friday 22nd]

Dir: Stanley Kubrick

Year: 1962

First-time viewing

I don’t think this quite works, although I can tell this is largely from the fact that Kubrick and (partly since his screenplay was apparently substantially rewritten by Kubrick and James Harris) Vladimir Nabokov tried to make a movie version of Lolita in 1962.  Sure, the Hays Code may have been in its death throes in 1962, soon to be replaced by the MPAA, but we were still a few years out from MGM implicitly giving the thing the bird by releasing the unapproved Blowup to resounding critical and financial success, so we get a version of Lolita that is almost entirely supposition and entendre.  This primarily extends to Humbert Humbert’s control over Dolores, which (from what I have been able to gather in reading up about) in the novel – surprising nobody, I have not yet read Lolita, although viewing the film has at least piqued my interest enough to want to – goes heavier on the abuse side of things in order to demonstrate just how Humbert keeps her under his thumb.  But, of course, such actions couldn’t fully fly under the Hays Code especially with Humbert being our protagonist who doesn’t receive any gratifying punishment for those specific actions, so they’re largely stripped out and the relationship between himself and Dolores is made… kind of more dysfunctional but also more normal, if that makes sense?

From what I’ve heard of the book, I cannot understand how anybody could misinterpret it as a grand tragic love story, since Nabokov’s intentions (namely yelling “THIS DUDE’S A CREEP AND OTHERS LIKE HIM ARE JUST AS MONSTROUS”) sound unmistakable.  Kubrick’s film, by contrast, is deliberately playing with the tropes, conventions, and presentation of Women’s Pictures (as they were informally known at the time) just with the nasty kicker of a 50 year-old man and a teenage girl in the lead roles – look at the sequence where Dolores runs back to Humbert in order to sneak a kiss before she’s shipped off to summer camp and consider how near-indistinguishable it plays from the real thing.  It feels like an attempted rebuke to that whole genre, in a way.  But because Kubrick can’t visualise all of Humbert’s abusive actions, such as gaslighting and beating her when she gets on his nerves, much of the film comes off as kind of a mutual dance between the two characters where, yeah, it can be misconstrued as a weak man being browbeaten into a relationship with a teenage girl and isn’t that tragically romantic.  For the record, I know that’s not Kubrick’s intent and I was often uncomfortable in their flirtations as one was supposed to be, but I can see how this version of the story can be twisted into the total opposite of its message.  The tagline asked “how ever did they make a movie of Lolita?” and arguably they didn’t.

There are other issues with the film that can’t be entirely blamed on contemporary censorship decisions.  Much as I love Peter Sellers, his Clare Quilty and the various personas he adopts do not fit the film in the least, especially with the eventual reveal of how he fits into the narrative.  Whilst Kubrick’s decision to play the film’s tone as one of an ultra-dark comedy does lead to some inspired sequences and laugh lines, most especially the comedy serial-reminiscent bit where Humbert and a hotel employee are trying to assemble a cot five feet from a sleeping Dolores, those end up being outnumbered by lines and characters which just annoy or don’t seem to land on a proper punchline (many of Quilty’s personas being key culprits here).  Kubrick moving the murder to the narrative’s beginning rather than its climax was a smart call, it makes for a hooky opening, but he fails to find a remedy for his assertion that the book sags once Humbert and Dolores get together, with the last 40 or so minutes of the movie hopping disjointedly about the place and really dragging.  Lolita isn’t a total blowout – James Mason is great, the camerawork and cinematography by Oswald Morris are sublime, and when the film does nail a joke it really nails the joke – but I think this is something which just might work better on page than it did on film.  Hope to find out at some point.

Atlantic Rim [Saturday 23rd]

Dir: Jared Cohn

Year: 2013

First-time viewing

As you can likely tell by the fact that I actually briefly wrote up Mac & Me in one of these back in November when the season dropped, progress through the latest Mystery Science Theater 3000 has been uncommonly slow on my end.  Blame it on them dropping the batch just before I had to get all obsessed with Listmas Season, then the fact that these past two months have been kind of wild for me, and then the fact that I just need to be in the right mood to watch MST3K anyway.  Maybe this doesn’t appeal to Netflix’s metrics and algorithms, and y’all are more than welcome to blame me should the revival end up cancelled if it turns out I am not alone in my selective viewing habits for this show, but I’d rather take my time and fully appreciate there being new MST3K in my life than rush it and forget everything within a week.  I am still giggling at “PRETTY NICE” three months on, so what does that tell you?

Also, hey, finally watched an Asylum movie!  Some might consider it cheating putting the riffed version on here and saying “WATCHED!” instead of seeking out the movie for viewing on its own merits, but I cannot envision sitting through this without Jonah and the Bots.  Even with them, this is borderline-unwatchable.  The leads are pricks, describing the pacing as leaden would be giving it too much credit, the dialogue is meat-headed, the cinematography is claustrophobically upsetting, the structure is nakedly cyclical, talking in circles for ages in a desperate attempt to pad things out to 80 minutes in order to justify charging full price, everybody looks bored out of their motherfucking minds, and it’s all so utterly hateful and contemptuous.  I despise everything about it, and I especially despise each and every single character, and I ESPECIALLY despise that Captain who is suicidally devoted to nuking everything for absolutely no reason even though I should really be rooting for him since the film would end much quicker if he won.  Thank heavens for Jonah and the Bots because there’s a very good chance I would’ve tapped out by the halfway mark otherwise, for only the third time in my (self-professed) professional history.  Get on the horn and tell the Army, the Navy, Delta Force, Green Berets, Marines, and Maritime Police that this film FUCKING SUCKS!  Then when you’ve gotten everyone, get back on the horn and get me everyone else.  BUH-BOOM!

Alita: Battle Angel [Monday 25th]

Dir: Robert Rodriguez

Year: 2019

First-time viewing

Let’s start with the good, since this is one of those films where enough things go right that I’m ultimately more frustrated about the whole not working.  This is easily Robert Rodriguez’s best film in a decade, maybe even longer than that if Machete did nothing for you, mainly by virtue of it being a proper film that’s supposed to make money rather than a self-indulgent fever-dream made for his friends and nobody else.  Shooting on proper sets again with an actual budget breathes renewed life into his filmmaking.  For all of Alita’s flaws, it’s directed out of the wazoo, with outstanding visual & production designs and actions sequences that at their very best (such as with the MotorBall finale) set a high bar for the rest of the year’s films to clear.  The CGI is astonishing, WETA Digital going even further beyond their still-unmatched work on the rebooted Planet of the Apes trilogy in melding human faces to grotesque digital constructs in ways which manage to deliberately toe the line between the tangible and the uncanny – Alita herself is fantastic but, for me, the real effects star is Ed Skrein’s Zapan for just how often I forgot he’s a fusion of mocap and CGI rather than a wholly CG construct.

Much of the first 90 or so minutes, with the film neatly dividing its 120-minute runtime into three separate 40 minute episodes where each is devoted to something entirely different to the bit preceding it, I dug the hell out of.  Big fantastical open-hearted sci-fi like Alita I am always willing to give a lot of leeway on when it comes to structure and plot momentum so long as the world is engaging enough, the tone isn’t miserably self-serious, and the direction is zippy and energised – hence why, despite its similarities in ambition to Alita, I was bored stiff by Mortal Engines as it lacked all three of those qualities.  I would gladly see more of these films set in this universe were they to be made, which really is no small accomplishment given how totally the last third bricks it, and that’s in large part thanks to Rosa Salazar’s work as Alita, one of those deeply emotional breakout performances that elevates middling or substandard material by sheer force of will and out-of-left-field movie star charisma.  (Mahershala Ali just about matches her despite his dual villain role being woefully underwritten, but he’s already getting near to the point where his being great is just a fact of life.)

That’s the good, and it is very good; easily the best non-Wachowski live-action anime adaptation Hollywood’s yet made.  The bad, however, is of the more mundane and heart-sinking variety.  Now that it’s 2019, can we all finally admit that James Cameron is a poor screenwriter, an especially poor and leaden dialogue writer, and that whilst he may have done above-average work and a few iconic one-liners in the 80s they’ve masked his deep mediocrity and decline in skills ever since?  Much of Alita’s dialogue is ultra-corny or trying way too hard – we need to put a moratorium on the 12a “fuck” indefinitely; the deployment here really pulled me out of an otherwise emotionally-soaring fight scene – that does not do the largely ultra-talented cast any favours.  Even with the aforementioned leeway, the structure is an often-disjointed mess.  Initially, Cameron and Laeta Kalogridis’ screenplay seems to have simply fallen victim to Magpie Syndrome, where there’s less a narrative and more a series of big subplots we flit between as the writers’ attention spans shift, but by the time we reach the climax(s) it becomes very clear that Alita isn’t actually about anything thematically?  That Cameron and Kalogridis blanked on finding a central theme to tie all the disparate threads together other than some vague gesturing towards “teen girl comes of age” that it doesn’t pull off because…

Hugo sucks.  His character sucks, he’s a boring empty cypher whose characterisation is pretty inconsistent and feels spawned directly from the Imaginary Boyfriend machine in Inside Out.  His actor, relative newcomer Keean Johnson – whom I spent the entire film mistaking for the kid from Sky High, Michael Angarano, since he is a dead-ringer just sans any trace of likeability, charisma, or acting talent – sucks, locked into a permanent monosyllabic vacant stare whether he’s in the middle of a violent bar brawl or sharing a tender moment of affection with Alita or having a late-film crisis of conscience regarding [SPOILERS].  And the biggest problem of all is that the film’s emotional core, and the planned series’ entire emotional foundation given the conclusion, is predicated on this kid’s shoulders which neither the actor nor the script is able to justify, leading to a gaping hole where the heart should be.  I’m willing to admit that some of this may be down to my growing malaise with female-fronted action movies that nonetheless revolve heavily around guys (and a growing disinterest in flatly-written heterosexual relationships), but the character still sucks, the actor still sucks, and Cameron and Kalogridis’ writing definitely still sucks.  (Q: has Cameron ever written a decent romance arc?  Before anyone states the obvious, I think Titanic is a bore.)

Perhaps all this would have stung less had the movie ended instead of ending then not then ending again then not again and then stopping – eg: how Mockingjay Part 1 or Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug rolled credits at an arbitrary point in the narrative with no actual cliffhanger and nothing resolved.  Those last 30 minutes making for a fantastic encapsulation of Hollywood’s folly in forcefully setting up franchises at the expense of telling a complete and engaging initial story.  To recap: the good stuff is really good, the bad stuff is really bad, and the whole doesn’t fully work but enough of it does that I’m more disappointed than I would have been if it were just a total boring flameout.

John Tucker Must Die [Tuesday 26th]

Dir: Betty Thomas

Year: 2006

First-time viewing

Boy, I really did not mean for this to become the article of “longwinded explanations as to how something comes so close to working but fundamentally misses the mark.”  If you needed the clearest possible indicator that John Tucker Must Die was written by a then-33-year-old White man, look no further than the film’s climax, the bit where everyone has to very seriously and earnestly state the moral of the film: being a lying cheating womanising dirtbag is wrong.  An explicit rejection of toxic teenage masculinity, locker room culture, the kind of patriarchal society that sees such guys as studs and players, what the entire film had been (clumsily) building up to…  instead gets dumbed down into a cross-gender “lying is bad” bon mot where any trace of indicting guys who refuse to examine their privilege are quashed by a feel-good food fight set to an Emo Pop cover of “Time After Time.”  Or you could point to the bit shortly after where John’s big takeaway from the whole plot is to openly admit he’s womanising instead of hiding and gaslighting it, which the film treats as a feel-good moment of learning to close on.  Or maybe the bit just before the speech where John’s good-guy brother Scott mansplains how Kate’s being so terrible for getting involved in the revenge scheme and how girls deserve to be treated like shit by John because his behaviour is an open secret yet they still gladly throw themselves at his feet anyway.  Also the prolific usage of “slut” as an insult.

For a film that so, so, so badly wants to be Mean Girls crossed with 10 Things I Hate About You, the absence of both cited films’ female perspectives on the screenplay is super obvious and really hurts things.  Yet, oftentimes by accident, Jeff Lowell’s screenplay does manage to stumble onto a solid point about systemic White male privilege in both High School and the world of dating, as the girl squad’s every effort to publicly humiliate John instead is spun back in his favour in a way that makes him even cooler.  Then those bits rub up against sequences where he takes a giant bottle of estrogen supplements and starts getting hyper-emotional and sensitive about his nipples, or the bit where he spins wearing women’s panties into such the fashion statement that every guy in school joins in (a “gag” so “hilarious” the film feels the need to tack on two mid-credits scenes calling back to it), because it was 2006 when men acting more vulnerable was considered inherently hilarious and (even if it undercuts the entire message of your movie) I guess you just had to be there.  For a delightfully mean-spirited revenge-comedy, ala Jawbreaker, it’s way too anodyne and mawkish to properly revel in the fun inherent to the initial premise – which it abandons within 30 minutes to redo She’s All That with a little DNA from How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days spliced in.  For a sweet High School movie, it is oftentimes extraordinarily spiteful and pushes the 12a/PG-13 rating well past breaking point – at times it’s more a sex comedy with the sex taken out.

…I really enjoyed it, all the same.  I have a weakness for teen comedies and High School movies, which I’m pretty sure has been documented around the site in various forms over the years.  Even if it’s the total embodiment of a half-measure film – something which tries on 90 different hats yet doesn’t commit to a single one, so ends up half-assing everything – there’s a decent enough wit, Kate’s baggage involving her mother’s emotional immaturity is a smart throughline (even if it only receives maybe a quarter of the time it needs), Betty Thomas stages some surprisingly effective physical comedy (especially so given how yikes her filmography could be), and Brittany Snow effortlessly pulls off the exact kind of charming lead turn that guides movies like these out of the wilderness.  Sort of like Alita, enough of John Tucker works and is executed well enough that it makes the total collapse as the finish line is in sight all the more frustrating, but said collapse doesn’t bother me as much here.  Again, I put that down to my affinity for teen comedies, plus the fact that (even though said fact gets played largely for judgemental “slut” jokes) John Tucker doesn’t feign like attractive High School students are celibate chaste paragons of virtue with no understanding of the concept of sex.

More of these movies should’ve aimed for R or 15 ratings, to better reflect the lives of those they’re speaking to, but of course then that blocks them from the very audiences they’re aimed at and leads them to undeservedly bomb – pour one out for Edge of Seventeen, everybody – so it’s a real Catch-22.  Stupid busted ratings systems.

Callum Petch will make new friends in the ambulance.

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