Viruses, vigilantes, cults, and lawyers.
To answer your first question: We’re #2! will be back on Saturday for realises pinkie-swear. I ran out of time prior to leaving for Manchester and last week was an absolute clusterfork at work (specifically relating to whether it actually is “work” or still just “volunteering”) which necessitated my going in way more times than I had initially expected. Yes, I know this is why I was supposed to have stockpiled a bunch of these in order to ensure such a long break never occurred in the first place but, as we have previously established in the sidebar, I am a human disaster who is only barely on top of anything. This week is also busy, but I’m finally getting some structure in place in my life which theoretically should make writing stuff easier and more frequent. Also, I want to get to “Rhythm of the Night” already which means ploughing through ’94’s garbage post-haste.
To answer your second question: Janelle Monáe was iconic, thanks for asking.
Here’s what I’ve been watching this week.
Contagion [Monday 8th]
Dir: Steven Soderbergh
Been meaning to get around to this one for an age and finally did so after picking it up for £1 on Blu-Ray at CEX. Easily my favourite of Soderbergh’s pre-“retirement” films from this decade and a genuinely excellent film in its own right. Soderbergh often seems to work best when he’s dealing with very procedural scripts that often appear clinical and distant yet smuggle in surprisingly developed character work in the cracks, and regular collaborator Scott Z. Burns manages this better than anyone other than maybe Ted Griffin with Ocean’s Eleven. His screenplay is wide-ranging and scattered yet always pacey, always focussed, and does so much with each of its cast members with comparatively little; the noble tragedy of Erin Mears packs such an emotional wallop when that cruel gut-punch finally arrives and it contrasts brilliantly with the outcome of Ally Hextall later on (both women’s respective final scenes represent near-career-best work for Kate Winslet and Jennifer Ehle in different yet similar understated ways). You can tell Burns put a journalistic level of research into his screenplay, even Jude Law’s repugnant Alan Krumweide resembles a real person rather than a convenient hate sink even before one takes into account how prescient his character feels in the wake of *wretches* Alex Jones.
Soderbergh merges into that screenplay like it’s second nature, directing with clinical precision and a slight angular detachment again similar to his work on the Ocean’s movies which provides an outstanding sensation of dread and the casual inevitability of death and despair. Every early close-up of unspoken virus transfer setting the stage phenomenally for that suffocating and distressing sensation of how fragile our continued existence is within this ecosystem, how cruel and random yet ultimately logical a resultant infection is. Admittedly, the giant hanging and unfortunate stereotyping thread of the Hong Kong strand drags things down a tad – muting and montaging their dialogue in what is meant to be a global pandemic movie, containing the only major criminal acts of the whole movie inadvertently playing into racial stereotyping, and how it’s just forgotten about after 50 minutes into the movie until the very end – but it’s the only real sore spot on an otherwise affecting film and I especially love this kind of procedural thriller when done this excellently. Cannot wait for both The Laundromat (another Soderbergh/Burns collab) and The Report (Burns’ theatrical directorial debut) later this year.
The Final Sacrifice [Tuesday 9th]
Dir: Tjardus Greidanus
Had a draining confusing day at “work” where I once again let my isolated financially-insolvent situation overwhelm my emotional state, so even though I engaged in retail therapy that led to snapping up a copy of Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie on Blu-Ray – the bare-bones UK one, unfortunately; someday I’ll try and get those Shout! Factory collections – I instead retreated to the comfort blanket of the Final Sacrifice episode for the evening. This honestly might be my favourite episode of the entire show. A brilliant good-bad movie which is thoroughly entertaining in its own right (once it gets past the extremely overlong prelude of Troy slowly reading endless amounts of books and documents) paired with a non-stop barrage of pitch-perfect riffs (“no-one escapes the World Wrestling Federation”) and high-quality mid-film sketches (the outbreak of hockey hair leaves me in stitches for no explainable reason), it’s an episode firing on every possible cylinder and always picks me right up for at least those 90 minutes.
“I WANNA SING YOU SOMETHING FROM BONE MACHINE!”
Watchmen [Wednesday 10th]
Dir: Zack Snyder
This is in no way a new and unique critical observation that I am pioneering – just going to, in particular, leave Tom Breihan’s entry on this for his “Age of Heroes” series here – but it really is astonishing how much Zack Snyder ends up completely missing the point of the graphic novel series he clearly adores to death. A man who labours so heavily and so lovingly on replicating the aesthetics, costumes, even entire panels and swathes of dialogue wholesale yet so evidently also has absolutely no idea what Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen comics are even about; gleefully glorifying what they viciously condemn, proudly wallowing in empty grimdark nihilism rather than using the tropes Moore and Gibbons inadvertently codified to make a large genre and societal critique. It’s not so much missing the forest for the trees as meticulously fetishizing the trees whilst petulantly burning the forest to the ground. Again, this sentiment has been spoken before elsewhere but its obviousness doesn’t make it any less true: Moore’s work empathises with Rorschach but is unsparing in its portrayal of him as a hateful bigoted psychotic barely any better than the criminals he brutalises, Snyder’s work deifies him as a principled noble hero. Moore’s story ends on an uncertain discouraging note of potential selfish anarchy; Snyder’s cues up My Chemical Romance’s raucous punk cover of “Desolation Row.”
Rather than harp on all the usual suspects – Malin Åkerman and Patrick Wilson’s atrocious wooden performances, Snyder’s continued fetishization of violence, the abysmal stop-start pacing that comes from directly adapting a twelve-issue comic as 1:1 as possible rather than altering things for the new medium, the hysterically on-the-nose music cues – I’d rather talk about something which really stuck out at me upon my first viewing of Watchmen in ten years. Is Zack Snyder the most sexless mainstream filmmaker going about today? I’m not just harping on the cringe-inducing sex scene, although the fact that Snyder (ALLEGEDLY) set and shot it the way he did as a middle-finger to studio execs who wanted a sex scene is endemic of my wider point. Laurie, a.k.a. Silk Spectre II, is primarily a deconstruction of the Lois Lane archetype – not entirely, of course, since there’s also a lot of parental and legacy baggage in there, but primarily. The inability to be truly emotionally and romantically fulfilled by an all-powerful alien being whose mind and body is always being needed elsewhere, and how she and later Daniel, a.k.a. Nite Owl II, disappears back into vigilantism in order to get that kind of erotic pleasurable rush she’s not getting from her relationship with Dr. Manhattan or her otherwise empty life.
These scenes, particularly the back-alley brawl and the prison riot, should radiate uncomfortable heat and Åkerman & Wilson are trying to play it that way but Snyder… doesn’t seem to recognise it at all? It’s that or he’s actively fighting against such a sensation, I can’t quite decide which. He’s so enthralled to these characters as mythical beings and the awesomeness of cooly-shot violence that the idea of sex or carnal desires or even just two people liking each other never seems to enter his mind, or he was so appalled by everybody reading into (and making fun of) the latent homoeroticism of 300 that he’s deliberately attempting to smother any traces of sexuality in his work because it detracts from his Serious Filmmaking because he is a Serious Mature Filmmaker. The result is a subplot which runs throughout all of the film’s 163 minutes, one which is supposed to have a kick equal parts sour yet kind of sweet by the time we hit the epilogue, completely shorn of any impact yet having its signifiers sitting around anyway because it was in the comic and Snyder was going to import every last detail from the comic regardless of whether he understood it or not. And that attitude towards sex ends up following through to Sucker Punch, Man of Steel, and Batman v Superman despite how integral the concept is to key parts of all three films.
In that respect, Snyder really is like a 13 year-old boy who’s Maeby Fünke-d himself into a position of power in Hollywood: so desperate to prove how mature he is that he slathers his films in relentless violence, dour self-serious tones, rampant nihilism masquerading as moral complexity, on-the-nose religious symbolism that in actuality means almost nothing, and no sex ever because eww eww gross cooties. No wonder r/movies can’t get enough of the guy.
Seven Psychopaths [Thursday 11th]
Dir: Martin McDonagh
A handful of great individual scenes and a genuinely excellent Christopher Walken performance which fails to coalesce into a meaningful whole thanks to a grating Sam Rockwell caricature and an altogether way too pleased with itself meta-text which is nowhere near as clever as it thinks it’s being. One more time for those in the back: pointing out genre tropes and clichés in-universe and then doing them anyway is not the same thing as actually deconstructing them. You’re just being insufferably pretentious and insecure. Occasionally, McDonagh finds enough manic energy and off-kilter wit or menace for an exchange to truly land – the Quaker and Zachariah stories (definitely not so much the garbage Priest story whose eventual ending is vaguely exploitative), the graveyard shootout pitch, Hans’ final scenes – but otherwise the film just jogs in place for nearly two hours failing to explore revenge stories or revenge itself in any meaningful manner which hasn’t been covered by McDonagh’s other better films. Just a wildly unfocussed empty mess.
The Matrix [Friday 12th]
Dirs: The Wachowski Sisters
Right, I did not intend to have this recur so soon, but my Dad and I had the chance to catch the 20th Anniversary re-release at our local crappy cinema which hasn’t been renovated in the slightest since it opened in 2002 and like hell was I going to pass up the opportunity to watch The Matrix on the big-screen! And even if the slowly-getting-more-rundown Scunthorpe VUE wasn’t my first choice – or even my second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, etc. – for viewing surroundings, I can’t deny that the aesthetics fit the turn-of-the-century feel and themes of The Matrix like a glove. A one-off time-warp to the state-of-the-art of 20-ish years ago. As for substantive criticism: I was really taken aback this time by the physicality of the Agents. Not just Hugo Weaving’s Smith, who of course gets all the showier moments befitting Smith’s growing autonomy and sadistic pleasure in his work, but also Paul Goddard’s Brown and Robert Taylor’s Jones. The balletic choreography in their cold mechanical movements, the way they carry themselves, and how you can start to tell them apart as distinct characters as the film progresses akin to (arguably) various Ghidorah incarnations in Toho Godzilla movies. Really cool touch in a movie fit to burst with really cool touches.
Stuber [Saturday 13th]
Dir: Michael Dowse
Stuber stinks. The plot doesn’t hang together, the chemistry isn’t there, the jokes certainly aren’t, and the direction by Dowse is borderline incoherent. Extremely rarely, the film manages to find a level of stupid that elicits a few chuckles in spite of oneself – the gun throw gag that the trailers already spoiled is the only genuine guffaw to be had here, but a couple of Bautista’s initial Mr. Magoo antics score some cheap snickers before the gag gets driven into the ground – but it’s clear that more effort went into providing $15 million advertising for Uber rather than making a satisfying comedy in its own right. Novice screenwriter Tripper Clancy instead leaning heavily on the alleged inherent hilarity of crass profanity-laden dialogue and having characters lampshade and dismiss action movie tropes in a manner which is starting to make me wish Edgar Wright had never made Hot Fuzz. I’ve seen a lot worse and I guess it’s not unpleasant, although it has weird ideas about masculinity and male-female friendships, but there’s no reason to see this in theatres.
Midsommar [Saturday 13th]
Dir: Ari Aster
I am in no way ready to talk properly about this yet. I know that I am prone to hyperbole and slight exaggerations of the truth in my writing of both opinions and relaying of anecdotes – apparently also known as “being a person on the Internet” – but what I am about to tell you is the God’s honest truth. I had a full-blown panic attack at the climax of Ari Aster’s sophomore feature. I had tremors running throughout the entirety of my body, my breaths became rapid and loud and barely-controllable, I was on the verge of tears, fixated helplessly on the events playing out in front of me yet wanting nothing more than to get as far away from the film and the thoughts it was putting in my head as was humanly possible. This was a deep, visceral, upsetting terror I cannot recall experiencing at any film before and it did not subside for an entire half-hour after the credits had finished rolling. I was so palpably traumatised that I ended up alarming Cineworld staff members to such a degree that one of them came to check on me in the toilets I had ducked into in a futile effort to compose myself enough to drive home.
I swear to you all, I have exaggerated none of this. Midsommar got to me. It really got to me. Playing so heavily on my own personal baggage and fears regarding death, trauma, abusive relationships and infidelity, grief, anxiety – holy fuck, I have never seen a more upsettlingly accurate depiction of depression-fuelled anxiety in a movie before; there’s an early sequence which could have been ripped from my personal experiences at any point in the last five years – sex, and the changing nature of the self that I was viscerally shaken by it all. People like to describe the impact of certain scenes in films as “[hitting] like an atom bomb” and that’s exactly what I’d use when talking about my experience with Midsommar, more specifically the sensation of seeing one going off in the distance but being just far enough outside the blast radius that its effects don’t fully register until that shockwave reaches you at which point there is no hope. I spent much of the film enraptured but more unnerved than scared until the cumulative effect of it all washed over me at once during the blazing finale.
So, no, not ready yet. For the record, Midsommar is an exceptional film but I never ever want to watch it again except I maybe also want to go to the next available screening for another go around. Genuinely awestruck.
Liar Liar [Sunday 14th]
Dir: Tom Shadyac
Seen this in bits and pieces over the years on various television airings but had never actually watched the film all the way through until now. Liar Liar is great fun and surprisingly amoral and risqué for what is supposed to be a morality play family film. (Here in the UK, it’s still rated PG in spite of *gestures wildly in the film’s general direction*.) I also think that Jim Carrey’s work here makes for a fine contrast to that of Nanjiani’s in Stuber, both actors spending much of their time yelling lines at the top of their lungs – Carrey, in particular, I think delivers maybe seven lines in the entire film in something other than a yell – in a manner which is supposed to elevate what on paper doesn’t seem particularly funny. The difference, I feel, is that Carrey commits 100% to every single overblown line delivery and mugging contortion of his face and body (in addition to the scenes where Fletcher acts with similar goofy intensity around his son Max demonstrating that the character is just naturally that goofy) that it somehow becomes natural and even faintly charming. Nanjiani, much as I love him, is just not that kind of performer (as his stand-up and The Big Sick demonstrate) so his deliveries are more panicked and strained and artificial.
I’ve said before that I think Jim Carrey is one of the best comic actors to ever take up the profession and Liar Liar is great evidence as to why yet also indicates precisely why he started moving away from straight examples of the genre in the aftermath. Carrey had a schtick, a really effective schtick that was rightly and hilariously called out by Swoosie Kurtz in this film’s outtakes but a schtick nonetheless. Yet the reason why he took so long (and several bombs) to wear out his welcome came from how he was able to modulate that schtick to best fit the characters he played and the various movies he was starring in. Jim Carrey in his prime technically was always playing his persona, but there are still clear differences between Ace Ventura and Stanley Ipkis, Lloyd Christmas and Charlie Baileygates, between how he’d play in a Farrelly Brothers film and how he’d play in a Joel Schumacher film. And with Liar Liar, Carrey modulates his madcap performances that many a youngster who had snuck into his more adult films fell in love with more specifically to their level, broad and loud and cartoonishly over-the-top yet still not gratingly so. It’s more obviously a family film-level performance but not insultingly.
It’s also effectively a swansong for Carrey’s comic persona. He skirts so close to the line of exhausting self-parody here that his work as Fletcher is arguably his effort to kill off that phase of his career for good. After all, if he pushed it any further then it would risk crossing that line into irritation or just-kinda-sad – as it unfortunately would do with his turns in Ron Howard’s Grinch and the 2014 Dumb and Dumber sequel you already forgot was a thing – so he effectively had to disappear into dramedies and thrillers in order to continue having a career post-Liar Liar. Show that there was more to him than just this expertly-crafted persona he was nonetheless wearing out. The at-the-time underappreciated one-two punch follow-ups of ‘98’s Truman Show and ‘99’s Man on the Moon drew a line in the sand which unfortunately never quite stuck, but Carrey’s all-over-the-place career after Liar Liar doesn’t diminish this film one bit. Now the weird gendering of good/bad people divide that occurs throughout, on the other hand…
Callie Petch is tired and you are ridiculous.