Toy commercials, treasure hunts, terrorist plots, and sippy cups.
Still technically getting one of these out every month, sue me. Also, it’s been a rollercoaster and a fucking half this past fortnight which hasn’t always left much room for writing or film-watching, both from work, shenanigans surrounding it, mental states arising from it, and potential opportunities in the air at time of writing I’m not certain if I’m allowed to discuss yet. Since this week’s entry is already over 3,600 words and 10 movies long, I promise to fill you in on it all when we reconvene on… let’s say the 28th or 29th of this month since my Mum has another holiday coming up which clears the life schedule for seven blissful days to watch enough films to justify one of these but also hopefully not so many films that I basically end up inadvertently penning a novella because my writing style is all about doing things in the most convoluted and non-reader-and-writer-friendly manners possible.
Yes, this also means I don’t have a job anymore. Sort of. Long story filled with sighs. Check back in four weeks.
Here’s what I’ve been watching this week.
Playmobil: The Movie [Wednesday 28th August]
Dir: Lino DiSalvo
I know that I am only 24 years and 10 months of age, but it’s time to face facts and admit that I am old. Maybe not old in the sense that I can’t ascend a flight of stairs without my hip screaming out in agony, but old in the sense of personality and spirit. Like, the moment that one ends up watching one of those family films where the sentiment is “stuffy older family member who used to be fun has to pull that stick from their arse and make time for play” only to find themselves siding against the kid enforcing this lesson is the moment where one becomes irreversibly Old, yeah? Cos I had this twice in one go. First with the Playing with Fire trailer, where a bunch of rambunctious kids try to teach deadly serious forest firemen to lighten up, and which I spent the whole trailer mentally yelling “JOHN CENA HAS A POINT, YOU TOSSPOTS! HE SAVES LIVES, HE CAN’T BE DISTRACTED! GET OFF HIS CASE!” Then with Playmobil where the constant yelling at protagonist Marla (Anya Taylor-Joy, fire your agent) by her younger brother Charlie to lighten up kinda falls flat because Marla is Charlie’s sole caretaker after their parents died! She has to work constantly or they can’t afford their swanky New York City home, presumably without a college degree! Fuck’s Charlie doing to provide for the household, huh? If anything, he’s the one who needs the harsh life lesson, ungrateful bitch!
That MASSIVE JARRING TONAL SHIFT aside, Playmobil is basically just The LEGO Movie except lacking the wit, earnest heart, jaw-dropping animation, likeable characters, funny gags, maturity… OK, it’s missing a lot of things from The LEGO Movie and I’ll grant it credit that in the structure and specifics it’s at least trying to differentiate itself from The LEGO Movie, going for the aforementioned “jaded older family member must remember what fun looks like” narrative, but on the surface-level signifiers it still recalls LEGO to an extent that doesn’t do it any favours. Same attempt to stiffly replicate minifig toys in animation (albeit with a bright pastel artstyle that recalls those Clash of Clans ads), same major setpiece happening in a Wild West town, same hot-footing to various disparate genre sets as a tour for the different play-kits, Jim Gaffigan is doing Not-Chris Pratt (really badly and irritatingly). Taylor-Joy throws herself gleefully into the role and Daniel Radcliffe’s egotistical Rex Dasher is a brief bit of fun even if it’s an archetype done better before elsewhere (not least Gene Parmesan from Arrested Development), but there’s really nothing exceptional or even very good here. If your kids are old enough to watch Playmobil, they are definitely old enough to watch LEGO Movie and the latter is way better for everyone.
UglyDolls [Wednesday 28th August]
Dir: Kelly Asbury
A cleverer, gutsier, interesting film might’ve done something with how all the perfect dolls and real human characters look exactly like Disney/Pixar creations, perhaps as meta commentary on the mainstream family feature animation industry’s shameless follow-the-leader behaviour over the last eight decades. Alas, no such luck. Much like with Playmobil, UglyDolls is perfectly watchable, in fact it’s far more enjoyable than Playmobil and is a lot more well-intentioned out of the two toy commercials masquerading as artistic endeavours, but there is also no reason to watch this when the dozens of better movies it’s shamelessly ripping off – including, but not limited to: Trolls, Toy Story, Monsters University, Wreck-It Ralph, Shrek in just how much it relies on tiresome lampshade hanging for jokes, Sausage Party, 9 – are readily available and just as suitable for children (largely). I mean, unless you really want your kids to learn slightly-muddled anti-fascism subtext through Donald Trump analogues from a young age. Not that I’m gonna dissuade you from raising a more enlightened younger generation, if that is the reason; I just doubt it is the reason you’d be watching this.
Still, although she’s saddled with the film’s worst two songs, if it gets kids to listen to Janelle Monáe’s own infinitely more interesting and better music, then I can live with UglyDolls’ existence. Dirty Computer basically covers all of this film’s self-empowerment themes, anyway.
Angel Has Fallen [Wednesday 28th August]
Dir: Ric Roman Waugh
Better than both Olympus and London, for what very little that’s worth. Still boring as sin. This extremely inept and droningly self-serious and dreadfully interminable franchise, the worst of Gerard Butler’s various atrocities against action cinema, is basically nothing but a pulse-check on what dogwhistles the far-right are into this year which, as a socially-conscious critic, provides a brief flicker of interest before the barely-comprehensible action and relentless meanness put me back into a mental coma again. It’s less xenophobic this time, which is something of a plus, but only because the right-wing’s buzzwords this year are “deep state,” “PMCs,” “people who for some reason believe that Russia wouldn’t have America’s best interests in mind” and, in a bizarre mid-credits stinger, “millennial wellness therapies” cos if you’re already whistling dixie you may as well put a little extra stank on it for good measure.
About two-thirds in, when the film cruelly dispatches an absolutely wasted Jada Pinkett-Smith unceremoniously, I realised that the Has Fallen franchise is basically the replacement bargain-bin 24 and at that point found myself asking “why am I not just watching 24 instead?” You know, the show with legible pulse-pounding action, engaging drama, and a charismatic and dramatically capable lead to mitigate the rampant “patriotic” posturing and dogwhistling? Angel even does the 24 Day 3 thing of giving its protagonist a crippling addiction problem that seems like it’s going to affect the plot and provide some dramatic tension for the capability of our protagonist only for the action to start and it not impede their rampage whatsoever – Jack Bauer had heroin, Mike Banning has painkillers, and I would make a joke about it comparatively being weaksauce (much like everything else in this franchise when compared to 24) but that would be tasteless and painkiller addiction is deadly serious. The last major action sequences are mildly engaging, mashing together the mall siege from Modern Warfare 3 and the two old broken-down soldiers fruitlessly fist-fight climax of Metal Gear Solid 4 (minus the subtext that made the latter awesome and interesting), and there’s a bit where it is super obvious that Morgan Freeman has been badly doctored into G20 stock footage because he’s looking intently at a Vladimir Putin who clearly does not know Freeman exists. …that’s about it. It’s dull and bad just like the other two only not as much this time. Progress!
Spider-Man: Far From Home [Wednesday 28th August]
Dir: Jon Watts
So, I’m not sure if Far From Home is a particularly good Spider-Man movie – a character defined by his working-class New York background, by his constant barely-getting-by struggle and difficulty balancing his responsibilities as a crimefighter with those in his personal life, by his relatability; all factors the MCU interpretation has largely ignored or jettisoned for Awkward Kid Tony Stark who almost never has to struggle for anything. But it is a largely great movie regardless. Homecoming’s major flaw was how it never managed to find a compelling centre to orbit its drama around, having taken out the overdone Uncle Ben origin but forgetting to replace it with anything until the last third, and Far From Home pulls a double-hander by contrasting a genuinely sweet and endearing rom-com (it is hilarious how much better at this aspect Jon Watts is than Amazing Spider-Man’s Marc Webb despite the latter making his name on rom-coms) with a better-executed version of Iron Man 3’s PTSD disillusionment arc. Watts and his writers commit to the respective bits, there’s extremely strong character work right down to the bittiest bit-player, and a premium put on the non-action downtime that’s honestly way more entertaining than any of the action sequences – which, real talk, are haphazard and uninspired save for the last two, the film’s only real blemish.
It’s not going to be the last time we see Spidey in the MCU because this whole bullshit going on right now is just negotiation tactics between Disney and Marvel with the frothing hot-takes of enthusiast press and fanboy Twitter being utilised as pressuring leverage by both sides, but I do still hope they can work something out that’s mutually beneficial and non-monopolistic sos I can get more Spider-Man movies. It really seems like the creative MCU brain-trust has finally figured out what they’re doing with these movies and I’d be mildly disappointed if we had to stamp on the brakes just as a full head of steam has been built up.
Good Boys [Wednesday 28th August]
Dir: Gene Stupnitsky
Really happy to discover that the trailer I had only seen the once prior to watching – general cinema advice: just vacate the screen during trailers if you can, make that you’re going to the toilet or something, it works wonders – wasn’t lying. This was genuinely hilarious, not all of the best jokes were in the trailer, and the raunch does indeed have a point. Sure, writers Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg do gladly hammer the “adorable pre-teens saying rude stuff” button for all it’s worth, but they do so in service of a surprisingly accurate communication of insecurity in boys that age. Of wanting really desperately to grow up and mature, being too hasty to put away childish things and jump into beer and girls because that’s what society has bred them to care about, and trying really hard to make yourself out to be more knowledgeable about things than you actually are, all whilst still clinging onto one’s simplistic immaturity – the earnest misguided sermonising the Bean Bag Boys do to the teenage girls they inadvertently steal drugs from, and the wonky logic loops they use to justify keeping a hold of them, frankly never stops being amazing.
Admittedly, favours are not done Good Boys’ way if you’ve watched Olivia Wilde’s exceptional Booksmart beforehand since, even though the latter comes from a female perspective and is about high-schoolers transitioning to college, both films actually end up covering a lot of the same thematic and narrative ground. Wilde’s film slides effortlessly into its melancholic third-act pathos whilst Stupnitsky does the Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg (who were producers and nothing else) thing of crashing headfirst into excess sentimentality that isn’t quite earned or fully committed to and brings the pacing to a screeching halt (the last 20 or so minutes drag). But even if the film can’t quite stick the landing, the first hour builds up enough goodwill through some hilarious gags, a strong sense of perspective, and an excellent central trio – Keith L. Williams seems to be angling for Craig Robinson’s career as he gets older, Brady Noon gets the big breakout role material, and Jacob Tremblay’s comic instincts are surprisingly sharp, it’s kind of unfair how good of an actor he already is – gets the enterprise across the finish line intact and happily.
The Mummy [Thursday 29th August]
Dir: Stephen Sommers
To quote the late great Roger Ebert, “art this isn’t. Great trash, this isn’t. Good trash, it is.” My first time in a roughly a decade watching the only Mummy remake which at all matters was an exercise in warm, comforting, relentless smiles occasionally interrupted, not unwelcomingly, by mild campy jolts. It’s pretty hilarious, in all honesty, to find out that the 1932 Boris Karloff Mummy was director Stephen Sommers’ favourite film since his Mummy has so very little to do with its alleged source material and so very much to do with biting as much of Paramount’s then-hibernating Indiana Jones movies as possible without getting sued. Sommers working in simpatico with Adrian Biddle (Director of Photography) and Allan Cameron (Production Designer) to replicate the dusty, sandy, hazy and exoticised look and feel of both the Indy movies and the classic pulp adventure serials that the other series plundered richly, whilst his screenplay compresses the first two acts of your typical Indy movie (the non-explicitly-supernatural stuff) into the first hour and then spends the second hour letting the third act of an Indy movie really stretch its legs with just enough of a shift into horror to make it feel a touch edgier than anything non-Temple of Doom.
And the blatant “homages” and pastiche really does overcome the sum of its parts thanks to a relentless charm offensive and cavalier personality, Sommers’ screenplay also replicating the pulpy quip-fire dialogue of cheesy adventure serials and distinctive memorable characters rather than merely the aesthetics. It’s a shockingly violent movie, to a degree that I’m genuinely surprised this used to be a teatime TV staple for the 2000s before it got rerated in the UK to a 15, but said violence also doesn’t come off as particularly incongruous with the rip-roaring and generally light tone in a magic trick I still haven’t yet figured out the execution of. The setpieces, whilst constrained by abysmally-aging CG in varying parts, are a lot of fun, the cast are excellent – Brendan Fraser really should’ve been my generation’s Harrison Ford, he is such a charismatic tour-de-force, and Arnold Vosloo makes a huge impression for someone who is only recognisably on-screen for about 15 minutes total and has very little to do – and have I mentioned enough times yet that the film is a lot of fun? Tangible personality will take you a long way with me. Great trash, The Mummy ain’t. Very good trash, deffo.
The Informer [Saturday 31st August]
Dir: Andrea Di Stefano
There’s a reason why this one isn’t being released in America until next January. Jesus, what a snoozefest. An undercover sting crime thriller so boilerplate and generic that it couldn’t be bothered to finish filling out the template character sheets before beginning the campaign. It has nothing of interest to say about the callousness of the FBI with regards to its treatment of informants, it has nothing of interest to say about detrimental politicking between various law enforcement departments who are supposed to cooperate for the greater good, it has no new spins on the material to surprise the viewer or any style or tension in its filmmaking to spike one’s pulse even the once, it is miserably self-serious despite having no characters or anything to say, its closing 20 minutes can only happen by every single person in this gritty serious adult drama acting like complete doofuses, and it has Joel Kinnaman in the lead. Joel Kinnaman sucks, he is so relentlessly anti-charismatic and dull to watch, he’s Charlie Hunnam without the Queer as Folk to spend the rest of his career coasting off of.
None of The Informer is offensively bad, but it is so relentlessly mediocre and empty that it would transcend mediocrity into abysmal-ness if I were at all capable of mustering up the venom required to justifiably respond to such a wasting of my goddamn time.
Dora and the Lost City of Gold [Sunday 1st September]
Dir: James Bobin
One of the most tiresome lasting effects of the late 90s and early 2000s cynical culture – well, even more so than our current cynical culture – is the apparent inability for overly earnest and somewhat cheesy kids’ properties to make their eventual jump to the big screen without being forced to develop an eyerolling too-cool-for-school self-awareness that performatively gives off the idea that they’re too good for this maaaaaan, in a flailing effort to placate the adults and older siblings dragged along for the ride. And it’s a shame that we haven’t grown out of that because once Dora and the Lost City of Gold gets over its stick-up-the-butt posturing – jokes about the talk-to-camera moments, how songs are stupid or only good for saying “poop” a lot, and the obligatory animated drug trip designed less as loving tribute and more as mocking immaturity – this is actually a pretty fun, solid family film.
James Bobin, working with cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe, carries over the same throwback 90s family filmmaking directing style of something like Matilda and The Borrowers – where everything is at once slightly fantastical and wondrous yet a touch stagey in the blocking and camera placement – that he utilised for 2011’s The Muppets. Surprisingly unafraid to tackle the harmful exoticism and colonialist aspects of the classic pulp adventure serials and more recent updates of said it blatantly cribs inspiration from, actually managing to be a better Tomb Raider movie than the last Tomb Raider movie, the film also cleverly weaves Dora’s edutainment origins into said framework whilst doing so, basing setpieces and puzzle solutions around indigenous wildlife and the correct procedure if caught in quicksand. Most of all, Dora has Isabela Moner as Dora, a relentlessly charming and unshakeably optimistic performance that calls to mind nothing less than Ben Whishaw’s total earnest embodiment of Paddington Bear. It’s just a shame that much of the movie around her turn, scripted by Nicholas Stoller (of said Muppets) and Matthew Robinson (of Monster Trucks which explains a lot), isn’t so willing to wear its heart on its sleeve, even when it comes time in the climax to reconstruct the deconstruction up to that point.
Mean Streets [Monday 2nd September]
Dir: Martin Scorsese
Mean Streets is rough, ready, and somewhat more valuable as a ur text for the themes, characters, filmmaking and editing styles that Scorsese would spend the rest of his career refining and honing to create some of the most electrifying movies of all time than as a great film in its own right. But it’s still a damn-great film that held my attention throughout and maybe also does a better, or at least more straightforward and less unapologetic and confrontational, job at communicating the emptiness and miserable pettiness of low-level gangsterism than his later flashier movies. That grimy, notably shoestring manner of making Mean Streets – with cinematography and mise-en-scene that’s caked in New York musk and grime on the street level (despite not much being shot in New York City) but switches to something almost classic Hollywood whenever Charlie gets to sit on the fringes of his uncle Giovanni’s power businesses as a reminder of what he’s not a part of, and blunt Goddard-wannabe editing by Sidney Levin that would eventually be better realised by Thelma Schoonmaker – doing a fantastic job of removing all the glamour and romanticism from such a story whilst still leaning into the Greek tragedy of its central narrative. (It was also whilst watching this that I had the realisation early Guy Ritchie was cribbing a lot of his particular notes less from Tarantino and 70s Brit gangster films than from early Scorsese.) Dug it a lot.
Die Hard [Tuesday 3rd September]
Dir: John McTiernan
Picking up from my mention of it in the Mummy segment, a blockbuster with tangible personality and genuine sense of fun goes a long for me. Die Hard is a classic to be sure, impeccably made and smartly written and nail-bitingly tense no matter how many times one has seen it or how many lesser movies have stripped it for parts over the years, but what most stuck out with my latest viewing of the film is how much character that it has. How uniquely designed and striking the sets are, shot in a perpetual motion and tightness by Jan de Bont (his signature), with each aspect distinctive enough to aid the viewer’s mental scene geography yet still fit together as part of the same building. How magnificently the film deals with perspective switching in a matter that’s surprisingly Hitchcockian for such a myth-making American gunslinger crowdpleaser (the belief that great tension comes from letting the audience know in advance about the bomb under the table and having them wait on tenterhooks over when it might go off). How damn-near every character gets these little beats that gestures towards them having lives and personalities outside of this specific movie – the henchman who takes the candy bar, the male news anchor excitedly looking off-screen to his producer for approval after a pointless interjection he thinks is genius, the exact coked-up sleeze nature of Ellis.
With that last part in particular, I think I’m just a huge sucker for Silver Pictures productions who are reliably excellent at this sort of thing – you especially see that commitment to ensuring bit characters get moments to shine rather than being stock archetypes or heavies in other ventures by them like Commando, Non-Stop or, yes, The Matrix series. Also, hey, turns out that having both your main hero and villains be formidably smart proactive guys taking turns to outwit each other is a natural purveyor of tension, excitement and narrative conflict! Who would’ve thunk it, eh? Glad that the John Wick shepherds have taken these kinds of lessons on board, otherwise it’d be nothing but Has Fallen entries and Netflix Original Redbox Movies as far as the eye could see in today’s action landscape.
Callie Petch is singing “oh, oh” on a Friday night.