What I’ve Been Watching: 22/09/19 – 28/09/19

Sex, lesbian sex, sex addiction, and even more sex.

Right, I’ve put this off for long enough, so here’s the state of my nation.  It’s been an all-over-the-goddamn-place month.  When I last came to you all with non-music related content, I had lost my job at the record store that shall go unnamed for reasons which will become self-evident in a minute.  I’d joined back in May, initially as a volunteer but very quickly jumped up to part-time employee in order to cover for Lydia, the full-time employee and bassist in British punk band LIFE – their new album rips, btw, and I’m not just saying that cos I consider her a friend now – as she spent the Summer jetting all around the world on the festival circuit.  By August, as promotion for her band’s new album ramped up, she handed in her notice and thus her position opened up full-time.  Naturally, I applied since I enjoy working there and wanted to keep doing so.  Whilst Lydia had by her own admission been grooming me to management as a prime candidate to take over the position, I wasn’t confident in winning the post but figured I would at least score an interview and hopefully keep a hold of my weekend hours, since upstairs knew I was regularly in the store and they had met me before.

Weeks pass after the closing date and I hear nothing, which made sense since the entire management of the building went on holiday at the exact same time once the applications closed.  The Saturday prior to my last WIBW, Lydia comes in on her day off whilst I’m on shift covering for her to tell me that management had arrived back from holiday that week and held interviews for the position so I was out of a job.  (She was obviously less callous in her delivery than that reads.)  Management, even though they had my contact info and knew I was in the shop two days before then, never bothered to tell me any of this.  Theoretically, I could’ve turned up for my usual shift a fortnight later to find somebody else already doing it with no explanation why.  When they finally rang almost a week later, I was told that the person in charge of sending out application packs to people who apply simply forgot to send me one – a story which, when my parents, who are livid and prideful to a fault in a way I don’t like, called up a few days on from that, later changed to “you didn’t email the right address and that’s why we didn’t receive anything from you” (untrue because I emailed where the listing told me to email and that first phone call had them state the email was right in front of them as they apologised for “human error”).

In that same phone call to me, though, they offered up a week’s worth of cover shifts cos the new guy had a fortnight’s holiday booked that nobody in management had thought they’d need covered until 48 hours beforehand.  And at the end of those, it turned out the new guy – who is genuinely lovely and really knowledgeable; frankly, he deserves the role far more than I do – is a uni student doing his Masters and they needed somebody to cover the hours on Fridays where he has a lecture.  So, technically, I am still employed until mid-December.  When I last came to you, I was absolutely gutted by having missed out and bitterly angry over not even having gotten at the very least a rejection letter from the management, which I felt was common courtesy due to my being a salaried employee.  Then, after that initial phone call, all of that anger and self-hatred dissipated near-completely, like a rain cloud buggering off.  I think because, for once, my misfortune genuinely was out of my hands so my evil-ass mind couldn’t weaponise the development for another needling attack on my self-worth.  It still hurt, because I had made plans for how I was gonna build a strong enough foundation for Hull-living that I could eventually transition into moving out of my parents’ and living in the city within a year (including finally joining a gym), but the sharpest pain passed.  For once, not being able to do change something that was always out of my hands didn’t cause me to mentally spiral.  Progress?

Shit, that’s already three paragraphs and I’ve still got so much else to touch on plus all six of the film write-ups in what is ostensibly meant to be a film diary are quite long as is.  Right, we’ll table my failed BFI mentorship efforts for some unspecified point during London Film Festival coverage and my current misadventures as a gym member for November’s WIBW – cos there’s not gonna be one in October, I feel LFF satisfies such conditions well enough by itself.  Meantime, the big announcements.

First, you may have seen the post directing you to it, but I have managed to get a review published by Hull’s own Soundsphere Magazine of the latest Pixies record.  I’m not allowed to repost the review here, but you can follow this link to go read it yourself!  Second, as mentioned in the latest instalment (one which meant I had to listen to Christmas music repeatedly even though it is only mid-September), We’re #2! is going on hiatus for three weeks whilst LFF coverage overtakes the site whole plus an additional week to let me recharge.  “This is why I should’ve pre-written,” yes I know.  Third and final, London Film Festival coverage starts Wednesday and runs until Tuesday 15th, my birthday!  Unlike in prior years, the coverage is almost exclusively being housed here as Set the Tape has been forced to cut back on its content production for health reasons.  I’ll be writing extremely mini dispatches for them, but they’re wholly distinct from the posts that will go up here and those’ll be on a delay.  The Festival organisation this year may also mean I end up seeing and writing about way less films than in prior years, but we’ll address and cross that bridge at the appropriate junctures.  Be excited!  It’s probably going to be a car-wreck!

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

Blue is the Warmest Colour [Sunday 22nd]

Dir: Abdellatif Kechiche

Year: 2013

First-time viewing

Take out the exceptional performances by Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux and this movie is actually pretty bad, huh?  It has been a hot minute since I saw an otherwise decent film on the screenplay and acting front be utterly demolished by such terrible direction, and Blue is the Warmest Colour is a fine-as-hell example of such a case.  Does Kechiche know that there are shot types available to him other than stifling close-ups and stifling medium-close-ups?  Because 99% of this movie is nothing but flat, lifeless close-ups that are utterly incapable of depicting any kind of heat, attraction or emotion in spite of Exarchopoulos (especially) working overtime to compensate for that fact.  Several scenes that should be properly dramatic and striking have their impact neutered due to his refusal to inject anything resembling style or passion into his framing, his efforts at scene geography in the early going are confusing, and I would say that he seems utterly disinterested in any connection between his leads that doesn’t involve bare flesh except that even the much-ballyhooed sex scene, despite shameless indulgence of straight male gaze, is sexless and cartoonishly silly.

There’s the seed of an excellent movie in here, even one that earns the three-hour runtime Blue sports to its utter detriment.  The longer running time really aids the first 45 or so minutes when Adèle (the character) is bouncing between relationships being wholly unfulfilled and racked with guilt and confusion over that fact, setting up pretty much everything you need to know about her in ways which explain away her otherwise not well developed actions in the second half, or the contrasting and at times excruciating dinner sequences with Adèle and Emma’s respective families.  And Exarchopoulos and Seydoux are truly sublime in this, their natural chemistry adamant and both actresses adding little tics and small behaviours which really make their characters come alive, especially important for Seydoux because the film’s focus on Adèle means that Emma ends up feeling too much like a mysterious cool girl archetype than a knowable character in her own right.

But it’s all smothered by Kechiche’s woeful, drab, uniform direction.  Three straight hours where the relentless commitment to the same suffocating basic filmmaking ends up sucking the life out of every single scene.  Adèle and Emma’s café reunion in the last third should be devastatingly tragic, coursing with forbidden lust, bitterly tinged with melancholic regret.  It should be passionate, it should be exhilarating, it should be brutally heartbreaking…  and instead it just lands with a thud because Kechiche is completely incapable of transmitting Exarchopoulos and Seydoux’s phenomenal emotional performances into moving filmmaking.  He just shoots and stages this huge pivotal sequence like he has every single other scene up to and past that point.  Cruising?  Same empty crushing close-up.  Family eating at the dinner table?  Same empty crushing close-up.  Argument between school friends?  Same empty crushing close-up.  A stolen first kiss between two passionate lovers?  Same empty crushing close-up.  Sometimes there’s a minor flooding of bloom, mostly there isn’t.  I’ve seen student films with better and more varied filmmaking than this.  I’ve made student films with better and more varied filmmaking than this.  What a goddamned hack.  Watch Carol instead.

The Square [Tuesday 24th]

Dir: Ruben Östlund

Year: 2017

First-time viewing

Genuinely enjoyed the heck out of this one, way more than I thought or hoped I was going to, having not yet seen Force Majeure (it’s on my decade catch-up list for pre-March).  I think the main thing that won me over to The Square was how it was a proper comedy.  That sounds super patronising, so let me expand.  When it comes to “upscale” or “arthouse” or oftentimes just-plain “foreign” comedies – read for the latter: the ones which get exported and receive critical acclaim and awards consideration – I frequently find that they can feel rather ashamed or dismissive of the idea of comedy altogether in a manner which goes beyond mere cultural differences.  They don’t so much have jokes or punchlines or anything with that structure as they do just aimlessly warble around in their own smug superiority and pretention, drolling out the odd barb every now and again but mostly content to lean on intentional awkwardness and bad people doing bad things to each other as crutches for their supposed “comedy” tags.  What I have previously derisively termed “smart people comedies” because they’re made solely for the benefit of insufferable self-professed “cultured” “smart” people.

And despite being set in Sweden’s upper-class modern art scene, and having a similarly glib view of humanity and human nature overall, The Square largely doesn’t do that.  This is a proper comedy with meticulously organised set-ups and punch-lines both narrative and incidental, frequent almost Buster Keaton-esque slapstick comedy retrofitted for stylised modern arthouse aesthetics without diluting the punch, and pacing awkward bastard-ly interactions with the same rhythms of a traditional studio comedy exchange in a manner which allows the constant beats and pauses to function as vital character exchanges rather than artificially dragging a scene out in the hopes anxious people will start chuckling nervously to alleviate their inbound attack because that is totally the same as a legitimate earned laugh.  Östlund’s characters may largely skew stereotypical, but he finds very specific shades and details in them and their interactions which elevate their existences beyond easy punching bags – in particular, the insufferable self-styled provocateur marketing duo who rock-paper-scissors over who gives their big presentation which is constantly snickered through by the junior members of the museum’s board.

Östlund wants to make a larger societal and satirical point about how we human beings as a collective community put up veneers of respectability and try so hard to avoid difficult conversations or raising the dreaded fuss that we often end up behaving like even more callous pricks than if we were being deliberate – a point he’s surprisingly successful in making by using exactly the same self-important framework as the kinds of art he’s simultaneously taking the piss out of.  But The Square works best as a focussed character study about an utter relentless, useless, barely-repentant bastard of a human being digging himself a hole straight through to India; the kind of man who can’t even sincerely apologise to a child he shoved down a stairwell without trying to turn the reasoning for his behaviour back around on society.  Christian, said bastard, is extremely entertaining to watch be a blindly oblivious bastard, the kind of man who evidently has completely forgotten the name of the emotionally-heavy American journalist (Elisabeth Moss) he had a one-night stand with but who just lucks into guessing her name right, and Claes Bang gives him just the right amount of smug dickishness and bone-idle ineptitude to spend 150 minutes in the company of.

Admittedly, The Square probably doesn’t need to be 150 minutes long.  It only has a few notes to play and plays them right down to the nub.  But to speed up its precisely timed comedic shorts masquerading as social satire or lop off, say, the scenes with an effectively-cameoing Dominic West as a guest artist that don’t really add to Christian’s story would honestly lose something for me.  That’s the hallmark of a good 2+ hour movie, right there.

Nymphomaniac vols. I & II [Wednesday 25th]

Dir: Lars von Trier

Year: 2014

First-time viewing

Ladies, gentlemen, and others, I have finally seen a Lars von Trier film.  And, as seems to weird-coincidentally be the case when it comes to finally sampling something from the oeuvre of a big-name director most self-respecting wannabe critics have otherwise seen inside and out, it seems that in doing so I have seen the most von Trier film, and not just because of its four-hour runtime – here is where I make the important note that my viewing was based on the edited, split-in-two version of the movie rather than the unedited split-in-two version or the unedited non-split five-hour Director’s Cut because the first of those was the version on Netflix.  I didn’t even need to do additional post-viewing reading to get that Nymphomaniac doubles as a sort of career retrospective for von Trier, mainly because its central narrative conceit doubles very effectively as von Trier having a kind of three-way conversation with himself about both the protagonist at the centre of this ostensible character study and his career & past transgressions up to 2014.  I mean, such a fact is not exactly subtle when the film stops for five minutes in order for Joe and Seligman to have a debate over whether there is value in not censuring racial slurs because, paraphrasing, a desire for political correctness is stifling difficult necessary conversations about past history.

So, Nymphomaniac is a lot but I found it hung together far better than a film which deliberately seems permanently five minutes away from careening off-rails otherwise might do.  For a filmmaker who has earned a reputation for provocation and shock for shock’s sake, surprisingly little of both parts feels exploitative or designed solely for pushing the audience’s buttons – although a lot of the film’s last chapter, which swings suddenly and half-committedly into a crime drama and becomes extra miserable, doesn’t feel fully earned even if the pay offs are great.  The meta-textual conversation dynamic – between Joe the Protagonist, Joe the Narrator, and Svetlund the Listener – is essential to the movie, often functioning like addendums in door-stopper novels, but von Trier never loses track of his central absolutely fascinating character study.  A strange, digression-filled, contradictory and at times unpleasant but always enthralling and complex character study which is surprisingly non-judgemental (even when it arguably really should be) in its efforts to humanise and provide depth to the sort of character and gender stereotype who would otherwise be treated with dehumanising scorn.

In fact, for a lot of the first half, the film is even surprisingly fun!  Part of it was the novelty of finally seeing von Trier’s filmmaking in action, meshing together Goddard and Besson-ian expressionist visual digressions with Dogmatic social realism in a manner that allows both extremes to effectively take turns flipping each other off, but long stretches of vol. 1 approach a genuine sensation of bad taste fun.  The entire Mrs. H chapter (where a scene-stealing Uma Thurman shows up to chew both scenery and hearts) is a masterclass in cringe comedy, moving tragedy and the thin lines dividing both, starting off uncomfortably awkward before going on for so long that it turns darkly campily hilarious before that also goes on for so long that it evolves into something quietly devastating.  The relative uniform misery of vol. 2 may be why I think the second half is weaker than the first, but again it’s not unearned misery.  Von Trier actually does a solid job of exploring how deeply internalised self-loathing and disassociation from society, sprinkled of course with a healthy helping of societal misogyny, can foster and embolden depression in a manner which curdles and enables the most self-destructive behaviour of the person going through it; the point where it stops being a passenger and starts becoming a driver destroying everything it touches.

What keeps the film held together throughout its every turn, other than von Trier’s wild yet assured direction, are the performances by Charlotte Gainsbourg and Stacy Martin as Joe at varying stages of her life, effortlessly cohering Joe’s various occasionally sociopathic impulses and intentionally self-contradictory readings into one unique and largely believable person.  They’re both effectively having to play at least two different characters with the same name throughout the whole movie, Joe the Protagonist and Joe the Narrator as she negatively sees herself, and do so in a manner which finds the truth between those two separate combative interpretations.  It’s always engrossing to watch them both work throughout every one of Nymphomaniac’s four hours, even when von Trier ultimately lands on the (at least partly earned) conclusion that searching for one’s own happiness is often an inherently selfish act that causes damage to whomever gets in one’s way.  That von Trier, always the optimist.  Even if it brings up problematic undertones towards asexuality when read outside the meta-text, I’m glad the ending shows he’s got some self-awareness about his neuroses.  Really, the only objectionable thing I found Nymphomaniac did was force me to hear Rammstein twice against my will.  Bumping Melancholia up my “To View” list sharpish.

Killer Fish [Wednesday 25th]

Dir: Antonio Margheriti

Year: 1979

First-time viewing

By the time you read this, I will hopefully have finished watching The Gauntlet which means I can officially join the apparently elongated wait for more non-stage-based Mystery Science Theater (stupid Americans always getting the pop culture I care about).  Despite my deliberately slow pace, it’s been a great season, especially thanks to this episode which fires on all cylinders and sees Joel and co. experimenting with the format a bit by making actual usage of Growler & Waverly like these new eps have Gypsy, plus the full-blown in-theatre musical number to distract from the movie’s otherwise uneventful rip of the diving scene from Jaws (right down to the dead body jump scare).  But what really helps is that I could honestly see myself willingly watching Killer Fish without Jonah and the Bots interjecting.  The movie – part Jaws rip-off, part Piranha rip-off, part heist movie for some reason, part crime drama – displays too much stream-of-consciousness “ambition” and smushes together too many fascinatingly bad ideas to ever threaten to be boring.  The fact that it appears to have had a legitimate budget, enough to cover multiple giant fireball explosions if not to shoot the titular killer fish halfway decently, certainly helps.  MST3K cut about 30 minutes in order to fit the film into the show’s episode length and I hope to see the whole thing someday.  After all, I am, as mentioned somewhere on this island of mine, a not-wholly-ironic fan of The Meg.

Cold War [Thursday 26th]

Dir: Paweł Pawlikowski

Year: 2018

First-time viewing

Right, I swear that I did not intend for this week to be when I finally got around to watching all the critically-acclaimed arty European dramas from this decade distributed by Curzon Artificial Eye about or heavily-featuring dysfunctional and often doomed relationships, most of them with a lot of very explicit sex.  Especially since I deliberately try and vary my choice in films during WIBW weeks so that there’s actual variety in the write-ups and I don’t end up accidentally repeating myself or what have you.  But times of the evening when I get around to film-watching plus mood and what’s being yanked off Netflix conspired to make it so.  Best-laid plans, etc.

Cold War is fine.  Objectively, it’s absolutely fantastic.  Tomasz Kot and Joanna Kulig give utterly sensational performances as two bitterly dysfunctional lovers enthralled not so much to each other as they are to the infatuating idea of longing misery.  Łukasz Żal’s cinematography is a thing of bitterly cold beauty, utilising boxy 4:3 ratios and black-and-white visual filters with austere framing and direct social-realist compositions to invoke the striking artwork of the earliest Cold War eras.  The socio-political parallels and subtext in the central relationship – particularly with Wiktor’s embrace of American-exported jazz, completely rejecting the Polish folk music he used to call home and eventual efforts to meld the two, upon his fleeing to Paris – are clever and not over-laboured.  And Pawlikowski is exceedingly direct and focussed in his direction, working in a snapshot vignette narrative which doesn’t waste a second of its 88-minute runtime and squeezes in a lot of incidental details around its edges.

But the film ultimately left me a touch cold (no pun intended).  I think it may just be a little too austere for my tastes, a bit too devoted to its extremely bittersweet mood and too distant emotionally to land any lasting punch.  I really liked the stretch of film where Wiktor and Zula meet in Paris and reaffirm both their romantic and creative partnerships, both of them slowly breaking down in such a manner that makes it hard to discern which of the two sides is more responsible for the cracks in the other; I’d like to see a film which takes that stretch and turns it into an entire narrative, drop such films in the comments if you know of any good or bad.  But I find the ending goes overboard on the misery and tips on over into becoming a Simpsons-esque self-parody of Eastern European cinema, particularly with Pawlikowski’s ending dedication to his parents which, considering the content of the film, frankly raises a lot of questions about the relationship of his parents.  Cold War is objectively great, but personally I didn’t feel let inside the narrative emotionally to the degree I prefer.

Beverly Hills Cop [Saturday 28th]

Dir: Martin Brest

Year: 1984

First-time viewing

Whilst at work on Friday, I read through a fantastic Eddie Murphy profile in The New York Times, done ahead of My Name is Dolemite’s release, and it immediately put me in the mood to watch some classic Eddie Murphy movies.  Aside from the dated homophobia (something that’s just par for the course with Murphy’s 80s output as anyone who’s gone back to Raw and Delirious can tell you), Beverly Hills Cop is a damn-great time at the movies and has aged surprisingly well even whilst it is still super 80s.  Initially, I was going to write about how I was surprised by the film fundamentally being a rather straight-faced loose-cannon cop movie where most of the comedy comes largely from dropping Eddie Murphy into the typical loose-cannon role and letting him riff on the situation with his fast-talking wise-ass comic persona.  But then about halfway through, the realisation dawned on me that Beverly Hills Cop exists in constant conversation and evolution with 1967’s In the Heat of the Night, specifically in the central escapist Black fantasy of Axel Foley.

To be clear, I doubt this was intentional.  Beverly Hills had been floating around in development hell at Paramount for almost a decade before it finally got made, with Sylvester Stallone originally being cast in the role before pulling out at the last minute due to the studio balking at his rewrites, and the film itself largely avoids openly bringing up the topic of race aside from a few of Murphy’s improv’d exchanges.  But by having Murphy in the role of Foley and letting him go full-blast with his comic persona, the film actually functions as an evolutionary step to that Oscar-winning race drama.  To wit, in 1967, Sidney Poitier as Virgil Tibbs standing his ground and slapping Endicott back after the latter strikes him was a revolutionary and groundbreaking moment in depictions of African-American characters in pop culture, a powerful and cathartic act of defiance that broke the mould since even in fiction Black characters like Tibbs would be expected to take the high road and act respectable lest White audiences feel under threat and have their perceptions about Black folks questioned.  But it’s also a slap that Tibbs spends the rest of the movie paying for, first being beaten within an inch of his life by Endicott’s thugs, then forced to have his own prejudices questioned due to his emotions getting in the way of finding the true perpetrator of the murder.  He’s forced to tone down his personality, to return to being stoic and cool-headed and respectable in order to not only solve the case but convince his prejudiced White partners to change their ways.

Foley, by contrast, doesn’t really have to change over the course of Beverly Hills Cop.  His wiseass-ery and recklessness can get him into all sorts of trouble, in and out of local Beverly Hills prison cells and being thrown through a window, and it initially sets the entire Beverly Hills PD against him.  But as the movie goes on, he manages to win over all of the fellow police officers hostile to him without having to stop being a fast-talking rule-fracturing pain in the ass simply on account of the fact that he’s just so constantly right about everything.  He is almost always the smartest guy in the room, the quickest-witted guy in the room, and for all his pranks and prickliness he does keep earnestly extending olive branches to the local PD to help them help him.  He doesn’t need to shut up, to tone down his personality, to make himself more respectable to his White counterparts.  Like Foley’s Detroit Inspector says, he’s already a great cop with great instincts and enough time in his street-wise presence forces everyone else to understand that and start cribbing from his book.  There’s undoubtedly a powerful and specifically Black fantasy in such a figure.

Now, like I said, Beverly Hills Cop is not actively about race, the central police dynamic has more of a “street smarts vs. office drones” “slobs v. snobs” basis to it, but Murphy’s mere presence in the title role, plus the fact that Foley is (I believe) the only non-White character in the Beverly Hills parts of the film besides Detective Foster (who Foley calls out as being too like his uptight White partner) and the Banana Clerk at the hotel to have speaking lines, brings that subtext in.  None of this is meant to diminish In the Heat of the Night or elevate Beverly Hills Cop at the former’s expense, for the record.  It’s just a meta-textual link my brain made whilst watching that I found fascinating and really added something to the film.  See if it does anything for you when you next watch the movie since, as mentioned, Beverly Hills Cop is ace.

Callie Petch had hoped to give you the least amount of luggage.

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