Callie Petch’s Bottom 10 Films of 2019: #5 – #2

A whole new world (of bad movies)…

Welcome back to My Bottom 10 Films of 2019.  Yesterday, we impotently raged at the dreck which made up the #10 to #6 slots and, if you missed them or want to revisit the action, you can click here to get a load of those.  For everyone else, I promised you rage and rage you shall receive.  We’re only covering #5 to #2 today, however, because it turns out that I oopsied and wrote almost 2,500 words on my #1 film all by itself which, when I totted up the individual word lengths of each entry, ended up being an entire third of what was a 6,200 word article – in other words, that one entry being an entire standalone piece even by my standards.  So, you’re gonna have to wait until tomorrow for the #1 just like back in 2016.  Trust me, it’s worth it.  Meantime, invaders must die!

There may be spoilers.  Proceed with caution.

05] Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker

Dir: J. J. Abrams

Star: Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac

The more I think about The Rise of Skywalker, the more I dislike it and I wasn’t exactly exiting the cinema with high spirits to begin with.  Who would’ve thought that hiring the man who has never made anything better than “fine” by himself and has never displayed the capacity for original thought, plus the co-writer of Batman v Superman and Justice League, to artlessly rehash Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi in the same exhaustingly over-plotted and overlong movie could ever possibly backfire?  For the record, I don’t think that Skywalker is some kind of rejoinder to Rian Johnson or a binning of The Last Jedi in an overcorrection to the division it caused.  Whilst it’s a clear rejection of the arcs and threads set up by Johnson’s movie, that’s simply more to do with Abrams going back to his original trilogy plan out of a comforting familiarity rather than anything malicious or – that read is there if you’re looking for it, but I don’t think it’s intentional.  The total sidelining of Rose Tico, for example, I absolutely believe is because Rose simply was never in Abrams’ prospective trilogy plans rather than deliberate kowtowing to online fuckheads.  And whilst the big mid-film twist caused me to let out a long involuntary “uuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuggggggggghhhhhhhh” from the back of my throat, I’m not marking the film down because its narrative didn’t turn out how I personally wanted it.

Rather, I’m marking the film down because it bored me.  So very, very, very much so.  The plotting is inelegant and hackneyed, the comic bursts are often massively lame, the character arcs are rushed through as a result of trying to squeeze two films worth of narrative into one, and the pacing is dire – this is 10 minutes shorter than Last Jedi yet felt so much longer.  Abrams continues to be a man who is able to perfectly mimic movie feel in such a way as to create nostalgic comfort, yet is perplexingly unable to translate that feel into affecting emotions due to his complete and total failure to understand how narrative storytelling works.  The man is obsessed with plot and mystery, the latter in particular leading to him simply withhold key character information that would provide emotional struggle or genuine personal conflict because doing so means he doesn’t have to consider the why characters need to do the things they do or the why certain events end up happening.  There are so many big scenes in this movie that should be tearjerking lay-ups, most especially the send-off of Leia (and by extension Carrie Fisher), and I spent almost all of them utterly indifferent because he never once puts in the legwork to make them mean anything.  Given the awful, awful, awful way he handles Kylo Ren’s arc, I’m still not certain whether he’s disinterested in or just plain does not understand how cathartic character and narrative storytelling moments are supposed to work.

Instead, he just mindlessly alternates between a constant string of spectacle-laden action sequences which don’t mean anything (that for the first hour are inexcusably plagued by sloppy editing) and stall for time, and blitzing through endless plot beats which don’t mean anything because characters don’t get the chance to grapple with the consequences of said beats – consequences which themselves are revealed to mean absolutely nothing multiple times throughout the movie – both physical and emotional.  Oh, and nostalgia pandering.  Lots of nostalgia pandering.  Whilst I don’t think The Force Awakens stands up to repeat viewings, I get why it spent the entire runtime stealth-remaking A New Hope and throwing in endless references to prior Star Wars things that people recognise: it’s about re-establishing the Star Wars identity after the prequels tried a big tonal swing which didn’t work and situating the new characters within that framework so the passing of the torch feels natural and allows them to shoot off in their own direction for future instalments (which Last Jedi did).  If you’re still doing that by the third movie of your trilogy, relying on empty nostalgic signifiers of past events as the sole basis for catharsis and stimulation, then it just makes your universe seem suffocatingly small, re-treading past ground artlessly and soullessly with a hack’s misunderstanding of why anything is supposed to matter.

Mainly, I feel like it exposes how nobody besides Johnson seems to have come into this new Star Wars trilogy with fresh ideas or a purpose as to why they should make them.  Abrams’ big vision amounts to little more than “make a big and increasingly tiring meta song-and-dance about how a new generation has to inherit Star Wars” and “poorly rip off the plot of Avatar: The Last Airbender.”  Neither of which are really an adequate justification as to why these movies needed to exist outside of empty nostalgic comfort.  They’re so obsessed with selling Star Wars to people already obsessed with Star Wars, attempting to preserve the original trilogy in amber rather than trying to blaze new ground or win new converts.  And I guess that’s fine if you do only want more of that thing you liked as a kid but BIGGER and even less nutritious.  But Johnson and even Gareth Edwards with Rogue One – it is amazing how Abrams routinely blows up planets on the regular and I feel nothing, yet when Edwards pulled off that same trick I felt a gripping visceral awestruck fear – found new exciting ways to update the themes, feel and substance for a new generation, to be relevant to today, to be about something other than itself.  With men like Abrams at the helm, Star Wars is never going to be about anything but itself, and even then the meta-narrative doesn’t hold up to any semblance of scrutiny.

Bluntly: J. J. Abrams needs to give up being an artist and go off to be a marketer instead.  It’s clearly the job he wants most of all and it’s where his talents best lie.  Just please stop letting him behind movie cameras and typewriters for any non-marketing medium.  The snake oil salesman has no clothes.

04] StarDog and TurboCat

Dir: Ben Smith

Star: Nick Frost, Luke Evans, Gemma Arterton, Bill Nighy (voices)

I know that at the start of this countdown I mentioned how I don’t consider this a Worst Films list and attempt to steer clear from the kinds of easy target fish-in-barrel movies which are normally prime fodder in negative countdowns such as these because they’re no fun and I rarely have a strong enough reaction to them for worthy qualification.  But every year, pretty much without fail, at least one such film manages to slide in through the net anyway that I take one look at and refuse to throw back into the ocean.  The kind of awful movie whose awfulness is apparent from near-enough the opening frame, relentlessly irritating enough to get under my skin, poorly made enough to be inexcusable for a professionally-released consumer-hopeful piece of alleged art, yet not bizarrely or transcendentally bad enough for me to find sitting through the work anything less than a blight upon my existence.  It’s a razor-thin line for a movie to slice itself to death on, but I have yet to put together a Bottom Films list without one.

I had expected 2019’s dubious honouree to be The Queen’s Corgi, a vile and crude little production whose brief flashes of lunacy (akin to those displayed by that studio’s previous feature The Son of Bigfoot) were soon swallowed by boring boilerplate filmmaking, unlikeable characters, and a literally phoned-in Jack Whitehall.  But then, in the last possible moments of the year, Corgi was pipped to the post by another wretched little production whose brief flashes of lunacy were soon swallowed by incompetent filmmaking, irritating and hideously-designed characters, and over 60% of its voice lines literally being phoned-in – you can actually hear the difference in audio quality between the lines recorded in a professional studio and the ones done over the phone, complete with peaking levels and the echo of holding a microphone to a loudspeaker.  So, please, give a round of applause and a hearty “YORK-SHIRE!” to Red Star 3D’s StarDog and TurboCat for breaking away at the last second and securing the bag!

To be fair, a part of me does feel rather bad about sticking StarDog on this list because they’re a rather small studio with limited means so ragging on their substandard animation – filled with empty poorly-lit environments, approximately three uniquely-designed human character models palette-swapped over and over, erratic character animations and worse camera movements which call to mind nothing less than FoodFight! – can be seen as rather mean.  So, if anybody from the studio is for some reason reading this, I want to be perfectly clear: even though it’s not ready for primetime at all, I did not put StarDog on this list because of the animation.  Instead, it’s on here because the storytelling is incoherent, built on contrivances, and frankly gives off the shitty whiff of cynical trend-chasing cash-in.  An artless mix of Zootopia (in general discrimination-based plot and race-war villain plan), superheroes (most especially Sky High which the movie rips a lot of its beats from), Over the Hedge (in the “humans hate animals” and mild attempts at social satire) and Shrek (in the tiresome recurrence of meta-humour and adults-only pop culture references).  There’s not so much a “plot” as a collection of ill-explained unconnected ideas for entirely separate movies jammed together without care, its own internal logic is constantly broken at every turn (most especially whether or not humans can understand animals which is rather vital for the climax), and every beat is elongated to at least double the natural length because otherwise StarDog wouldn’t so much as sniff feature-length.

Rather than being the result of wild ambitions or a group of creatives previously used to short films and interactive experiences attempting to run before they can walk, the whole thing smacks of contemptuous cynicism.  As if the fact that it’s being made for children, most likely the youngest and least discerning of children, means any old garbage will do and who cares if there aren’t so much characters as INTERCHANGEABLE LOUD NOISE GENERATORS and why bother having any of it make consistent logical sense.  It’s for children, shut up and stop overthinking it.  As somebody who has spent much of their past decade championing animation, kids animation especially, as a medium capable of so many possibilities in terms of storytelling and maturity and emotional resonance, plus as someone who believes that kids are smarter and more discerning than they are typically given credit for, such lines of thinking personally offend me.  Just because kids are young and impressionable, doesn’t mean they’ll accept any old unbaked cynical guff you try to shovel down their gullets.  Doesn’t mean you should slack off.  If anything, that means you should try harder, to put together something that’s going to excite them or inspire them, to be worthy of their time and admiration!

Make smart usage of your limited budget!  Get creative with your characters, narratives and visual presentation!  Don’t blow it all on bored-as-fuck B-list celebrity voices, slap together an insulting knock-off of Big Hero 6 years too late to the party lacking in any charm or earnestness, and then charge the same amount of real actual cash money cash as the big boys who largely don’t take children for simpleton mugs.  Try fucking harder.

03] Dumbo/Aladdin/The Lion King

Dirs: Tim Burton/Guy Ritchie/Jon Favreau

Star: The last vestiges of artistic integrity getting their fucking heads kicked in

You knew this was coming, especially if you’re a long-time follower of my work and therefore were around for when I named the awful Beauty and the Beast live-action remake as the absolute Bottom Film of 2017 ahead of more traditionally befitting cinematic abortions such as Bright, The Emoji Movie and that American remake of Ghost in the Shell which, yes, was just two years ago.  It’s no secret that I have not gotten on with almost all of Disney’s live-action remakes/re-interpretations of their Animated Classics – with the notable exceptions of the car-crash Maleficent movies and the genuinely strong Pete’s Dragon do-over – finding them to be lifeless, coldly cynical, often pointless, and fundamentally misguided works who devalue the medium Disney first made their name on by largely attempting a 1:1 translation without understanding how important the eye-popping elastic animation was to the power of said stories.  And in my aforementioned Beauty write-up, I even made special note of how 2019 was going to see three more of these blatant cash-grabs arriving within a four-month span.

I expected very little from Tim Burton’s Dumbo, Guy Ritchie’s Aladdin, and Jon Favreau’s Lion King and very little was exactly what I got.  Really, the only interesting thing about these three movies is how they each act as perfectly representative embodiments of the inherent flaws in all three distinctive avenues Disney has taken with their remakes, all arriving within the same elongated choked-out Summer that the studio had, like the selfish gluttonous and bullying big brother it is, arbitrarily decided was theirs now.  So, rather than going on the same “I’m deeply concerned about what this means for the future of the movie industry” and “what is the point in doing these movies when the studio is never ever going to let them replace the originals in public perception and merchandising opportunities” rants again, let’s just instead briefly go through the three-way tie and individually examine their fundamental weaknesses in approach.

Burton’s Dumbo takes one of Disney’s lightest (in content and substance) Animated Classics and utilises it as a jumping off point for a radically different story which acts as both a modernised update of the often problematic original and an in-built sequel to it.  It’s perhaps the most noble and promising of the three ventures but that’s also why it ends up the biggest outright debacle.  The copious new thematic and narrative elements end up distracting so much from and have so little to do with Dumbo that they make the title character feel like a side-piece in his own movie, whilst the winking self-critical meta-commentary about homogenous monopolistic entertainment mega-corporations are the movie equivalent of that time Sunny D pretended to be depressed on Main.  All that new stuff, by the way, comes awkwardly after the movie has spent 40 minutes just redoing the original Dumbo so the narrative, tonal, and thematic switch ends up jarring.  Meanwhile, the attempts to redress the racial and cultural aspects of the original film which have aged poorly just creates this disconnect of an obvious period piece having modern societal values (ethical circuses!) that feels token and insulting, when it’s not just removing the problematic elements outright despite their vitalness to how the narrative works (the crows) so it’s less “redressing” and more “ignore the subject altogether.”

Ritchie’s Aladdin – in spite of adding an additional 38 minutes, several side-characters and songs, shuffling around various plot beats and stripping certain others – goes for a simple beat-for-beat remake but with people of colour playing the people of colour since it’s live-action and Disney haven’t done a whole lot of that.  That’s at least a somewhat valid reason to go this particular route but, for all the deserved criticism over how the creative team of the ’92 original exoticized their Arabian setting and indulged in negative stereotypes about the region, a lot of the fun and visual power of the animated movie comes from the gorgeous, lively, kinetic hand-drawn animation, the kind that even the best and most engaged live-action directors can’t translate across mediums.  Ritchie, rarely the best of fits for studio filmmaking anyway, might as well have been replaced with an actual algorithm, so lifeless and mechanical and devoid of energy is his Agrabah; the original transports the viewer to a bustling and vibrant land, whilst the remake is like experiencing a particularly complex ride at Disneyland Paris.  The new Aladdin tidies up some of the problematic elements of the original, but also CinemaSins-es Jasmine to hell which make her less proactive in the effort to fix a non-existent problem, looks so much uglier, is universally worse performed in every aspect (don’t even get me started on the songs), and lacks any of the magic which made the original an all-timer classic.

Favreau’s Lion King, meanwhile, is a glorified tech demo which seems to believe the problem with Aladdin was that it didn’t misunderstand enough the power these stories gain from their traditional animation.  The new Lion King makes no major changes to the original movie, although it somehow comes out a full 30 minutes longer, besides a mandate to tell the story as ultra-realistically as possible.  That means all of the mysticism which added to the grand inherent tragedy of the original tale has been removed.  The camerawork, staging, and environments (whilst the latter are impressive on a raw technical level) are lacking in dynamism, cinematic flair, and afflicted with muted colour schemes.  Worst of all, whilst the ultra-realistic animals are again impressive on a raw technical level, many of them lack distinctive visual characteristics and their inability to, y’know, emote in ways that real animals can’t (coupled with almost universally comatose vocal performances) causes the story to end up hopelessly cold at the best of times and, as with Mufasa’s murder at the paws of Scar, hopelessly silly at the worst.  In the chase for the most cutting-edge of visual effects above all else, Favreau and his team have managed to strip all of the joy, all of the heart, all of the life out of a still-unimpeachable classic and replaced those things with… nothing.  Absolutely nothing.  And in a good five years, there’s a strong chance that further improvements in the realm of digital animation are just going to make this look rather ugly and dated, like how a lot of seventh generation videogames which did the same thing already look like dogshit.

(For those curious as to why the similar Lady and the Tramp do-over hasn’t been included: Disney+ doesn’t launch in the UK until the end of March, so I haven’t seen it yet.  Also, honestly, I had entirely forgotten it was a thing.)

02] Sorry We Missed You

Dir: Ken Loach

Star: Kris Hitchen, Debbie Honeywood, Ross Brewster

Ken Loach needs to retire.  Paul Laverty too.  I gave I, Daniel Blake the benefit of the doubt given the level of public debate and attention it stoked towards Britain’s dehumanising quagmire fuckery of the Tory-controlled benefits system, even whilst the film carried a very condescending misery porn streak and was a total mess as a narrative feature divorced from cultural context.  And since I have been complaining for quite a number of years (including several times in this very Listmas alone) about British cinema largely being cowardly and/or inert when it comes to addressing the current social climate, I figured it may have come off as hypocritical or unfair to dismiss one of the few directors in the country today pumping his films full of anger and attempted vitality.  At least Loach was trying to matter, right?  That’s worth something?  Then I suffered through Sorry We Missed You and any benefit of the doubt or appreciation of intent for Loach & Laverty ejected themselves into orbit and haven’t returned since.

I fucking hated watching Sorry We Missed You.  Watching Sorry We Missed You made me angry but not at the callous byzantine dehumanising nature of zero-hours contract employers, not at the empathy-bereft Tory governments who have actively fostered the conditions which allow the unforgiving predatory nature of the system to go about destroying the lives of fair working-class people, and not at the system of Capitalism which breeds these very things.  No, watching Sorry We Missed You made me angry at Loach & Laverty because they are borderline goddamned self-parodic hacks by this point.  On a filmmaking level, Sorry is offensive to my very fucking soul.  Loach is 83 years old and has been making movies for over five decades.  Why is he asking the great Robbie Robertson to shoot such ugly, flat, atrociously-lit, non-composed visuals?  Why is it a more noteworthy occurrence when a scene doesn’t end up breaking the 180° rule?  Why are his actors forever stood like statues at off-kilter angles and positions, leaving a tonne of distracting negative space, for absolutely no reason?  Why is almost every single scene shot on the same nailed-down tripod at a distractingly far-away distance like a goddamned student film?!  Some people, most likely Loach, would call it “realistic” and “natural,” but then they’d probably also claim the same about the atrocious performances given by his mostly amateur cast.  It’s like being stuck at a preachy midlands village play.

I, Daniel Blake was similarly poorly-made on a technical filmmaking level, but at least had a central pair of strong performances and its melodramatic righteous anger lacking in answers seemed to come by honestly and tapped into a fraught cultural moment.  Sorry We Missed You, however, cuts that last assumption to ribbons.  It’s become quite clear through watching this movie, and this was something I had caught glimpses of in Daniel Blake, that Laverty (who has written basically every screenplay to a Loach film for the last decade) and Loach don’t see their characters as people so much as bodies that bad things happen to.  There are no nuances to the Turner family, all are drawn in broad strokes, with three of them being sanctified pure spirits whilst the fourth is a Daily Mail editor’s wet dream of a teenaged son – being utilised so entirely as an opportunity for the pair to sneer at modern youth culture that he comes off like a panto villain, I could feel myself and the audience at my screening being commanded to boo every time he shows up.  They don’t get interior lives, they don’t get to display nuanced emotions, nothing about them or what they do feels natural.  There’s a pivotal narrative turn at one point where the father loses the keys to his van after an argument with said shit-heel son, only for it to be revealed after he gets sanctioned and has slapped his shit-heel son that the youngest daughter had hidden them instead with the resulting child logic explanation doing a piss-poor job at disguising Laverty & Loach’s need to move the plot to a certain point in a semi-provocative manner.

That particular sequence was where I was all set to openly revolt had I not been in a populated public screening.  Because it became clear, from that point on, that Loach and Laverty are addicted to misery and anger.  That they are far more interested in playing to their base audience rather than constructively using that anger to say something meaningful.  The pair have styled themselves as populist filmmakers, voices of the underclass telling real stories about the real people that the government and media ignore or demonise and drawing attention to real issues that need urgent solutions, yet they are failing at every single aspect.  Their stories aren’t convincing; they’re didactic, melodramatic, hackneyed, artificial and misery-obsessed takes on difficult real-life issues that require deftness and respect to handle effectively.  Their characters aren’t characters; they don’t have definable multifaceted personalities, act in emotionally believable manners, or are treated with genuine empathy or interest by the movies they feature in, being just props for a point.  Whilst their messages don’t go any deeper than pointing at the bad injustice and loudly yelling “THIS IS A BAD INJUSTICE, WHY WON’T ANYONE DO SOMETHING ABOUT THIS?” which the base will already know and therefore not need convincing of whilst the folks it wants to preach to will spend the entire movie wondering if there’s a larger point or answer that Loach & Laverty are ever gonna get to.

Their voices are tired, dated and, frankly, unhelpful at this point.  To quote Boots Riley’s actually vital, exciting and excellent Sorry to Bother You, “if you show people a problem but don’t provide them with a real solution to it, then they’ll just learn to live with the problem.”  Riley’s film took its own advice, climaxing with a demonstration of how an active well-organised protest and a strong union can effect real change.  Loach’s Sorry We Missed You, by contrast, ends on the defeatist note of the heavily-injured Ricky dragging himself back to his wrecked van to go back to work against his family’s hysterical wishes.  We spent a good half-year clowning on Joker for being all “we LIVE IN A SOCIETY!” but frankly this stupid ending is a far more befitting embodiment of that shallow meme.  Ken Loach, Paul Laverty, you are both adding nothing useful to the conversation.  Please retire.  It’s more than time for new blood.

Tomorrow: my Bottom Film of 2019, promise.

Callie Petch had to jump in their car and be a rider in a love game.

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