Robbers, kidnappers, cheaters, and playboys.
Whole lotta stupid going on around the world, right now. That includes in yours truly’s family, since my latest frustrated blow-up argument with my mother, a working nurse, revolved around her not wanting me to wear a mask because, actual quote, “they don’t really help” and, in fact, “make things worse.” Her reasoning for this, later overheard on a different conversation, was that a part of the hospital she works at which stinks “stunk worse when I had to have the mask on.” The unspoken reason, the one that permeates a lot of our disagreements including that one from back in February where she refused to help me get back on antidepressants, is that she’s clearly concerned with what other people might say or think about her as a mother from my actions. If anyone here is old enough to have seen any Keeping Up Appearances, it’s rather a lot like Hyacinth Bucket except not as funny when you’re a (sometimes) functional 25 year-old adult having your mental health taken away from you at all times by people who, contrary to their insistence otherwise, don’t actually listen to you. For you armchair psychologists, yes, this is probably why everything I write is a minimum 2,000 words and tries to cover every conceivable angle.
Not listening is a family trait, it seems. Nan (my Dad’s mother) is in the midst of trying to organise a giant gathering of Dad’s friends in the parking lot of the physio care centre where he’s recovering as a birthday surprise. Setting aside the obvious practical impracticalities – mass gatherings for non-protest reasons are still banned and grossly unsafe, what exactly is everyone supposed to do after the initial “HAPPY BIRTHDAY” surprise has been yelled, what are severe out-of-towners supposed to do about getting there – she has been deeply resistant to the fact that Dad would absolutely hate this. He’s a private reserved man who doesn’t like flashy surprises and keeps almost everything to himself, not to mention prideful who rejects help and pity at every possible chance. He told me flat-out on the phone the other day that he will not want me living at his when he gets back home if one of my reasons for staying is to help look after him, even though he’s going to need someone there to do exactly that. So, no, he’d hate this idea. But Nan still persists anyway (at time of writing) despite Mum and I gently trying to break that fact to her because, like everyone else in this family, she doesn’t listen and is only doing shit for herself and rationalising it as best for everyone else.
I had to go to the dentist for an emergency check-up last week and the sat-nav on the way back put me on the roads I used to have to be driven down for school and my old homes. Instead of following the route directly back to Dad’s current house, I detoured down that route like the old days. The A roads leading from Scotter to Broughton, then the back roads past the train tracks out of Broughton to Scunthorpe, then down the hilly outskirts of Scunthorpe to my Mum’s old house where we and my brother resided for 12 years. I don’t know what I expected to feel by driving down these roads, much like back in 2016 when I spent a summer keeping Nan’s old house in Broughton occupied and I trawled those streets every day in throes of deep depression hoping for something (though unsure of what) to happen, but I didn’t feel it. I just felt tiredness and crushing unsatisfied melancholy, slightly exacerbated but not much different from the norm of my current day-to-day existence. Back before I started uni, I had this similar “I am so fucking tired of everyone in this family” sensation but the promise of a new start far away from them gave a freeing hope. Let me push back a bit every so often cos, hey, they don’t really listen and, on the off-chance they do, I’m fucking off for a while so they don’t have to spend every day negating my feelings and refusing to better themselves.
Typing these words out, I feel like a horrible self-centred jackass. Maybe I am. I know I’m still getting ever more angry and bitter. I’ve blown up at Look North not once but twice over how they’ve chosen to deliver the news in recent weeks – the first covered the mask “debate” by editing together contradicting soundbites from politicians and experts over the past few months and backing it with “Stuck in the Middle with You” by Stealers Wheel; the second tried to frame the selective pay rise for certain key workers in the form of “winners and losers” like it’s a Vox Culture article. That’s objectively a stupid thing to get angry at, an even stupider thing to turn into a barely-coherent Yosemite Sam over. I can tell my sniping at the news is getting on Mum and Terry’s nerves each time I have to go back over there. I should really try to curb that. I’m just all out of ways to positively expel that anger and fear and frustration, especially when the only people I’ve had physical and frequent experiences with for the last four months are ones who consistently deny my emotions and refuse to actually listen to me about what’s happening to me. But also, I’m the 25-year-old bitching about their parents online like their “professional” website is Bebo from 2007.
If you’re reading this at post-time, I’ll be out of the house properly for the first time since lockdown to have a socially-distanced hang with Lucy. Maybe that’ll help. Or maybe I’ll go full Space Between Us and instantly start dying from the virus, knowing my luck. At least we have the date inscribed in Internet history should that occur.
Donate to The Black Curriculum, if you can (link).
Here’s what I’ve been watching this week.
Heat (Saturday 18th)
Dir: Michael Mann
First time watching Heat in… *counts on fingers* 12 years. Fun fact: that first time, I was so engrossed by the film and so on-edge during that final cat-and-mouse sequence on the airfield that my mum’s time-release air freshener going off in the middle of it caused me to jump out of my goddamned skin. And though no such accidental jump-release occurred this time round, I am pleased to report that I still think Heat is a masterpiece 12 years on. Probably the best of that highly specific subgenre known as “driven manly men doing driven manly men things because it’s just what they do” action-drama that only a very selective subset of filmmakers can even come close to pulling off non-insufferably. Mann’s direction is immediate and engrossing even when his narrative appears to be going off-track – although, of course, time soon reveals that every single scene has a purpose, often in service of humanising or better developing much of the central cast – and of course the heist and action sequences are the gold standard of this kind. Only real complaint is that I wish the female characters were slightly better developed, most specifically Justine and Lauren since the last act relies a lot on them despite only having the barest minimum of screentime beforehand, but that’s a disappointingly accepted fact of this kind of subgenre; looking at you, Nolan. …that’s all I really got to say. Thank you for coming to my Blistering Hot Takes factory.
Hope Michael Mann’s living well off those royalty cheques IO Interactive must be sending him for literally basing their entire careers off this one film!
The Old Guard (Sunday 19th)
Dir: Gina Prince-Bythewood
I actually dug this a lot, enough to wish it were fully great. Reminded me a lot of MachineWorks’ Wolfenstein games in how it’s in a kind of battle with itself between the big dumb fun not-too-costly franchise starter Netflix higher-ups clearly want it to be and the slower more philosophical character study Prince-Bythewood and screenwriter Greg Rucka want to make. That means there’s some real clunky worldbuilding, a somewhat glossy yet budget-conscious globetrotting structure, a thoroughly unnecessary pre-credits sequel bait stinger which takes away from the ending, vastly overqualified supporting actors lacking anything to do – when is Chiwetel Ejiofor going to get a lead role worthy of his immaculate talents again – and extremely terrible pop song syncs that somehow manage to outdo Birds of Prey on the “this music supervisor needs to find a new profession” tack. Aside from the aircraft fight between Andy and Nile, the first 40 or so minutes are a very generic slog to push through where you really have to focus on the crumbs of the more interesting movie that’ll eventually blossom in spite of the dozens of tangible producer’s notes.
Successfully make it to the French safehouse, though, and business picks up considerably. A generic franchise-starter sheen instead gives way to a surprisingly tired tone, especially in the group dynamic and character drama that attempts to reckon with the psychological and existential tolls immortality may have upon a group of people. Particularly a soldier fighting in the trenches for centuries, fixated on how little seems to change because you spend so long with your head down in the muck that the bigger picture stops being all that clear. At certain points, there’s a real Edge of Tomorrow vibe in the push-pull dichotomy between having fun with the concept and treating it with uncharacteristic weight that’s rather compelling. When the film focusses on that, which is roughly the hour’s stretch between arriving in France and the big rescue, is when it really shines, aided by the titular team all putting in stellar performances. That’s not to say the climax isn’t pretty damn fun, Prince-Bythewood turns out to be a smooth as hell action director and I love the snappy precision to the squad combat with a great final kill.
It’s just a shame that blatant franchise aspirations keep trying to butt the really strong solo film out of the way, like that one Simpsons bit. I both don’t want a sequel, since this makes a fine standalone story and you can’t really keep hammering on the “existential philosophical examination” button in a blockbuster franchise, but also wouldn’t mind one, since there’s potential here that I could see refined into a fully great and hopefully less-meddled film next go around. On the Charlize Theron butt-kicking scale, where Reindeer Games is at the bottom and Mad Max: Fury Road is at the top, this is a solid The Italian Job (2003). …I like The Italian Job (2003).
Pain & Gain (Monday 20th)
Dir: Michael Bay
Bay’s masterpiece. The film in which he puts together all of his visual tricks, all of his sickly aesthetic garishness, all of his gleeful nihilism, all of his overwhelming music video sensory assault instincts, and all of his perversions of America’s idealised self-image together for a truly unpleasant airing of its dirty laundry through a quintessentially American tale of toxic capitalistic entitlement. How the American Dream corrupts nearly everyone it touches – sociopathic low-class criminals, insulated privileged suburbanites, prejudiced impotent police forces, slimy “self-made” rich assholes, opportunistic egotistical foreigners, those who willingly turn a blind eye to blatant manipulation so long as they profit in some manner – with Bay responding to the depravity by poking the bear with additional poles of shit whilst laughing maniacally, because the alternative is screaming in despair. To paraphrase the immortal Annie Clark, Michael Bay has seen America with no clothes on and this is what he thinks of his country and fellow man when not studio-mandated to at least try sending audiences home happy.
It’s an ugly, ugly film, and not just from Bay deliberately cranking up his contrast to repulsive sickly levels or the many, many acts of sadism and depravity damn-near everyone partakes in. I wouldn’t even say it’s entertaining in any traditional sense. What Pain & Gain is, however, is honest. It’s the most honest artistic expression Bay has yet made, Bad Boys II being a close second, and that makes this a watch which is impossible to tear your eyes away from even before taking into account Bay’s most excited and passionate filmmaking since (again not coincidentally) BBII, albeit with a focus and deliberate control that indulgent blow-out lacked. It’s an incredible work of cinema that, frankly, should have acted as either the beginning of a new more interesting chapter of Bay’s career or a series wrap on his time as a director – instead of him immediately reverting back to passionless incoherent attempted crowdpleasers, like what did happen. So, instead, Pain & Gain stands as a curio, an aberration, an anomaly. But what a curio, an aberration, an anomaly! One of the most underappreciated American films of the 2010s.
Dwayne Johnson has never been better than this, too; I really wish he would do more character acting in between the charm-heavy blockbuster stuff which pays the bills.
The Bigamist (Tuesday 21st)
Dir: Ida Lupino
So, there’s nothing catastrophically wrong with Ida Lupino’s The Bigamist, even if there’s not exactly anything stellar about it either. Lupino’s noir-istic direction occasionally produces some striking environmental storytelling – also, side note since she admittedly doesn’t do a whole lot with it either: set more movies in San Francisco and take usage of all those hills, modern filmmakers – her and Joan Fontaine do solid takes on the typical Betty/Veronica dynamic (for lack of a better term), and on-paper the story is surprisingly nuanced and forward-thinking for a Hayes Code take on the material. Collier Young’s screenplay refuses to fully moralistically damn Harry and, even though it of course ends with the police anticlimactically turning up to throw him in jail as was customary at the time, the tone of the narrative instead tries to meaningfully grapple with the turmoil of conflicting feelings for two separate people, with Harry’s fatal flaw being his crippling doormat of a personality just wanting everyone to be happy rather than active malevolence.
The trouble, and the reason why I used “on-paper,” is twofold. For one, even with a few later developments attempting to push them ever so slightly into being active characters with their own hinted desires, both Eve and Phyllis still occupy the typical female character in a film noir role where they are little more than surface-level reflections of the male protagonist’s deep-seated psychological baggage. I don’t feel like I got to meaningfully understand or see either woman as a woman, as someone beyond their obvious subtextual representation towards Henry, so it’s really hard to get invested in either of their relationships with him, to see why he would want them and vice versa. The second vastly more crippling flaw is that Edmond O’Brien’s performance as Harry is… right, you know that guy in the secondary school play who robotically learned all his lines and exact stage placement with accompanying facial expressions all to clockwork precision yet, in doing so, his delivery makes it seem like he would rather be anywhere else? O’Brien here is pulling off a worse version of that. He has zero chemistry with anybody, least of all Lupino and Fontaine, and reels off almost all his lines in the same fast-mumbled monotone; I get the impression he really didn’t understand what was being asked of him.
Even then, O’Brien isn’t a repellent flaw in The Bigamist. There are no major repellent flaws in The Bigamist. I just wasn’t drawn in by any part of it and I don’t think the execution of the film was in any way memorable or distinctive, for better and worse.
Narrative Telephone Season 1 Finale (Wednesday 22nd, technically)
Dirs: Critical Role, I guess?
Not a film or even a proper TV show, but I just wanted to take one last opportunity to highlight this wonderful chaotic web series that has been a sorely needed balm of comfort and positivity as the world goes to shit and my mind gets progressively more isolated and bitter. Narrative Telephone has been an absolute joy to watch along with and the latest episode, marked in-ep as the “Season 1 finale” since storyteller Travis Willingham is the last of the group to have a go in that role, caused such hysterics I was kinda worried I might lose my voice from laughing so hard. (Were my Dad’s house not a detached one, I’d also have been severely worried about receiving official noise complaints.) None of the Critical Role cast will be reading this, but on the extremely off-chance this or my article dedicated to waxing about the series (still under Set the Tape exclusivity at post-time but should be on here soon enough) reach any of them I just want to once again say: thank you so much for these past two months of shows. I’ve really, really needed specifically this and it’s helped way more than even I thought it might.
Also, like the last WIBW, I needed to get this to seven days and I didn’t watch an actual film on the Wednesday proper on account of depressive exhaustion.
Clueless (Thursday 23rd)
Dir: Amy Heckerling
A version of this film with slightly less problematically-written black characters – even accounting for literally everyone being an intentionally stereotypical cartoon with later-revealed hidden depths, anyway – is the greatest teen movie ever made. It’s definitely the best Jane Austen adaptation ever made and you can quote me on that. Heckerling nails that affectionately satirical tone which is a key factor in Austen’s appeal yet one so many adaptors forsake in favour of playing their romances completely (and boringly) straight. I also love Heckerling’s attention to every single detail, a recurring trait throughout her career I always appreciate even when the films don’t do much for me (i.e. Fast Times at Ridgemont High) that hits its apex here. The invented slang that still feels somewhat authentic, the gloriously girly garish costume designs which have an Austen-y sense of period pomposity to them, the music choices, even having the strength of Brittany Murphy’s hammy Bronx accent diminish or intensify depending on the scene and who Tai is talking to. And that’s without even mentioning the overall visual flair of the film, coming courtesy of the brilliant Bill Pope on cinematography duties – I will always pop for a comedy that does actually interesting things with and takes full advantage of its cinematography.
Rather than just gush relentlessly over the film without having all that much new or interesting to say, let me instead point you towards Caroline Siede’s typically excellent When Romance Met Comedy write-up on Clueless from last week. Her analysis is fantastic. It is damning as all hell on the film industry that Heckerling not only had to fight extremely hard to get this made, but that she’s been largely cast aside by the industry ever since.
The Thomas Crown Affair (Friday 24th)
Dir: Norman Jewison
Whilst the original Thomas Crown Affair is perfectly cromulent Sunday afternoon BBC2 viewing, I find myself wishing I liked it more. It feels stuck between two different individually great movies, indecisively paralysed with regards to which it wants to commit to. It’s not intense and serious and developed enough to work as a tension-heavy cat-and-mouse thriller, but it’s also not campy and frivolous and simply fun enough to work as a lighthearted high-concept romantic farce. Jewison is so fixated on creating this specific reserved cool – which, ironically, he tangibly works really fucking hard to cultivate with all the relentless style in fashion, cars, split-screen editing stolen from French New Wave, and a comically bouncy jazz-pop score – that everything else largely falls by the wayside. He and screenwriter Alan Trustman can’t even bother to put together a coherent psychology as to why Thomas and Vicki would fall for each other beyond Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway being unreasonably hot human beings who would probably have amazing sex. Every now and then, the film will break its laid-back vibe to feign towards a deeper and complex game of cop-criminal cat-and-mouse, but without bothering to lay even the breadcrumbs indicating where the groundwork might be these end up falling completely flat; it probably doesn’t help that almost an hour goes by before Thomas and Vicki share the screen together.
So, instead, Thomas Crown ’68 is a mildly diverting watch which occasionally bursts its way into something actually compelling. Both times are when Jewison’s thick layering of style gets aimed full-force at one of those two tones rather than indecisively firing into the air. The opening half hour or so with the initial heist is brilliantly sharp, I can see where a lot of later heist filmmakers have taken much of their inspiration from. The chess scene between Thomas and Vicki, meanwhile, is exactly the kind of semi-trashy unashamedly campy and steamy fun that the film’s central relationship should have been portrayed as, rather than trying to claim a serious depth and tragedy there just isn’t, letting McQueen and Dunaway unleash some raw animal magnetism that better sells their character’s thought processes and relationship than anything else in the film. As is, they’re standout moments in an otherwise “eh” time.