What I’ve Been Watching: 15/09/20 – 21/09/20

BTS, Bill & Ted, Tim & Sigourney, and BoxTrollS.

Short update today since I’ve got a whole load of work to get on with and Marvel’s Spider-Man decided to continue monopolising my time to absurd levels even after I’d finished it with a platinum trophy and just wanted to write what I mistakenly thought were ‘brief’ thoughts about it.  Good-ish news for those following the saga of my Dad being a pillock who went motorcycle racing only to paralyse and coma himself just as a global pandemic kicked into high-gear: he’s been moved to a combo-rehab/old people’s home in Winterton, which is just 10 or so minutes away from his house.  Assuming Britain doesn’t go back into full lockdown again before his fortnight of quarantine passes, not guaranteed but that’s a whole rant we don’t have time for, I’ll be getting to see him physically for the first time since March soon enough.  He’s apparently recovering well enough and we’ve been talking on the phone every few days, so that’s at least something.  He just can’t come home until the house has been converted for him to actually be able to live in it – which he, err, really can’t right now – and nobody’s said anything about progress on that front for a while so I’m trying not to think about it.

Some days I’m ok, even pretty productive in spots.  I keep picking up stuff to review/write about for my two main outlets (Set the Tape and Soundsphere) in order to keep busy and stave off misery and the desire for some kind of supplements/aid against my slightly manic depression.  Other days, I’ll wake up just generally exhausted and sad, not getting dressed until at least 3PM and crying to Phoebe Bridgers until gone 2AM – that last one having cropped up within the last week, yes.  It’s no way to live, I’m aware, but what else can I do?  Just keep getting up, I guess, at least for the cats’ sake whom I have grown attached to and who have grown very attached to me.  Duchess especially is my shadow at this point; she’s even finally stopped sulking when I do work and settled into a little curled up ball next to the laptop as I type!  It’s dead adorable.  Maybe I’ll talk more about all that on the next one of these; I’m aiming to get at least 10 for the year out before 2020 fucks off.

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

Galaxy Quest [Tuesday 15th]

Dir: Dean Parisot

Year: 1999

First-time viewing

Ay!  I really, really liked this which wasn’t guaranteed given that a] I’m a Star Trek neophyte near enough and b] “satirical” “love letters” to “geek culture” nowadays cause such a deep sensation of cringing I’m fairly certain those emotional waves travel back through time to also affect the Me of the early 2010s who was massively into Chuck.  Sincerely: I adored that show when it was on the air, am thankful for it introducing me to the talents of Zachary Levi and Yvonne Strahovski, but I never ever want to go back to it out of a not-unfounded fear that I would find the extremely blatant straight male nerd pandering fantasy deeply embarrassing and deeply insufferable now I’m more media-aware and given geek culture’s shameful past decade.  Sometimes it’s alright to just let memories be memories!

Sorry, back on-topic.  Galaxy Quest!  It’s really bloody good!  I think the reason why it avoids those potential pitfalls whilst still working as sincere geek fodder and aging infinitely better than stuff like Fanboys is that the film is primarily a character-driven ensemble comedy with the Star Trek parodies and gags mostly restricted to generalised archetype and a few obvious visual references and set-ups which have permanently broken through into popular consciousness.  Like, it’s about Star Trek in that the source material and its values are a core part of the film’s identity, but it’s not just about Star Trek, if you get what I mean.  I can get that Tim Allen is supposed to be William Shatner and Sigourney Weaver is sort of Nichelle Nichols, but their characters and performances still work separate enough from the inspirations to be engaging in their own rights.  Mesh that with the evident family-friendly tone of the script and humour, even if that meant some very obviously last-minute retooling in certain respects, and you get this really sweet and good-natured sincerity that’s winningly charming.

Also, the production design!  I badly miss comedies with actual production design, the kind which knows that additional carefully-curated effort can add massively to the joke, almost as much as I miss Alan Rickman giving pitch-perfectly disdainful line deliveries like they’re his life force.  (He runs away with this.)  The attention to detail in Galaxy Quest’s every aspect – line reads, creature effects (Stan Winston, also dearly missed), alien behaviours, even physical posture of every cast member – and how it all manages to be inherently funny whilst taken so earnestly enough that it frankly stops being a joke come the rousing finale.  I had a blast with this.  Glad to know Dean Parisot can make good funny films ahead of Bill & Ted Face the Music!  (This entry is being written prior to that viewing.)

Those first 15 minutes were a terrifying glimpse into the daily lives of the Firefly cast, though, so I would like to take this moment to apologise to every one of them for my brief period as a super-fan even if I never actually attended a con or harassed any of them whilst I had a Twitter.  Except for Adam Baldwin; fuck that guy.

Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey [Wednesday 16th]

Dir: Pete Hewitt

Year: 1991


Bogus Journey is kind of a miracle movie in that it has absolutely no right to slap as hard as it does.  I can almost see the cynical boardroom thinking in making a sequel to Bill & Ted at the time.  “We accidentally stumbled into a really successful hit whose core appeal was its low-stakes good times vibe; let’s milk the shit out of it with 80s spin-off excess and then make a sequel which is deliberately attempting to be a blockbuster!”  Yet, somehow, even whilst it’s got the cartoonish scope and evident expense of an increased budget and a planned shark to jump – or, as Excellent Adventure director Stephen Herek put it when turning down the chance to helm the sequel, “almost a parody of a film that was already a parody” – the result is an infinitely weirder and wilder movie that still somehow manages to retain the core all-inclusive good times values of the original whilst developing a darker edge.  Even this film’s f-slur, whilst still regrettable, kind of works in firmly establishing the mostly non-fun evilness of Evil Robot Bill & Ted; though there is an inconsistent tonal problem when it comes to the exact level of heinous evil those two are supposed to be.

Frankly, I think I prefer Bogus Journey to Excellent Adventure?  Don’t get me wrong, I really like Excellent Adventure for its breezy, low-stakes, smart-dumb, just generally joyful positive vibes; remove that film’s f-slur and you have the perfect cinematic comfort food, in my opinion.  But Bogus Journey’s willingness to just throw every last idea its writers have at the wall whilst still remaining true to the central characters is more my speed.  Not many films would base a significant portion of their sequel around a parody of Ingmar Bergman, nor would they take a detour to Hell and gleefully imitate the filmmaking style of Tim Burton, whilst making all of it look legitimately fantastic thanks to the still-excellent visual effects, yet Bogus Journey not only manages it but aces the needle-thread.  It’s also absolutely hilarious, obviously peaking at the game(s) of death (William Sadler being the MVP even with Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves pulling great double performances) but stuffed with excellent gags throughout.  This deserves more love, and by that I mean where the hell is the UK Blu-Ray treatment, huh?!  You can’t just reissue Excellent Adventure forever, Studio Canal/Whoever Owns the UK Rights!

Darkman [Thursday 17th]

Dir: Sam Raimi

Year: 1990

First-time viewing

God, I love Sam Raimi.  I love his ridiculous unashamed camp and old-school melodramatic romantic earnestness.  I love his fearless genre-blending, where he is absolutely the man who would take one look at The Shadow and go “yeah, that’s pretty good, but what if he was also The Phantom of the Opera and we threw in some gnarly 80s video nasty visual effects with it?”  (Saying it again for the third time this week, those effects are, aside from some awkward green-screening during the final act, uniformly excellent and still look amazing today.)  I love his excitable directorial style where every single shot tangibly pops, like a comic book coming to life – hello again for the third time this year, all-time great cinematographer Bill Pope; getting his feature film start here – and there’s an often-careening anarchic sensation to the rhythm of the editing and the motion of it all.  I love his severely underappreciated action chops, especially that fantastic helicopter chase in the last third which almost managed to single-handedly negate any criticisms I otherwise have of the film at large.

All that said, Darkman is held back by a few factors.  The film is very much a dry-run of sorts for Raimi’s eventually genre-redefining work on the original Spider-Man trilogy, where that series successfully melded together sincere golden age serial comics, campy melodrama, and a balance of freeing inspirational fun of superpowers and the angsty sacrificial flipside of said coin (mostly based around the protagonist’s love he can’t properly reciprocate for fear of hurting them) to phenomenal effect.  But that balance isn’t quite there yet in Darkman, the excessive camp clashing at times too much with the sincere emotional undercurrent as to come off a bit silly.  I’m honestly tempted to blame the 18 rating throwing off the balance on a fundamental problem; it lacks the relative innocence of Spider-Man, dark though those films could definitely be.  The other much bigger issue is that Liam Neeson is just dreadful in the title role, his idea of camp and Raimi’s turn out to not be in sync at all so he spends the entire film flailing and wailing at far too much of an extreme that often sends the film across the line from ‘laughing with’ to ‘laughing at.’  He nearly sinks the whole thing.

But even with Neeson at maybe a career-worst, I still had a blast watching Darkman.  I just love how fun and energetic a Sam Raimi movie can often be, especially in our current decidedly not-fun world.  Can you believe it’s been over 10 years since we last got a new film from him?  “What about Oz: The Great and Pow-”  CAN YOU BELIEVE IT’S BEEN OVER 10 YEARS?

Break the Silence: The Movie [Saturday 19th]

Dir: Park Jun-soo

Year: 2020

First-time viewing

At long last, and continuing my commitment to be the very last person to any major pop cultural phenomenon, I have experienced BTS.  Sort of.  They did not play the “Dynamite” video prior to my screening like other cinemas supposedly did – in general, my usually trusty Cineworld did a terrible job today; both this and the next film suffering from at least one non-working speaker which caused the music tracks to be muffled and only functional on the right side, whilst my third film was out of focus and too heavily zoomed in.  So, I can only rank this movie based on its status as a movie.  But I did try to like it!  I too grew up with a few of those fans-only VHS tapes for boy/girl groups that are glorified press kits but marketed as exclusive revealing collections designed to help fans feel closer to their favourite members, so I get the appeal.  And the songs I did hear, the very brief snatches of songs who are nearly out-ratioed by filler stock music, sounded pretty good!  I’m interested to try one of their albums sooner rather than later!

As a film… it’s bad.  For a newbie like myself, Break the Silence doesn’t bother explaining anything; who all these people actually are, what type of music they make, why their devoted fanbase adores them so much.  Despite being a scant 75-odd minutes, Jun-soo gets bogged down in a very repetitive structure that becomes exhausting as it goes on – jet to a new city, stock audio going “BTS ARE HERE, THEY POPULAR, FOLKS LOVE ‘EM,” unforgivably brief concert footage, meandering detour where one of the boys gets mildly philosophical about their role in life without actually saying all that much, rinse, repeat.  And the insights behind the K-Pop machine’s curtain aren’t all that revealing, either.  Admittedly, I’m not expecting a sudden blistering exposé on the K-Pop sausage, but it’d be nice to see at least a little bit of how it gets made, beyond a brief uncritical moment where one of the group explains they have to try and hide any unhappiness they feel cos it upsets the fans otherwise (which jeez).  I went in knowing nothing about BTS other than their being a Big Deal, and came out still not knowing anything about them.

Even whilst retroactively trying to give them the benefit of the doubt due to the aforementioned audio issues, the concert sequences are shockingly poor.  They look like incredible spectacles in the wide shots and still photos, yet on-film these segments are confoundingly edited as to be kinda incoherent and always cut off just when they seem to be getting going, which is some kind of impressive anti-achievement.  The whole movie has this minor self-sabotaging feel to the editing, so rudimentary and lifeless and at odds with the energy of the (unforgivably brief snatches of) music I heard; the sole exception being an interview with Suga (I think he’s Suga but could be wrong cos no title cards) where he muses that he would like to do trot music someday only to cut straight to archive footage of him having already done that years earlier.  There’s also barely any footage of the boys interacting with each other, similarly bizarre as you’d think that’d be one of the main appeals of a boyband documentary and the times where the film does have them hanging out together are easily the best part.  I honestly just don’t know who exactly is meant to come away satisfied from or converted by a glorified E! doc/Robsessed-type Tiger Beat puff piece.  Everyone deserves better.

…please don’t kill me for this, ARMY.  I’ve heard of your reputation.

The Broken Hearts Gallery [Saturday 19th]

Dir: Natalie Krinsky

Year: 2020

First-time viewing

Geraldine Viswanathan deserves to be a megastar.  She was the standout scene-stealer in Kay Cannon’s pretty darn good Blockers, was great as the conscience of Cory Finley’s excellent Bad Education, and now, having been given the trial by fire of a rom-com protagonist, has slayed that particular role in Broken Hearts Gallery too.  This kind of role is deceptively hard to pull off cos the successful ones make it look so effortless, but it requires reservoirs of charisma, waterfalls of charm, and absolute and total commitment to be a leading rom-com protagonist.  The viewer not only has to like you and root for you, they have to believe you no matter how many quirky traits or cliched forced-drama decisions your character ends up displaying.  It’s not just ‘read funny lines and make doe-eyes at the love interest.’  And, boy, does Viswanathan knock this thing into space!  Her Lucy is hilarious, dorky, charmingly awkward, fundamentally self-destructive but in a rootable way, and Viswanathan commits so completely she could probably have gotten away with selling me a time-share in Florida midway through the film and I wouldn’t have batted an eye.  I’m talking Constance Wu in Crazy Rich Asians levels of ‘PUT THIS PERSON IN ALL OF THE MOVIES’ star turn.

The rest of the movie around her is really, really good too, if not quite as transcendent of Crazy Rich Asians primarily due to the heartbreak gallery and romance threads not always intersecting as neatly as they could do – there are many moments where the film just pauses for upwards of a minute to let one of its side characters do a disconnected cut-in monologue about the object of their own heartbreak.  I’ve mentioned before my love for cheesy-ass earnest-ass rom-coms with all the trimmings and all the cliches, and Krinsky’s debut feature delivers them in spades with such wit and charm that I was won over from basically the first scene.  Just a big ol’ goofy grin on my face frequently broken up by guffaws from a script stuffed to the brim with killer lines.  Most importantly, though, is that I believed in all of the characters.  They all fill rom-com archetypes and have that movie quirk where snark is the primary currency, but thanks to a combination of strong writing and winning performances I believed in them all and reacted exactly the way I was supposed to!  Lucy’s dirtbag ex-boyfriend at one point tells love interest Dacre Montgomery that “the lady and I were having a conversation” and I found myself giving a reflexive “OOOOOOOH, YOU DICK!” to him!  That’s a sign this movie worked as intended.

Get yourself best friends like Amanda and Nadine.  Sure, they’ll take bets on your relationship status behind your back, but they’ll also threaten to shove the man who broke your heart off a roof then run over his smushed face with a monster truck.  That’s the kind of support system I want!

Bill & Ted Face the Music [Saturday 19th]

Dir: Dean Parisot

Year: 2020

First-time viewing

IT’S GOOD!  At the very least, Face the Music is good!  Very good, actually, although not as good as either Excellent Adventure or Bogus Journey.  The biggest knock I have against it, other than the extremely abrupt nature of the ending – supposedly, they had plans to film an actual denouement, but then the plague kicked off so this is what we have instead – is that it’s too sentimental.  Not earnest, although the film is still plenty earnest in the way that the series always has been (that’s the appeal), but sentimental.  Specifically, the ways that a lot of years/decades later sequels to beloved cult properties for the fans get sentimental: lotta slower more introspective scenes grappling with aging that sap the energy and aren’t deep enough to justify the time given, highly reverential callbacks to past events imbued with a touch too much self-importance, and a general treading back over old ground for a victory lap.  It doesn’t fit the energy of Bill & Ted even with Reeves’ slightly more exhausted performance this go-around; not a major critique of Reeves cos he’s clearly trying to resummon the Ted of 30 years ago and still has phenomenal chemistry with Alex Winter, who slides back into Bill as if no time has passed at all.

But aside from those occasionally creaking bones and the film simultaneously looking better and worse than the ones from 20 years prior – $25 mil just doesn’t seem to go as far as it used to, but some of that can also be blamed on the significant reduction in physical sets and practical effects for ropey CGI – this is great fun.  Meshing together the plots of Excellent Adventure and Bogus Journey, whilst ultimately not breaking any new narrative ground, does at least allow for Face the Music to cut out any of the downtime those two films had and push right on through to the good stuff.  Although the general structure may be nothing new, the actual jokes featured inside that structure do provide a lot of new material that still captures the specific goofy smart-dumb sensibilities and cavalier approach to its own premise as those original films.  And, mainly, it’s just really comforting to drop back into this world and hang with these characters.  A breezy, good-natured, often hilarious blast of sincere positive vibes in a world that’s just miserably draining to exist in right about now.  After all, the Bill & Ted films have never been conventionally great but they live on because of how successfully they execute those particular vibes in a manner few others even try.  Even in its modernised touches, Face the Music still provides those vibes and I’m real glad it exists.

Plus, it continues the string started in John Wick 3 of Keanu Reeves films being stolen by non-binary co-stars, here referring to Brigette Lundy-Paine playing Ted’s daughter and who channels with complete commitment and shocking accuracy the gangly doofus charm of Ted from 30 years ago.  They even perfectly nail that thing where Ted’s arms and legs never seem to be in full communication with one another!  Lundy-Paine and Samara Weaving (who plays Bill’s daughter and goes more for replicating Winter’s tics rather than a full-body impersonation to great effect) are going to be stars, I can feel it in my bones.

Crumbs [Sunday 20th]

Dir: Miguel Llansó

Year: 2015

First-time viewing

About 15 minutes in, Llansó cuts from a back-shot of a shrine that Daniel Tadesse is praying at before heading out into the post-apocalyptic desert on a perilous journey to an insert shot revealing the deity being prayed to is Michael Jordan, the photo taken from his championship run with the Chicago Bulls.  This comes very shortly after a scene in which an enigmatic underground collector/dealer rhapsodises an old Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles figurine, how it was a third-century relic revered by pre-War times humans as an inspirational weapon, being pawned to him by a wandering scavenger clad in Nazi uniform and regalia despite (as far as we know) holding no Nazi beliefs.  I hope that the very obvious message from these two sequences – that our pop cultural ephemera is much like religion, in how we worship it all in selective manners whose context and meaning will be lost to time and perverted by new cultures/generations who come after us – is sufficiently mindblowing for you, cos Llansó is going to repeat and restage these sequences with no further variation or development approximately 30 more times across the remaining 50 minutes of Crumbs.

Yeah, this one’s rough and not all that entertaining.  Too empty, too ponderously self-serious despite the deadpan weirdness – Santa Claus is real and he’s an Ethiopian who sort of lives in a bowling ball machine and shouts about Nazis all the time for some reason – and too repetitive to justify even going past half an hour.  I vastly prefer Llansó’s newest feature, Jesus Shows You the Way to the Highway (reviewed over here), which this has been packaged with here in the UK; much more fun, energetic, and less enamoured with its surface-level point than Crumbs.  Llansó’s debut at least looks real purdy, tho, with expansive wildlands and well-composed shots that transform Ethiopia into a convincing semi-wasteland without feeling exploitative of the underdeveloped nature of the country.  And Tadesse remains a compellingly unique screen presence who really sells the film’s one affecting emotional beat with all his might.

The Boxtrolls [Monday 21st]

Dirs: Graham Annable, Anthony Stacchi

Year: 2014


First time watching Laika’s difficult third album since being frustratingly disappointed by it in cinemas and found it worked a lot more this time around even if I still don’t fully love it.  I respect its mad ambition and commitment to being a pretty loaded class satire, even though it pulls its punches with regards to the ruling classes at the last minute – and, honestly, I think Missing Link speaks the same general messages about the snobby vacuity of the upper class and futility/corruption of social climbing whilst sticking the landing better.  It remains a magnificent feat of technical animation with delightfully grotesque designs and fantastic character animation, although the CG-aided overdubs and enhancements stick out like sore thumbs and are aging poorly.  And it might have the best cast of characters in any Laika movie, with everyone having strong unique characterisations who are endlessly entertaining (or deliberately frustrating in some cases) to watch, plus one of the best villains in recent animation memory… but there’s also the cross-dressing elephant in the room which I don’t have the time or space to fully get into right now but do have OPINIONS on.

For better and worse, it doesn’t feel like a group of Americans trying to cosplay at making a British movie with a satire of Britain’s buggered class-centric society.  That means rustic visual flair, a fearless desire to scare the piss out of some kids, loaded metaphors, and just-dirty-enough humour.  But it also means an eventual uncritical kumbaya celebration of minor reform instead of true revolution/systemic change, a lack of lasting consequences due to burning through plot in the second half, and utilising cross-dressing for comedy and satirical points that can be seen as demonisation of non-cis folk.  (Like, I think that Laika handle the plot point of the reviled low-class Snatcher cross-dressing as the highly-respected cabaret-esque Madame Frou-Frou in order to sneak in a taste of the high-society that otherwise rejects him out of hand, an on-the-nose point about the desperation of social climbers and the insular selfish privilege of the upper class, as well as they possibly could.  But the initial reveal, and some of the bits afterwards, are still played as a grotesque joke and the metaphor overall leans into harmful predatory stereotypes regarding crossdressers and trans folk.)  The stuff which works, and the ambition displayed by most of the stuff that doesn’t, wins out more for me this time.  But Boxtrolls is still that difficult third album.

Callie Petch hears some people say they wanna live forever but that’s way too long, they’ll just get through today.

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