Sociopaths, narcissists, alcoholics, and the lead singer of The All-American Rejects “acting.”
A little busy and time’s gotten away from me, so we’re just gonna dive right into my writing objectively far too many words about The House Bunny and Birdman instead of spending four paragraphs over-explaining how I’m feeling right now – the answer is “sorta eh,” by the way, but I’ve finally been re-prescribed antidepressants so we’ll see if that helps any. I was hoping to have a write-up on Cuphead done by now, but it’s been a bit of a week and a combination of other stuff to do, a sudden manic swing back into unexplainable misery (the meds start next week), and Hitman III finally arriving stalled progress on that to the starting gates. Also, these WIBWs take far longer than they seem to, so that didn’t help. Within the next fortnight, I should have that up for you all since apparently I’m now going to write far too many words about every video game I play as well.
Here’s what I’ve been watching this week.
Thoroughbreds [Sunday 24th]
Dir: Cory Finley
Got real lucky earlier this month. Thoroughbreds didn’t receive a Blu-Ray release here in the UK for whatever godforsaken reason – something that seems to always happen with the indie and teen films I particularly love; this, Sorry to Bother You, The Edge of Seventeen, Booksmart, Ingrid Goes West to name just a couple from these past four years alone – so I’ve been keeping a recurrent eye on eBay for available imports from the US at a decent price. Problem of course being that importing is getting pretty expensive nowadays, especially whenever customs is not included in the already dicey delivery charges, so it was constantly looking at £40+ which is too much for a single Blu-Ray. But then, start of the month, I lucked into seeing, of all things, a MusicMagpie listing for the film on Blu-Ray at a flat £15 price and scooped that up instantly! No exorbitant delivery fees, no bonus customs charges, and in perfect condition! My guess is some unlucky bastard imported into the UK but didn’t have a region-free Blu-Ray player and, since returning overseas would cost more than it’s worth, just sold it back on to MM to recoup some losses. Their loss is my gain, though!
Love this thing to pieces. What sticks out most to me about Cory Finley’s oeuvre so far, even if he didn’t actually write Bad Education (not that one), is how his examinations of super-rich upper-class sociopaths who see everyone else around them as mere tools to get what they personally want always try to find the heart at the centre of their subjects. I don’t mean that you’re supposed to come away thinking their protagonists were just misguided people whom you should have some sympathy for – although that is always the risk with telling stories like this in this way, as certain idiot hack critics may mistake that sleight-of-hand for genuine emotion and moral certainty. Instead, Finley wants to understand why these sociopaths act the way they do and constantly muddy the waters by showing the few seemingly genuine connections and intentions they do make instead of flattening his characters into easily-detestable cartoons; and even then, as is the case here with the thoroughly-loathsome Mark, they can still make salient points and display surprising moments of softness without being undercut by the movie nudging the viewer in the ribs. He wants to understand Lily and Bad Education’s (not that one) Frank Tassone rather than just throw eggs at them or repeat surface-level critiques of rich people being twats largely insulated from real consequences.
That’s one reason why I’m loving his movies so far. It makes them both far more interesting and engaging than this kind of fare often can be. Numbers 2 to 75 on that list are down to the fact that man knows exactly how to make an engrossing film. So many fantastic rack-focus shots all over this thing! A real understanding of how quality sound mixing and design can enhance the story! Such deliberate yet playful camerawork and framing! Anya Taylor-Joy and Olivia Cooke putting on clinics (plus Anton Yelchin who heartbreakingly really was just coming into his own when he was taken from us)! Thoroughbreds is still brilliant. Really glad to finally have it in my collection.
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) [Monday 25th]
Dir: Alejandro G. Iñárritu
First time seeing this since cinemas and, oh yikes, have I ever done a full 180 (crazy)! I remember loving Birdman when it came out, finding it really funny with strong performances of interesting characters and a for-once-fitting visual gimmick that managed to avoid being torture due to undercutting every one of its pompous idiot characters so that none of them ever felt like the mouthpiece of a one-dimensional author tract on behalf of Iñárritu. Coming back to it six years later… well, the performances are still brilliant, at least. Michael Keaton is great, obviously, and should’ve won the Oscar but, in addition to the fact I actually think he was better in The Founder (a criminally underrated film more people should watch), I think he actually gets upstaged by Edward Norton – even if, let’s be real, this role is not in the least bit a stretch for him – and Zach Galifianakis. The first 40 minutes or so are largely great, funny and charged and propulsive. And whilst the faux-one-take gimmick undoubtedly causes DP Emmanuel Lubezki to be hemmed in creatively, he still does a really good job at trying to add variation and eye-catching standouts to a film that’s 90% close-ups.
The problem, as you can probably already guess, is that I found nearly everything other than those highlighted beats absolutely insufferable. It’s the smugness. Permeating every single corner of this thing, seeping unfiltered from Iñárritu’s deeply pretentious and obliviously shallow mouth, in such quantities that it could singlehandedly power five entire seasons of South Park. And I pick South Park as the comparison most specifically because it shares that show’s tendency, in its worst moments and even a lot of its better ones, to wallow in the fact that everyone and everything sucks, caring double especially sucks, and aren’t it and the viewer so much smarter and more enlightened than the paeons who’d rather mindlessly consume explosions and violence. The superhero movie bashing and bit just before the finale where Birdman stares right into the camera to call the audience fucking idiots are obviously the provocative headline grabbers, as well as the raging contempt Iñárritu shares for critics at large – this in spite of the fact he has literally neither before nor since released a film to anything other than general acclaim from the critical sect, which I think says a lot about him. But it’s not limited to those. It’s everywhere. Birdman hates everyone and everything.
The general public? Gormless braying twits who fall over themselves for celebrity and celebrity trainwrecks. Actors? Pretentious narcissistic douchebags, oftentimes outright abusive and sometimes parasitic backstabbing leeches. Young people? Vapid disrespectful ingrates obsessed with their phones, talking about online media presence like it means anything, and hypocritically “woke.” Journalists? Caricatured vultures with no integrity. Men? Predatory twats using everyone and anyone to get ahead. Women? Either disapproving but ineffectual male consciences who sometimes get gratuitous never-touched-again lesbian beats, or whatever the everloving fuck is going on with Andrea Riseborough’s character. (God, her career so far really has been near-exclusively attempting to make hay out of the most dogshit roles, huh? Naomi Watts almost gets raped on-stage and yet she still gets more dignity from Iñárritu’s film than Riseborough does.) Everybody sucks, everybody, and Iñárritu’s shrill high-strung tone utterly lacking in modulation parrots these reductive near-nihilistic (charitably calling them) “observations” as if he’s some kind of genius sticking it to the world like never before.
Obviously, he’s nowhere near the first to make these observations and he’s so lacking in nuance or depth that his movie frankly comes off like a teenaged edgelord cinephile ranting on YouTube for upwards of six hours about how much Disney and leftists can suck their dick. The only thing worse than the kind of vapid condescending empty art Iñárritu spends two hours thinking he’s skewering is vapid condescending empty art that deludedly believes it’s somehow better than the other kind for pointing the fact out. His characters aren’t deep enough to make up for his shallow author tracts, his visual gimmick loses most of its wow appeal before the halfway point, and it falls to his actors to pull off the herculean task of landing Birdman onto the just-barely-watchable runway. A single 22-minute episode of BoJack Horseman, literally any single one of BoJack’s 77 episodes, covers everything Iñárritu’s film tries to in a deeper, funnier, more visually engaging, just as well performed, significantly less smug, less pretentious, more empathetic, and just overall better way than Birdman does.
AND WHY IS THE SECOND HALF OF THE TITLE SANS THE “OR” IN PARANTHESIS?! THIS IS BUGGING THE SHIT OUT OF ME!
You Only Live Once [Wednesday 27th]
Dir: Fritz Lang
Rare is the movie that keeps on running long after I assumed it was wrapping up and such a development ends up being not just welcome but even better than the already very good stuff which came before it. But such is the case with Fritz Lang’s proto-noir melodrama. Really enjoyed this. I do think it is somewhat hemmed in from being an all-time classic due to the Hays Code as so many transgressive films from that period are, with those chopped fifteen minutes causing certain scenes to abruptly cut away mid-flow, the last third being forced to tell a lot more than it can show, and the very second Lang’s camera dramatically zoomed in on a giant machine labelled “CIGARRETES” I immediately chuckled in a “yep, Hays Code” manner knowing this would be what led to the Taylors’ downfall. I also think that it could’ve done with either more set-up or more lead-in ambiguity for the end-of-act-two twist that Eddie really was innocent to truly pop. I get why it didn’t and why Henry Fonda’s performance is so aggressive, it’s meant to make the audience complicit in pre-judging a man based on his criminal record like Eddie’s jury did, but in execution it feels like a little cruel “gotcha” because the film doesn’t give much indication that everything isn’t on the up and up but still has that accusatory slant towards the audience anyway.
Still, almost everything else works. That classical semi-romantic Hollywood melodrama inherent in almost all early talkies really works for both the narrative’s deliberately heightened emotions and desperate frustration, and to better sell Lang’s still-vital condemnation of societal perceptions and treatment towards ex-convicts. There’s a sweep and heartache to the way You Only Live Once goes about things that I just don’t think you could get in a version of this story made today. Even if Fonda is perhaps a little too intense too early, he’s still very convincing and any time he shares the screen with Sylvia Sidney, who does great work in a role that could’ve been thankless without her total commitment, business picks up considerably. When things start to boil over as the electric chair draws near, the tension is genuinely palpable to a degree that still holds up all these years later; the whole film is an unavoidable tightening of the noose. And, my god, look at this thing! Lang’s expressionist silent movie chops certainly lost no shine in the jump to talkies. That pivotal prison yard standoff with the expert usage of lighting, shadows, and viscous dark-night-of-the-soul fog? And when the gates open with that blinding purgatorial light? *chef’s kiss*
Arthur Penn definitely cribbed the staging of entire scenes and the overall tone of this for Bonnie & Clyde, which I think says a lot about how the New Hollywood of the 60s and 70s wasn’t fundamentally so different from the Old Hollywood it sought to dethrone. But that’s a whole other largely unrelated essay for smarter and more eloquent/knowledgeable folks than I.
Night is Short, Walk on Girl [Friday 29th]
Dir: Masaaki Yuasa
Three years ago, at the London Film Festival, I saw an anime called Lu Over the Wall by Masaaki Yuasa. Whilst loving the bizarre art style, animated in Flash but having the deliberately freeform off-model grotesquery of 90s western animators like Klasky Csupo and John K. (though fuck that monster) or French art movements instead of Miyazaki, I found the film to be something I admired more than I liked. It was a little too inconsistent in both narrative and tone, too hyper and exhausting especially with a runtime of almost two hours, for me to really enjoy. Yuasa’s prior film, Night is Short, has turned out to be much more my speed, mainly by displaying a significantly tighter control of its various artistic components that Lu did.
Context and internal logical consistency for the ensuing gag-strip reminiscent mayhem definitely helps. Lu lacked a tangible baseline or graspable centralising force for its wilder moments, but Night is Short – based on a 2006 light novel by Tomihiko Morimi that took place over a year instead of the compressed single evening that happens in the film – gets progressively loopier the further into the seemingly endless evening it ventures, slinging back shots of an even greater density that justifies much of the redline-pushing emotions, character work, and general volume. (It’s a giant bender, basically.) There’s also a significantly better handling of narrative pacing, too, episodic and somewhat segmented but with proper peaks and valleys that come together surprisingly wholesomely and thematically consistently by the end. For all the often-hilarious gags, slapstick and verbal and sometimes just joyously random, Night is Short does manage to build to a pretty sweet and moving final set of messages about kindness repaying kindness, not being in love with the unattainable fantasy idea of love, and the interconnectedness of all our lives and how no-one is an island despite how it may feel. A lot of it is presented in an existential philosophical generational manner too that’s heavily on the side of youthful idealism which reminded me a bit of Weathering with You but thankfully significantly less… questionable in execution.
So Night is Short, Walk on Girl ends up working as more than just a wonderfully striking visual showcase to respect the hustle of, and it is so very striking. For me, it’s only held back from excellence by two things. The first is a disappointing, though not surprising given cultural differences and the source material’s age, hetero and cis-normativity that permeates throughout but especially puts an unfortunate dampener on the ending to an otherwise great big pop-up musical theatre thread. The other is a touch more subjective but I feel like the film plays up The Guy’s pathetic creep-itude just too often for the endgame between he and The Girl – neither he nor her are named in-film – to work as properly romantic and sweet like it clearly wants to be. It’s a funny seeming-deconstruction that’s entertaining to watch and the (relatively) dramatic metaphorical payoff (clown-head as penis metaphor and everything) is refreshingly self-aware for this kind of genre, but he goes so overboard in the first three-quarters that the redemption of sorts doesn’t quite feel earned. The compressed time both hurts and helps; at least it’s just one depicted night of creep-itude instead of a full year, but he packs a lot into that evening. Like I said, his antics are still entertaining in a laugh-at way, but it means the wannabe romance doesn’t sit right and I don’t know how you fix that.
The House Bunny [Saturday 30th]
Dir: Fred Wolf
As the resident “White Chicks is great, actually” online critic, I really wanted to like this. I think there is a properly good comedy within The House Bunny struggling to get out. Could tell within the first fifteen minutes that this was by the same writers of Legally Blonde and 10 Things I Hate About You because it bleeds the DNA of Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith. There’s the same effort at an underlying sweetness that powered Blonde, flashes of insightfulness within a deliberately cartoony exaggeration of social and gender performativity in higher-education circles from 10 Things, and there’s a particular post-feminist strain (in both the good and ill senses of the term) to the film’s messages and conflicts reminiscent of She’s the Man. Their unmistakable wit and specific comedic rhythms also shine through just irregularly enough to remind you of whose pens this movie spilled from; whether in Shelley’s oblivious response to being told by a snobby college head that “this is a sorority, not a brothel” – “oh, I’m not looking to make soup” – or the Phi clique’s running convo shutdown of “so nice(!)” But, god, does the Happy Madison-ness of it all really drag everything down into the regrettable dirt more often than not.
For one, it looks ugly. Director Fred Wolf has a real point-and-shoot fetish with little attention paid to decent staging or lighting that makes everything look cheap – in particular, there’s an overabundance of jarring insert shots, most especially Kat Dennings after the karaoke sabotage, that are really unnatural – and shares the Happy Madison roster’s trait of being utterly incapable of staging physical comedy. There’s significantly more semi-smug punching down than Lutz & Smith usually engage in, lots of lingered-on cheap ableism and transphobia and internalised misogyny, but is otherwise right in the Madison wheelhouse. And, overall, it feels like their screenplay has had to significantly dumb itself down in order to pass through the Happy Madison ringer, not allowing itself to be as genuinely subversive and clever as it wants to be for fear of being turned down. The results get kinda condescending, low-hanging, and mildly desperate, especially when paired with Wolf’s inept direction. Also, not only is it pretty uncomfortable how an attempted-feminist film characterises Hugh Hefner like a cuddly little altruistic teddy-bear, Hef is just a hysterically awful actor in his brief on-screen appearances.
What not merely saves the film but lifts it into the realms of intermittently entertaining are the performances of Anna Faris and Emma Stone. Faris nails the exact kind of rootable sweet simpleton goodness her role calls for, the kind that nearly anyone else might’ve badly messed up, but she also manages to make herself more distinct than just reheating Reese Witherspoon’s Blonde leftovers. Stone, meanwhile, displays star power that can light up entire city blocks by itself even in this early stage of her career with great comic instincts I hope she gets more chances to stretch again in the future. Are you sick of the ‘socially maladjusted Hollywood nerd girl’ stereotype? So am I! But Stone is just so convincing and charming in the role that it works regardless and even manages to elicit cringe reactions that are completely intended by the film instead of coming from being reminded that Avril Lavigne’s “Girlfriend” is just absolute dogshit and always has been.
All that said, easily the most notable aspect of the whole thing is how Emma Stone’s love interest is played by, and I shit you not with this, the guy from The All-American Rejects! Really! And they have a song on the soundtrack that plays in-universe even though he’s not playing The Guy from The All-American Rejects! The double-take yelp of “NO FUCKING WAY!” that emanated from me when he first sauntered unconvincingly on-screen in recognition! The late 2000s were a weird friggin’ time for pop culture, seriously. The House Bunny’s funniest gag easily goes to whichever genius decided that the scene where he and Stone finally get together should be back by a Boys Like Girls song; that’s what we call shade, babies.