Race cars, race horses, racial gentrification, and racy fashion.
OK, I did the mental health preamble dump in the “welcome back” post from a few days ago, so here’s the skinny. Usually, these WIBWs involve me filling in a week’s worth of movie-viewing. But, as you are no doubt aware because you read all of my pieces and don’t just cherry-pick the least-indulgent ones, much of the past month has been dedicated to my dealing with the mind-numbing process of moving all my old work over to the new non-deadname domain so, when I’ve clocked off at the end of most “work” days, I’ve not really been in the mood to watch things which require anything in the general direction of active viewing. Hence: YouTube. Also hence: efforts to force myself into that week-long “watch a film almost every night” commitment for a WIBW withered before they even managed to sprout a shoot from the soil.
However, over the course of my month off-air, I did watch some movies. Not a whole lot, spaced out quite heavily, and mostly from cinema day trips since they’re open now and showing movies instead of badly vamping for time as an indecisive industry keeps fucking over ground staff. But movies were seen! And I’m still in antsy-gotta-write mode with opinions which have been rattling around in my head – plus, I suck at the snark-overloaded Twitter-worthy witticisms required for Letterboxd success; sometimes I honestly wonder if the majority of people who use that site even like movies – so let’s break tradition and do a pair of month-long round-up pieces for the films I didn’t already write solo reviews about to get that old content train rolling again. Also so I can keep up the pretence of being a Film Critic if the London Film Festival press applications open within the next week.
Here’s what I’ve been watching… this month… part one.
Cruella [Sunday 6th June]
Dir: Craig Gillespie
Simultaneously too much and not enough. At its best, there’s not just a Family’s First Martin Scorsese angle to the filmmaking but also an active pantsing of Guy Ritchie’s turn at the Mouse House; this feels way more like a family-friendly Guy Ritchie movie, with not just the tone and dialogue but also the visual tricks and approach to weaving music into the narrative and its presentations, than Ritchie himself ever got to bring to the boring Aladdin remake. There is a mischievous camp spirit to much of the central conflict between Emma Stone’s rebranded Cruella and Emma Thompson’s villainous Baroness. In fact, the Baroness is one of the most entertainingly loathsome villains Disney have cooked up in a long time and I am here for it, she slots in snugly to the lineage of old-school Disney baddies with her theatrical disdain for anyone and everything and freewheeling approach to murder. There’s a great gaudy semi-fantastical sense of place to the production design of 70s high-fashion London, Stone’s giving this total commitment and even finding some pathos every now and again, and the better stretches careen thrillingly close to going off-the-rails in their audacity. In general, Cruella is way better than I was expecting. Maybe the best possible version of what it could be.
But then there’s that “too much, not enough”-ness of it all. The “too much” end relates to the fact that this is one relentlessly busy film which runs for well over two hours and at times gets much too self-indulgent on the setpieces, overdriven style, and plot-work. Like the last film in this first-half write-up, I feel that Cruella really needed to be paced far better or the plotting to be more simplified cos as it stands things get a bit aimless and tiring around the middle-stretch. The “not enough,” meanwhile, comes from the Disney-ness of it all. For as ridiculous and surprisingly dark and amoral as the film can get at points, it still feels… constrained, compromised. The darker plot turns and more difficult character beats keep getting pulled back almost instantly, the tone swings from full camp to something more attempted-serious and earnest at a moment’s notice, and things never feel fully committed to the “Bad vs. Evil” hook of that central conflict; it never quite challenges, everything goes down too easy. The blatant franchise aspiration doesn’t help, all the attempted future-proofing and iconography for some kind of new Dalmatians Expanded Universe jars with the otherwise radical reinterpretation of the source material.
Also, and this is more of a personal thing, but it really rubs me the wrong way to see 1970s British working-class punk aesthetics being appropriated for a movie set in the world of high-fashion which has absolutely nothing to say about class divides or rebellion against authoritarian privileged elite systems? Cruella very quickly moves away from any such insinuations about how the upper-classes snobbishly look down on public-school working-class service-people to enforce a rigid unattainable idea of what they consider right, particularly in the fashion world, to instead just be a simple inter-family revenge squabble. I’d have said Count of Monte Cristo-esque, except of course that work does actually pay heed to the class undertones inherent to its story. Instead, Cruella strips all meaning from the movement, visuals and even music of the time to instead resell them as pretty pictures and catchy costume designs devoid of greater resonance. Of course, this has been happening to that specific punk movement since the very second it started making mainstream waves, but there’s just something about seeing Disney add it to their latest touristy costume-swap which irks me more than a little.
Zero points for Artie, in case you’re wondering. Other than his actor being given the chance to be openly camp in ways that are frankly kinda stereotypical when the character is professed to be gay (and not even unique in a movie where almost everyone takes at least a few moments to play things as camp as Christmas at Black Cat San Francisco), nothing in the text supports a reading of his being gay if you don’t go in already knowing he’s supposed to be gay – his sexuality is never even once spoken out loud – not to mention how little screentime or plot relevance he ultimately gets given. That definitely feels like a Disney exec limiting things so they can have plausible deniability over the apparent gayness should homophobic nations kick up a storm. And, yes, my happily queer self is beyond tired of Disney pulling this shit and expecting gay applause despite not really doing anything. Shit on the CCP or get off the pot, guys. Don’t fake a squeaker and demand cookies for it.
Nobody [Wednesday 16th June]
Dir: Ilya Naishuller
WOO! So much goddamned FUN! Derek Kolstad’s playful writing built upon specific abstracted worldbuilding – where details and mechanics are deliberately hazy, working as they do from archetypal action standbys, but there’s such a tangible character and history to everything which elevates potboiler material – continues to work gangbusters on me. Pairs really well with Naishuller’s giddy, kinetic, near-cartoony sense of direction. There are individual moments here funnier than entire comedies released in the last several years; I was really caught off guard by the chair throw, especially, to a degree where I felt kinda self-conscious over just how loud I laughed compared to everyone else. Bob Odenkirk brings the right amount of gravitas needed, too, enough to ground the drama and character but also a lot looser and more gleeful than I was expecting which befits the film at large.
Not as thematically rich as John Wick, there are no surprisingly moving emotional layers or meta-textual nods or deeply-entwined critiques of capitalist facades to tuck into, but Nobody is trying to be a different movie despite the surface similarities. There’s an interesting thematic and character wriggle with Hutch sorta going out of his way to get back into the life he left and looking for any possible excuse to explode into violence, but the film intentionally refuses to explore that once brought up, instead contentedly staying in its less-fascistic Death Wish lane. And the action, whilst very good and gnarly, does suffer a bit from over-reliance on having the protagonists shoot at something off-screen before revealing the guy(s) they shot which negates a bit of the tension. But, oh god, SO MUCH FUN! I’ve missed stuff like this.
Dream Horse [Wednesday 16th June]
Dir: Euros Lyn
If I’d had the time, and was feeling particularly bitchy, I would’ve run a review on Set the Tape for this that was literally just a copy-paste of my Military Wives review from last year but with the nouns related to that swapped out for ones related to this. Britain makes a dozen of these “genial feel-good dramedy biopics laser-targeted at older slightly-conservative viewers” every year and almost every single one of them is exactly the same as the rest. A sub-species of cinema which refuses to accept that The Full Monty was twenty-four years ago and won’t stop rehashing that blockbuster to such a degree that one could probably edit their own coherent movie together from individual bits and pieces of this ceaseless deluge. What irritates me so isn’t the slavish devotion to predictable formula – there’s absolutely nothing wrong with either predictability or formula in and of themselves – it’s that none of Monty’s bastard offspring do their copying at all well. These movies lack character, charm, creative direction, the specific detail and even slight vestiges of grit or strife which made Monty rise above. At this point, things are so far gone in this subgenre that it’s akin to watching a xerox of a xerox of a xerox of a JPEG of a union jack being paraded around like it’s the real thing we’re supposed to salute despite its being a hollow imitation.
Dream Horse is no different. Characters are broad, stereotypically-drawn, and as thoroughly unbelievable as the drama despite this being based on a true story, with the ensemble being so poorly balanced that everybody other than Toni Colette and Damian Lewis are reduced to playing a particularly boorish Greek Chorus. The class-divide and dying-village themes are, as is customary for this genre, completely surface-level and mostly ignored outside of being the chosen wallpaper du jour for this go-around. Colette and Lewis are decent but unspectacular, the comedy is woefully lacking, almost all conflicts which do crop up get resolved unsatisfyingly within the next three scenes, and the tone is a cloying drag.
The only almost-entirely unreserved praise I can give is that veteran TV director Euros Lyn and cinematographer Erik Wilson do a good job at depicting the period aesthetics and sense of place without going overboard. Although the Welsh village most of Dream Horse is set in never gets given a name, I’ve grown up in and around villages at the turn-of-the-century just like this one and, despite the cleaned-up gloss inherent in dishonest Monty wannabes, Lyn & Wilson evoke that time and place faithfully and convincingly. Smoky low-lit empty pubs with on-the-fritz VHS karaoke machines, bleary halogen-lit co-ops, corners of town with undeveloped business parks now left conspicuously islanded when everybody pulled out suddenly, once-prosperous farmland now an undistinguished mud flat. It all strikes the balance between a convincing facsimile of real-life and the non-threatening sanitised version of the real thing that movies like this are supposed to aim for, so it’s a shame this kind of convincing effort wasn’t put into any other aspect of Dream Horse. Like I said, Britain makes dozens of these movies every year and “this time it’s Welsh, except for our two big-name stars who will instead put on just-passable tourist imitations of the Welsh accent” isn’t a sufficient enough hook to justify filmmaking and storytelling this pedestrian.
7 Days in Hell [Tuesday 22nd June]
Dir: Jake Szymanski
Perfectly fit the “dumb fun no need for active viewing” remit of my entertainment choices and desires during that looooooong month. Also meant I got to show my dad it and he was suitably bemused and amused by the whole thing. I am surprised that I keep coming back to this as often as I do because 7 Days in Hell is very surface-level in its gags. Lots of penis gags, sex gags, British people being stuffy, Americans being boorish, Swedes being lax free-spirits, sports documentaries being pompous tangent-laden nonsense, and the inherent hilarity of all those things. Yet, not only are these simply just extremely funny versions of those surface-level gags, buoyed by that Andy Samberg wacky non-sequitur energy, 7 Days is deceptively dense with just how many gags it manages to cram into just 42 minutes. I keep finding new ones squirrelled away in the margins with each new viewing, ones initially hidden because I was laughing too hard at earlier gags to hear them. That’s real impressive and a testament to writer and accused rapist Murray Mill-oh for fuck’s sake ew ew ew abort move on.
Le Mans ’66 [Friday 25th June]
Dir: James Mangold
I’m a lot cooler on this a third time around than I was in the cinema and it’s primarily because the extremely didactic screenplay has been chipping down to my nerves with each passing viewing. Specifically, the fact that its need to verbally state every single theme, character beat, and emotion doesn’t just feel like it’s patronising the viewers – every single scene involving Ken Miles’ family during the titular Le Mans is the absolute worst for this, undercutting every powerful moment by clunkily restating it so that even people who’re spending the movie scrolling on their phones get what’s going on. It also feels like it’s patronising the directorial talents of James Mangold, like the film’s producers and screenwriters don’t trust one of our most effective visual directors to do his job sufficiently.
And my response to that is an ever-increasingly loud, “do you not realise who you’ve hired here?!” I more than understood why Ken slows down at the end thanks to Mangold and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael (plus great work from Christian Bale) using those beautiful shots of the lonely stretch of road ahead and behind him as Marco Beltrami & Buck Sanders’ usually jazzy score hits this melancholic serenity! I didn’t need Caitriona Balfe having to verbally explain to a confused Noah Jupe the thought process of Ken Miles because the filmmaking did a perfect enough job by itself, nor did I need the “good for you, Ken!” to understand that this is a good thing worthy of celebrating! For a supposedly adult-aimed drama – this, after all, is perhaps the decade’s ultimate Dad Movie – it’s perplexing to see that somebody on the creative team thinks its viewers have the mental capacity of five-year-olds, and that inconsistency between the fantastically-composed respectful filmmaking and tin-eared intelligence-insulting screenplay really wears someone like me down across two-and-a-half hours. I still think that Le Mans ’66 is very good and worth your time, but that’s in spite of a screenplay seemingly determined to drive a stake through the movie’s heart.
Dogtanian and the Three Muskehounds [Saturday 26th June]
Dir: Toni Garcia
Admirably more creatively ambitious in terms of setpieces than this kind of cheap Euro pre-school fare usually displays – a couple of swashbuckling comedy-style swordfights, a backroad ambush with burning carts, a duel on pirate ship masts during a raging storm – but that’s about it for the positives. Complete grating misfire, otherwise. That ambition comes undone almost immediately thanks to stiff animatronic animation which is barely Milkshake TV quality in the non-setpiece stretches and just heartbreaking during said setpieces; the aforementioned pirate ship duel lacks any flow whatsoever so it’s like watching a kid play with two Happy Meal toys on a 10p rocket ship during a mild shower. The characters are all annoying, dumbing down Alexandre Dumas’ archetypal creations into their most simplistic and least-interesting possible selves then hammering on those singular personality traits for all that they’re worth. And the dub. Jesus Christ, the dub is atrocious. Screechy overbearing deliveries of every line mistaking “LOUD NOISES!” for comedy and/or drama and/or exposition and/or everything really, made even more noticeably incongruous since not once does the rigid barely-mobile animation come close to matching the hyperactive shouty-energy of the voice work.
Dreadful. I do not know why these sorts of films keep getting cinema releases and yet Disney keep sending new Pixar films straight-to-Disney+.
In the Heights [Saturday 26th June]
Dir: Jon M. Chu
…I don’t love it on first watch. For one, it is really overstuffed. The scope is much too big in ways that can lose track of where the tale’s real heart is often to degrees which severely undercut the attempted giant emotional swings. Abuela’s death is an especially crippling victim of this, I honestly didn’t even realise she was meant to be the story’s heart because she’s so out-of-focus until it’s time for Olga Merediz to shoot her Best Supporting Actress showreel. Pacing as a result is all over the place and actually serves to turn Jon M. Chu’s otherwise positive maximalist direction – he is a man who does not know the meaning of restraint and goes for it in nearly every single frame – into something genuinely exhausting by the last half-hour. The pacing issue could’ve easily been fixed by including an intermission, I can even tell exactly where there would’ve been one thanks to the frankly useless wrap-around; without it, it’s like shotgunning all three hours of Hamilton without breaks. (And, yes, I am somebody who does think there should be more intermissions in over-two-hour films in general.)
Much more critically, I think that the ending, whilst admittedly warming because I did like these characters and want to see them be happy, doesn’t fully satisfy and rings more than a little bit false given the tone and themes explored leading up to it. I get that you send a crowd home happy with big lavish musicals so an unambiguously happy optimistic ending makes sense. Plus, Lin-Manuel Miranda is an unashamed believer in the American Dream, so his efforts to critique the ways in which capitalism and gentrification adversely affect and dispassionately erase entire lower-class non-White cultures can only go so far before he pulls back into something more hopeful. But, for me, it doesn’t make having Usnavi stay in the Heights and everything turn out perfectly alright for him and his friends who also stayed any less of a disappointing punch-pulled whiplash. Especially when the overall tone, and Chu’s full-force direction, really hammers down on the bittersweet reality of a seemingly-hopeless situation during the second half so the swerve to “actually, no, we can totally beat racist capitalistic gentrification if we just wish hard enough…” I dunno, it’s a little deflating to me.
Despite failing to stick the landing, I did still really enjoy In the Heights. I have been saying for years that Jon M. Chu was born to direct a good old-fashioned musical, one in which he got to bring his uber-showy ultra-vibrant MTV-fantasia approach in almost all his films – and that best fit his two still-great cracks at the Step Up series, which fundamentally turned into musicals sans singing under his stewardship – to the birthplace of unapologetic classical gaudy spectacle. And whilst it does get a little tiring after two-and-a-half hours, and I completely understand why others may look at his work here and question, thanks to his music video approach to scene geography and editing, if he even knows how to direct a musical. But, goddamn, to my eyes he more than comes through with the goods.
The man, plus his crack team of choreographers and cinematographers & editors, knows how to best tell a story and communicate character through movement and physical expression. The celebratory communality of “96,000,” the disorientating mixed-signals turning sour of “The Club,” and rousing “Carnaval del Barrio” are prime examples of this approach paying dividends; pure passion and creativity and feats of physical marvel pouring out of every frame. Even if none of the numbers hold an instant-classic candle to the B-tier of Hamilton’s unreal showstoppers, they’re still energetic with solid hooks and Miranda is great at utilising backpack-rap style flows to get his characters to express so much about themselves and their situation without it coming off as leaden exposition. Anthony Ramos, meanwhile, is great as Usnavi; eminently rootable whilst believably hanging onto this bitter dissatisfaction which manifests from time to time and adds genuine complexity to someone who might otherwise read as a rather generic leading man archetype. It’s a shame this thing bombed, cos Usnavi really should be a star-making turn for Ramos.
Callie Petch can’t weep alone, let’s ache and howl and moan.