What I’ve Been Watching: 15/08/21 – 21/08/21

Horses, heists, boxers, and beatdowns.

Hey, there.  Been a mostly quiet one around here since the calendar rolled over into August, I know.  This has been due to three factors.  The first being that the Psychonauts piece, which finally went live last week in case you missed it, was a real unwieldy monster of a thing that took an age to write and I’m not good at balancing multiple pieces at once.  Particularly when I get jammed on one article, I need to get through that block before I can open myself up to trying something else.  The second being that, now the Psychonauts piece is done, I’ve actually been busy working on a whole bunch of other pieces you just won’t see for a little while.  Some are timed to specific anniversaries or release dates, some I’m deliberately stockpiling so that they can have a consistent release schedule, and some just aren’t ready yet.  But work is happening in between my midday narcolepsy!  The third factor is that I went to a gig for the first time in 17 months two weeks ago – Gorillaz at The O2 – and had to organise that, plus I came back with flu (and fortunately only flu).  It was fantastic, but I’m doing a mental health-y piece revolving around that and our current alluring facsimile of normalcy we’re trapped in for one of my Soundsphere editor’s other sites so I’m not gonna go into that properly here.  Look for the link to it next week.

Other than those, I’m doing ok mostly.  Have had a burst of loneliness and dysphoria in the last week, too, which has slowed down output a bit; plus, y’know, made me feel sad and down as a person.  Rather than coming from my periodic check-ins with Twitter (since I have to deal with Soundsphere social media every now and again) and its rampant proudly promoted transphobia – *Ken Rosenberg from GTA: Vice City voice* I poke my head out of the gutter for one freakin’ second and fate [Twitter] shovels shit [TERF bollocks] in my face – this ongoing dysphoria bout came from something nice I did for myself.  My copy of Mass Effect: Legendary Edition came with a limited-time 25% off code for Bioware merch which, naturally, I investigated and, in between the usual not-great line of gaming merch, a very nice Paragon t-shirt caught my eye.  Particularly on the female model the default photo showed, this was very much “she looks cute and cool but in a way that seems slightly attainable to me, I wanna look like her.”  (Also, the design looked nice too, which is the most important factor if I’m additionally spending the RRP on shipping costs for one shirt.)

The shirt arrived a few days after I got back from Gorillaz – following an initial awkward unknown redirect to Mum’s house with my not-deadname on the parcel, thanks Bioware – and I wore it a few days after the worst of my flu disappeared.  I like it, it’s snug, looks good… but staring in the mirror, I was also overcome with a growing melancholy over the fact that I simply didn’t look like the model in the sale picture.  I’d already had a slight wobble over whether I should’ve ordered the “ladies” or “mens” style, both are technically unisex but the former is more specifically fitted so I went with the latter since my body type currently may not be best suited for fitted clothing, and obviously I was never gonna look like a shirt model just from getting a specific clothing item and doing nothing else.  But, still, it resurfaced feelings and desires regarding dissatisfaction with my cis body clashing with my non-binary mind and there being limited ways I can change that to stamp down the dysphoria.  When I see other people out (usually women) who look cool as fuck in a femme way I can’t realistically achieve.  I ended up messaging one of my closest friends to ask if she could help me do a photoshoot at some point to make a new series of profile and self-shots so I don’t have to look at these photos of myself I can’t relate to anymore.  That’s weirdo behaviour, yeah?

Anyways, it’s not that big of a deal.  I’m somewhat productive and functioning, which is the important thing.  Both in the “capitalistic society which measures worth by productivity” way and because pre-anti-depressants I would just completely shut down for days at something like this instead of at least trying to so stuff like I have been.  Did you see I wrote a pro wrestling hot-take, which is why this is several days late?  My first-class Film Studies degree being put to great use, I’m sure you’ll agree!

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

Bruno v Tyson [Sunday 15th]

Dirs: Kevin Macdonald, Benjamin Hirsch

Year: 2021

First-time viewing

It is deeply frustrating to watch such a potentially rich story as the intersecting careers of Mike Tyson and Frank Bruno be told with such little investigative/analytical curiosity or narrative focus as displayed in Bruno v Tyson.  Hell, this Sky documentary can’t even seem to decide who the protagonist out of the two really is or if they should be co-protagonists.  This reduces Bruno to a passive side-character in what is initially pitched in the blitzed-over cold-open detailing his upbringing and rise as his story, makes Tyson take up so much time despite barely utilising the compare-contrast potential in their stories, and means that we don’t really get any decent insight into either man psychologically nor their status culturally.  I can’t even say that it slots both men into simplistic hero/villain paradigms because that would insinuate either gets given that clearly defined portrait.  They’re both just men who punch things and who chose to punch things because… that’s just what they did.  Bruno was loved, Tyson wasn’t and that’s about your lot.

Every so often, Macdonald and Hirsch skirt up next to the complex and contentious relationships Bruno’s public persona had regarding his blackness.  A cross-cultural superstar in his heyday frequently charged as an “Uncle Tom” or “coconut” by his own race, whilst mainstream White Britain and its media took great delight in ‘jovially’ using his affability to mock a perceived lack of masculinity as a genuinely uncomfortable BBC Sports Personality of the Year archive footage best demonstrates; both of which clearly got to him psychologically.  But the two directors very rarely explicitly comment on this important factor, screeching away to the next story beat as soon as the unavoidable elephant has been dealt with to the barest of satisfaction.  In fact, in general, they show almost no interest in any ‘difficult’ or ‘socio’ or ‘emotional’ part of the story which means the tone is all over the place – I feel like I got socked by a Bruno right in the suddenness of that transition from sombrely talking about his mental health spiral into a Notorious B.I.G.-backed roll-up at Tyson’s house – vastly more interesting material is left unexplored, and its disinterest in both men’s treatment towards the women caught up in their stories (especially Black women in Tyson’s case) is flippant bordering on inadvertently-sociopathic.  Like, my God, display more tact regarding Tyson’s rape charge than utilising subtly-victim-blaming language and framing it all as “an opportunity” for Bruno to win the gold, Jesus!

The doc’s last fifteen mins demonstrate that they clearly had access to Bruno and Tyson, too, so I have absolutely no idea why Macdonald and Hirsch didn’t incorporate their present-day selves more into the telling.  Have them offer reflections and actual insights instead of getting four different commentators to all say the exact same generic pat psychology lines about how “Tyson haunted Bruno” or ten dramatically-delivered variations on “Bruno’s goal was always to be the champ.”  Instead, both directors are content to avoid anything remotely more interesting or thematically richer than a Junior School-level timeline of events, and any wider connections or resonance from the archive footage and editing/ordering thereof is left for the viewer to sort themselves.  “Time constraints” are no excuse cos Secret Base’s Rewinder series absolutely smokes something like this with none of the access and 1/5 of the runtime.  What a waste.

The Art of Self-Defense [Tuesday 17th]

Dir: Riley Stearns

Year: 2019

First-time viewing

Finally ticked this one off my list when New on Netflix UK informed me it was going to be yanked early September, which not coincidentally was also the first time that I found out it was on Netflix at all.  What is the point of these algorithms if they’re not going to recommend me another film by a director whose previous film I enthusiastically thumbs-ed up on their service?  Anyways, it’s very good!  Not as good as Faults but Faults was one of those bolt-out-of-the-blue debuts that very few sophomore works could hope to match so, even though it does call to mind that prior film in a lot of ways thematically and even visually (the opening shot is near-identical), I’m not going to hold it against Art of Self-Defense.

Stearns here goes a lot more into the Yorgos Lanthimos school of deadpan black-comic examinations of the human condition, usually pertaining to masculinity.  Lots of curiously static off-centre camera placements very occasionally accentuated with push-zooms, bluntly declarative dialogue sorta designed to unsettle but mainly just how everybody talks in these movies, sudden bursts of shocking violence, and a score exclusively made of ominous drones.  Fortunately, Self-Defense continues my pet theory that I do actually rather like Lanthimos movies so long as anybody other than Lanthimos is responsible for writing them.  It’s often very funny, thankfully through actual joke construction based on the actions of decently-defined characters rather than leaning on the alleged innate hilarity of aliens trying to approximate casual human speech.  It makes strong usage of Jesse Eisenberg, primarily by making him combine his two The Double performances (still easily his best work) into one which walks the fine line of him being watchable and sorta-sympathetic whilst never fully likeable.  He pairs very well with an excellent Alessandro Nivola who, much like Stearns’ strongly-communicated sense of dread, is dangerously hypnotic every time he’s on-screen whilst never devolving into total caricature like his role could’ve in lesser hands.

That said, I do think Stearns’ strict adherence to the detached ominous Indie directorial style is a little misguided here.  Whilst Self-Defense is a skewering of traditional masculinity – something it will beat into the viewer through typically Lanthimos-ian blunt dialogue over and over and over again – it’s also very much about the alluring power of cults to weak vulnerable individuals like Eisenberg’s Casey.  How they ensnare victims into their grasp and consume their whole selves until there’s little of the original person left, which is what Sensei’s dojo most resembles.  But Stearns’ choice to always keep the viewer at an off-kilter distance means we never get to see Sensei the way Casey initially does, to understand with him why he would fall under Sensei’s sway, instead of bolting at the instantly apparent red flags surrounding him and the dojo.  (For somebody who has repeatedly credited martial arts with helping them fix their mental state, Stearns sure doesn’t make the form look all that enticing.)  Faults’ subtlety and careful balance between objectivity and subjectivity are lacking here and that causes the big second half reveals, whilst not ineffective, to be too easy to guess too early on with that journey feeling at points like marking time.  It’s the kind of directorial decision which keeps a very good film forever on the verge of becoming a great one.

Also, and I need to tread lightly with this given everything…  Imogen Poots is fine and does bring some of her own personality to the role, in particular one of those patented thousand-yard stares of disdain she made an artform out of in Green Room, but…  Yeah, her role and performance she’s presumably been directed to give absolutely feels like one meant for Mary Elizabeth Winstead.  Even if I didn’t already know, I would’ve clocked on my own that her role was meant for Winstead.  I completely understand the very reasonable explanation as to why Winstead is not in this role, but a part of me still wishes it could’ve happened.  She might even have been able to do something more with the disappointingly underwritten place Poots’ character ends up – which, again, I completely understand since the whole movie is easy to read as Stearns going through some stuff.  But this makes Poots’ performance distractingly feel like the acting version of the humorously off-brand nametags everything in-universe gets.  In any case, Art of Self-Defense is very solid!  I recommend it and look forward to whenever Stearns’ next film comes out (plus the year+ of import delay tax every American indie film I look forward to apparently has to go through).

Photo Credit: DreamWorks Animation. © 2021 DreamWorks Animation LLC. All Rights Reserved
Spirit Untamed [Thursday 19th]

Dir: Elaine Bogan

Year: 2021

First-time viewing

This is resolutely not made for me.  It’s aimed at the absolute youngest of viewers for whom this’d be one of their first animated features, despite that requisite PG rating since it’s almost impossible to get a U nowadays for whatever reason.  As such, everything is ultra-basic, the conflict teases heavier topics without ever delving deep enough into the emotional complexities of traumatic single parent upbringings to scare or worry the younglings, comedy is really light being mostly based around good-natured broad archetypes and “that just happened”s, and in general there’s nothing to raise the pulse or interest of any human being aged older than 7 at best.  It is not for people like me and I can respect that, even whilst still critiquing that the narrative and characters all feel rushed through and somewhat disingenuous, as such lacking any effective moments of storytelling that the best sorts of these works can still provide.  (After all, just cos something’s for kids, doesn’t mean you get away with corner-cutting.)

What I can question regardless of being outside the target audience is the fact that I was under the impression a theatrical spin-off of a TV cartoon is supposed to look significantly better than an episode of the show?  I’ve seen clips of the show – though never an episode, just not had the time – and honestly, aside from the excess bloom effects and more detailed lighting, Untamed does not look much different from the Netflix series.  The environments are often pretty lifeless in the same way a budget-constrained TV series has to be, the character animations can be weirdly stiff and lacking in proper fluidity (especially when concerning horses who frankly aren’t easy to animate at the best of times), but most noticeable is the extremely flat and undistinguished boarding.  So much of this movie is done in bland shot-reverse-shot mid-distanced medium-close-up, usually with the character talking slightly past the camera, just like a budget-saving episode of a TV show and it’s strange that nobody involved took this opportunity to try new things they couldn’t on a TV budget or production timescale.  Unsurprisingly, the film’s most engaging scenes are the ones where a more artistic and less utilitarian approach to staging and layout manifest – Spirit and Fortuna’s slow-dance of trust, Fortuna discovering Spirit’s heard, and the imagine spot of the rescue are the three instances where this film does anything interesting visually.

Also, the voice work is unacceptably flat from everybody.  Whether they’re having a friendly banter walking through town, in a death-defying canyon crossing, or expressing a regret over their handling of a loved one’s passing, every actor delivers their lines with the intensity of a Sunday afternoon tea session.  Really hope these celebs at least had the decency to not cash those presumably fat paycheques for their work.

Photo courtesy of Disney. © 2021 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Jungle Cruise [Thursday 19th]

Dir: Jaume Collet-Serra

Year: 2021

First-time viewing

Wow, I was surprised by how not-thrilled I ended up being throughout this.  For something which should check at least a few of my pleasant-mindless fun boxes – old-school adventure throwback, swashbuckling romance of the African Queen variety, creature-feature horror inclinations, Jaume Collet-Serra directing something theoretically constrained, Emily Blunt bossing shit – Jungle Cruise never actually manages to achieve any kind of sustained lift-off.  I can pinpoint two very big pulsating reasons as to why this might be.  The first is that, dear lord, for a $200 million tentpole this does not look convincing at all.  Low-quality immersion-breaking CGI is everywhere, soundstage sets are badly hidden, there’s precious little filth and grime or tangibility, and a lot of the stunts outside of the pre-title setpiece are pre-vis affairs rather than in-camera.  All things which are kind of death for a throwback Amazonian adventure piece.  Collet-Serra is full anonymous work-for-hire behind the camera, perhaps strangled by the script’s unconfident insistence on getting its three leads off of the boat at every available opportunity.

The second is that a lot of the emotional heart of Jungle Cruise gets placed upon Dwayne Johnson’s shoulders and…  Look, it’s time to face facts that The Rock is just not going to have convincing sexual chemistry with any person you stand him next to on-screen.  I’m sorry, it’s cruel but it’s also the truth.  I just do not buy him as somebody who radiates sexual energy or romantic connection with another person.  Not in R-rated action movies, not in borderline PG-13 Fast & Furious-type fare – and it is possible in that sort of franchise cos I even fully believe Vin Diesel wants to have amazing sex with his various screen partners and Diesel’s screen presence is very similar to Johnson’s – not in star vehicles, and certainly not in hamstrung Disney family movies like this one.  Blunt is trying, is she ever trying in this thing in general, but Johnson is just incapable of generating any of the sparks needed to sell the last third.  He’s miscast even outside of this factor, being asked to play a world-weary cynical type who too often lapses into outright dickishness Johnson can’t get the right balance for, but his aggressively immobile asexual screen presence is murder for the place this unfocussed genre hodgepodge eventually ends up at.  The very loud 10-year-old kids sat behind me who spent the entire screening shouting out all the plot points and jump scares to each other ahead of time to prove their smartness seemed to have fun, at least.

Disney does know that it can make one of its 900 “first gay character!”s something other than a stereotypically-coded effeminate British man constantly made the butt of jokes for being that, right?  Just for variety’s sake, if nothing else?

Photo credit: Liam Daniel – Courtesy of Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions
The Courier [Thursday 19th]

Dir: Dominic Cooke

Year: 2021

First-time viewing

Perfectly fine.  Utterly decent.  Superbly average.  Remarkably cromulent.  Spectacularly ok.  Did you enjoy Bridge of Spies but wish it were more like a dry BBC Two drama and had 100% more Benedict Cumberbatch?  The Courier is the movie for you.  It’s alright, there’s not much more to say than that.  The second-best thing I saw all week, at least.  It’s just a standard Cold War-era biopic that does most things right – decent performances, occasionally striking visuals, a few entertaining and mildly stirring scenes, understandable plotting – but nothing higher.  Good enough to wile away an afternoon and not gay/homoerotic enough in the subtext to stand out particularly.  Don’t know what else I can put here.

Jolt [Friday 20th]

Dir: Tanya Wexler

Year: 2021

First-time viewing

Millennium Media really should change their studio logo to an “abandon hope all ye who enter here” sign at this point.  Like Platinum Dunes was for many back in the day, the appearance of their title card at the onset of a film is the equivalent of a five-alarm fire warning and Jolt does absolutely nothing over the following 90 minutes to refute such bells.  Set in an unnamed American city by way of London by way of Eastern Europe by way of three unconvincing street set walls on a cheap studio backlot, Jolt wants to be a female Shoot ‘Em Up or Crank 2 yet lacks even a pinch of the creativity or energy present in those significantly better movies.  Those were films which fully embraced their gonzo, low-budget, comedic bad taste action nature with thrilling aplomb, constantly topping themselves in audaciousness with every scene and finding exciting and innovative ways to make the most of their relatively low resources.  They had ridiculous entertaining characters, a semblance of wit and focus, and passion.

Jolt, meanwhile, is a fuckin’ snoozer with unlikeable underdeveloped characters, astonishingly cheap and haphazard filmmaking – I honestly would’ve pegged this as a COVID production yet this was shot in the Summer of 2019 – where everything looks flimsy and fake in a way I tried convincing myself was meant to be intentional, and zero ambitious bones in its entire body.  For an attempted comedy, the jokes just don’t land due to either botched line deliveries, weird audio mixing, a lack of emphasis in the editing and shot choices, or just over-repetition since there are only like four actual gags which get recycled over and over.  The (I think) attempt to examine female trauma and rage in a light-hearted non-didactic method get lost in the needlessly complex yet simultaneously dirt simple plotting and backstory, half of which don’t even factor into this movie serving instead as blatant franchise bait.  The jolt gimmick itself barely gets used, either, so a significant portion of this action movie is spent on drawn-out dialogue scenes which don’t go anywhere or achieve anything besides minimising the action of this action-comedy presumably for budget purposes.

Although, frankly, it’s probably a good thing that action barely arrives because Wexler and screenwriter Scott Wascha can barely muster up the utter minimum of inspiration for these scenes, let alone shoot them well.  There’s an incoherent car chase, a three v one fight scene which is over in less than 45 seconds and very sloppy whilst occurring, a pedestrian foot chase through a hospital which bizarrely stops for almost 90 seconds of baby-tossing – it’s not as funny or crazy as that sounds, trust me this really ain’t Shoot ‘Em Up – a one-on-one fight which also lasts less than 45 seconds, and a five v one brawl where star Kate Beckinsale conspicuously never once shows her face.  I know that most action movie fight scenes don’t really involve the stars supposedly doing them, either for health-and-safety or just cos they couldn’t be arsed, but that does mean you’re supposed to do a better job of hiding this fact.  Don’t very obviously shoot the entire thing from the back of Kate’s stunt double who clearly does not resemble the physical stature of the woman she’s doubling for and give up.  Just cos I’m watching a dumb action movie, doesn’t mean I’m ok with having my intelligence insulted.

The Italian Job [Saturday 21st]

Dir: Peter Collinson

Year: 1969


Oh, boy, everything before the heist is rooooooouuuuuuuuuuugghhhhh.  I see why 8-year-old me would always skip right ahead to the last half-hour whenever they watched it.  Even now that I’m old and not-completely-sheltered enough to get the 60s Brit farce innuendos and nationalist pomp instead of having it fly over my head, The Italian Job is just… not funny.  At all.  The editing rhythms are terrible, half the cast appear to be in a completely different movie from the other half, and there are barely any characters or real character interactions let alone any likeable ones.  That entire first hour just has no idea what film it wants to be – a heist movie, a Brit sex farce, a crime drama – and dithers around awkwardly in ways which do not hold up.  And I’m not just talking about everything to do with Benny Hill and his character’s perversions or the largely unchallenged nationalistic British pomp and bravado, either.  Much of the filmmaking and storytelling is unrefined, with uneven audio mixing, comedic and dramatic beats held on for much too long, and a lot of pointless quick insert shots which confuse a scene’s rhythm.

Yet the instant Croker & co.’s smash truck catches sight of the gold convoy, a switch flicks and the film flies for the rest of its runtime.  That chase remains excellent, a thrilling technical marvel whilst also fundamentally functioning as a Brit farce slapstick but with car chases.  Rather than being a more traditional display of tense close calls and cat-and-mouse chasing, it functions more like a series of well-timed Carry On– gags but with cars instead of people.  The Fiat factory hiding, wedding chapel staircase, and end to the sewer pipe sprint are the most obvious examples of that in-film; the cut “Blue Danube” sequence makes the connection explicit.  And the literal cliffhanger manages an almost Hitchcockian balance of comedy and legit tension, it’s very reminiscent of something from his comedic thrillers.  This is the definition of a “one-reel/sequence film,” where absolutely everything either side of that exemplary reel/sequence is pointless but the one reel/sequence is the kind of classic cinema which makes the rest of the journey worth it.

Honestly, though, I prefer the remake and I think it’s also the better film overall.  *ducks for cover*

Callie Petch needs you in their arms.

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