Music history, Irish history, ancient history, and ball-busting history.
Been a frustratingly fallow month for me, work-wise. And film-wise too, since the entries that make up this WIBW were also almost everything I saw. I’m still struggling badly with focussing when trying to do writing. Of sticking it out and pushing through, rather than managing for 30 mins then losing all drive or passion and just going back to bed/doomscrolling the same few websites. Admin stuff for Set the Tape? That I can gladly spend a full day working through, sorting those little individual photo and social media tasks in a conveyer belt of “started -> done!” dopamine dings. Writing a proper non-BOR article? Way harder, often doesn’t get properly started, and even BORs have had minor brick-wall smashes recently.
I’m not really sure why, at this point. Admittedly, a not-insignificant percentage of the lack of film-watching is down to my having made the very smart decision to start up my Mass Effect 2 replay-through which ultimately dominated February. Did it help mitigate most downer feelings before heading to bed on the nights when its episodic-TV structure sucked me into another two hours of playing? Why, yes it did, very much so, because Mass Effect 2 is one of the best games I’ve ever played. Did it mean that I spent most days just wanting to keep playing Mass Effect 2 because it’s one of the best games I’ve ever played and I now like to ensure I get narrative-based games finished soon after starting, therefore sucking away any desire to do anything else in an evening? Why, yes it did, very much so. The joys of getting deep into games that are *checks current total playtime with Lair of the Shadow Broker and Arrival still to go* 37 hours long?! …yeah, this is why I have The Backlog, to better justify to myself that kind of time investment.
But, as mentioned, it’s not working out quite like that. I’ve tried a few times this month to get a shorter Backlog article out and brainstormed a few other ideas, but I just… lose energy and interest so quickly. Even this WIBW is slightly later than planned on account of multiple false starts when expanding each original Letterboxd-size post into its full write-up here. I’m trying to stick to a proper-ish work day schedule, particularly since my responsibilities at helping keep the lights on for Set the Tape are becoming more time-encompassing than merely swooping in for two hours a week and fiddling with a few photo sets. Doing some chores for Dad also seems to take a bit longer than it used to, as well, so it’s not like I’m not doing stuff and I can stay focussed on all of that. But writing is a major struggle. It’s like trying to get into that headspace triggers off my worsening sleep routines and exhausts me to a degree where I just find it easy to give in. I’ve never pretended to not be mentally weak.
We’re coming up on the two-year anniversary of my Dad’s motorbike accident which kicked off this whole weird span of my life – shortly followed by the two-year anniversary of this whole miserable never-ending plague-thing. I keep thinking I should do something as a way to try and mentally put a bow on the transition phase into my new normal. Something movie-related, since I am supposed to be film critic despite what my ratio of published content in the last two years may indicate. We’ll see. I have a film review to pen this month, although it won’t be running until April when the UK release date hits; I should absolutely finish that Backlog entry’ and I spy a major music anniversary coming up in May. I’m not running low on inspiration, just energy. Maybe the fact that my first-ever paycheque for writing cleared today can tell my lethargic apathy to pack that shit in.
Here’s what I’ve been watching this month.
24 Hour Party People [Thursday 3rd]
Dir: Michael Winterbottom
In case you missed it, I made a proper debut over at Little White Lies this month, commemorating the 20th anniversary of one of my favourite biopics by writing about how 24 Hour Party People’s real subversion comes not from the showy post-modernism of its presentation, but rather from letting its cast be complete cunts. If I’m being completely brutally honest with myself and y’all, I’m still not massively happy with my parts of the piece. I certainly wasn’t when writing it – spent pretty much every instance of pen-time from the first sentence screaming “THIS IS SHIT, THERE’S NOTHING HERE, I’M SHIT, SHIIIIIIT” – and submitted it right on deadline with a real sense of having blown it. Fortunately, my editor at LWL disagreed and made a number of tweaks which made the published piece better. Maybe it was nerves of writing for a Proper Outlet with Money on the Line, or maybe it came from my lack of experience writing to a firm 800-word limit meaning I felt it was really surface and lacking in proper detail; seriously, how does anybody write anything they’re happy with at 800 words?!
Still, don’t let my public self-reflection critique stop you from checking out the published piece! It was the headline story on the website for two days, which was buck-fucking-wild! Feel like I should retire as soon as the paycheque clears; it’s all downhill from here.
Uncharted [Saturday 12th]
Dir: Ruben Fleischer
If you go into this not knowing anything about Uncharted, I think this might actually work better. Neophytes to the franchise will get to experience the film stood apart from any attendant baggage as a decent enough action-adventure throwback with a solid narrative, likeable performances for the characters as written, and appealing setpieces. Tom Holland and Sophia Ali aim for a middle ground between classic Hollywood Star turns and the more relatable semi-ordinariness of something like Stephen Sommers’ first Mummy, and they more or less succeed at that in spite of a complete lack of sexual heat to their relationship – not exactly their fault, mind; this is very much in the frigid 2010s blockbuster school of approach to romantic chemistry. Would still be held back from proper greatness by a lack of unique character, uninspired production design which Chung-hoon Chung can only do so much with, and sloppy direction from Ruben Fleischer (quelle surprise). In particular on that direction note, he treats slight-of-hand grabs like magic plot-moving bullshit rather than staging or lensing them in any believable way to make them pop, and there are a lot of sleight-of-hand lifts throughout the film. Nevertheless, an alright action flick that makes easy viewing.
If you do know anything about Uncharted, however, this will be a low-key irritating mess. A less fun National Treasure deep-faked to feature a whole bunch of Uncharted character skins and iconography rather than channelling the feel of that series. It’s not the miscasting, specifically – although, to be clear, every single person in this movie would be horribly miscast if we were dealing with their in-game characters. (Separate from the baggage, Mark Wahlberg is the weak-link anyway; just doesn’t work in the charismatic untrustworthy father-figure mentor role.) It’s that none of the film characters as-written remotely resemble their game counterparts. Drake’s wit and charming smarm aren’t there, Sully lacks both warmth and mischievous smarts, Chloe has most of her nuance and playfulness dumbed down to Strong Female Character syndrome – plus, again, frigid sexual tension between her and Nate. They might as well be named entirely different for how little they act like their namesakes.
And this wouldn’t be such a distracting issue were every other facet of the movie not trying so very hard to resemble and remind game-players in the audience of Uncharted. The setpieces are all pulled willy-nilly from the games – the cargo-plane from Drake’s Deception (done in medias res like with Among Thieves), the auction fight/heist from A Thief’s End, boat stuff referencing Drake’s Fortune – like a greatest hits. The narrative is similarly cobbled together patchwork from the games – the structure and baddie fake-out of 1, the Chloe arc from 2, the mystery and general themes plus Sam-ness of 4 – in ways that add up to less than the sum of their parts. The dialogue is trying to ape the patter of the games but, not only isn’t more than serviceable on its own, lacks the character and goofiness of the source material. Composer Ramin Djawadi mostly shies away from incorporating any of Greg Edmonson or Henry Jackman’s themes from the games yet, not only is his score the definition of a generic temp disc you throw on whilst waiting for the real score to finish composition, the results are so incredibly ill-fitting to the spirit that everything visually in the film is trying desperately to conjure. When he does bring in “Nate’s Theme,” he puts basic trap drums under it and it sounds like arse.
The results for those with game experience, therefore, are constantly uncanny. Aesthetically trying so hard to resemble the brand, the franchise with history and a fanbase to please… but on a fundamental level, the character and feel are just all the way off to a degree which never settles. Instils a slightly cynical budget vibe to the whole film that only dissipates for a few moments at a time.
The problematic racial aspects of the games – where every single POC or non-American is either untrustworthy or an outright monstrous villain – made it through unscathed, though. So, it’s an accurate Uncharted movie in one respect.
Jackass Forever [Saturday 12th]
Dir: Jeff Tremaine
Pretty much exactly what I wanted and what it needed to be. Despite inspiring a significant portion of YouTube thanks to their endeavours two decades back, the Jackass crew remain unbeaten in the realm of DIY stunts and pranks. Partly that’s cos these guys have a real respect and love for the art of physical comedy; the pageantry, the staging, the inventiveness and commitment to the bit. It’s not just that Wee-Man is used as a food board for a vulture, for example. It’s that he has his arms and legs tied up like a human sacrifice whilst Chris Pontius and Steve-O dance around in full skeleton witch doctor make-up. It’s not just that Zach Holmes falls off a scissor-lift and lands on a giant cushion which sends Johnny Knoxville flying up into the ceiling to eat shit whilst unsuspecting bystanders watch. It’s that said launch is the culmination of two carefully-timed set-ups – Zach the hapless new recruit, Johnny the overly-talkative moany old man customer – timed to near-perfection. And so on and so forth.
Partly that’s cos the gang are naturally funny. It’s an underappreciated facet of Jackass’ charm, but no less true. Like with the aforementioned DIY pageantry and commitment, just as much fun comes from the commentary that the guys (and now gal) make on the resultant chaos. A strong tension release when things mess up – as Knoxville does a few days after the signature bull stunt goes horrifyingly wrong by noting in joking frustration that the “disappearing milk” angle of the bit itself failed thanks to that damn bull. A way to showcase that these are all good friends in on the joke, to mitigate the potential air of cruelness to the whole endeavour – such as when director Jeff Tremaine willingly sits on the electrified piano stool Tyler, the Creator was unwittingly hooked up to as a bygones be bygones bit. Or merely just being a hilarious button on or introduction to that particular skit – Pontius teeing up penis paddle ball with a self-deprecating acknowledgement that a grown-up Jackass “would be more mature.”
Partly that’s cos Jackass has always had this weirdly wholesome air to itself. It’s always been completely comfortable in its own skin, fully aware as to the kind of series it is, finding a misfit-style sweetness and camaraderie in that and those who choose to partake in the creation of. With Bam Margera (acrimoniously) excised from Forever, aside from a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance in the marching band stunt, that kind of sweet wholesomeness is especially enhanced since Bam’s habitual line-stepping in his pranks is pretty much gone. Danger Ehren goes through absolute hell in this thing, both self-inflicted and from having unexpected complications thrust upon him, but he takes it all like a champ and, crucially, the crew always make sure to give him props and check he’s ok after every bit. (Ehren really is the MVP of this one, getting the biggest showcases and the absolute funniest moment of the film’s best segment.) The new cast members who all grew up watching Jackass frequently exclaim with glee to the camera about being on-screen with Knoxville and the boys, and Knoxville and the boys are evidently thrilled to have the new cast members there.
Mostly, though, it’s just that Jackass remains funnier than everything else which has tried to follow in its wake. Tremaine and his editorial team have at this point perfected the skater-video editing rhythms required to make every sequence pop and feel fresh, no matter how many times Forever goes back to the testicle evisceration well. The crew’s creativity and skill at this kind of stunt and prank-based comedy remain unmatched by any of their successors or imitators, whilst the new cast mostly slot in really well. I was on the verge of actual tears from laughing so hard at multiple segments of this thing – “Silence of the Lambs,” in particular, is an all-timer in the Jackass canon and the funniest comic setpiece of the decade so far in any medium. Loved it to pieces and especially loved getting to see it in a busy cinema screen where the collective audience energy enhanced so many of the reactions.
Belfast [Saturday 12th]
Dir: Kenneth Branagh
I actually really hate the editing on this thing. It’s like somebody saw Nick Houy’s outstanding snapshot work on Lady Bird and wanted to recreate that for themselves, yet completely lacked the understanding of timing and tone required to make it work. So, so many scenes just cut away whenever the hint of potential drama or escalatory conflict rears its head in a way which makes the experience feel intentionally detached for no discernible reason. To leech off of Karsten Runquist for an example, there’s a bit where Buddy and his Dad are walking on the way to school in a wide-angle oner and he asks “Daddy, are we gonna have to leave Belfast?” It’s the big conflict of the film, the elephant which can no longer be avoided, and the excuse for avoiding direct address up to now of centring the story from a child’s POV can no longer be invoked since the kid has just explicitly asked the question… only for Branagh to immediately cut to the next scene with no further discussion. The whole film is like this. Scenes never get out the starting blocks, drama dies on the vine, because these bizarre editing decisions abruptly pull a handbrake on the flow.
And that’s in the macro scale. The micro scale often gets hobbled through atrocious showy off-centre framing, or random insert-cuts, or just not cutting to other scene members. When the film finally gets to the scene where the parents suggest moving out of Belfast to Buddy, it’s presented in this slightly-angled group shot at the kid’s eye level, like we’re sat in a chair just across from the three, which almost works… except then, at the height of the scene’s emotional drama as Buddy is screaming about not wanting to go, Branagh has editor Úna Ní Dhonghaíle cut to this random-ass shot of Buddy’s disinterested older brother on the opposite side of the camera. Why is that shot there?! It adds nothing to the scene, a jarring cut for the sake of a cut! A scene of Buddy and his Dad visiting his Granddad in hospital keeps placing the camera in all of these surveillance positions with tonnes of dead space and I just have no idea why. It really is no coincidence that the only scene in Belfast I found remotely moving involved two characters sat in a traditional shot-reverse-shot set-up talking openly about their feelings without intrusion for a few minutes. The one time the drama is allowed to properly flourish without being undercut in any number of ways.
Why is this movie so removed and non-specific? For something that is ostensibly Branagh’s “most personal film,” I get no sense of place, of time, of emotion in the self-consciously stylised presentation and half-formed screenplay. I’m not even bothered by it being an apolitical story about The Troubles, because it’s so fundamentally incurious about everything. There are some positive check marks I can begrudgingly provide Belfast – the performances are really good (this is the best I’ve ever seen Jamie Dornan), and most of the songs and score by Van Morrison are alright (loathe as I am to admit). But everything else is either dull, annoying, or just stuff pulled from the standard coming-of-age template done ultra-mid. So, what I’m saying is that this will definitely win Best Picture. That late-film Western standoff is horrendous and I cannot believe it wasn’t noted out of existence by any producer worth their salt.
The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus [Wednesday 23rd]
Dir: Michael Lindsay-Hogg
Mixed bag, this one, and generally underthought overall. I was thinking I had missed some kind of cultural context as to why the circus trappings and interludes of circus acts which badly disrupt the flow of the concert, but apparently it came to Lindsay-Hogg through random free-association when trying to come up with ideas for the special. Feels like it. Neither he nor the bands make any interesting usage of the circus set and imagery, very little of what happens couldn’t have similarly been accomplished by using the Top of the Pops set instead. Not all performances were created equal, either. Marianne Faithful’s is a good song with a good voice but has no band to vamp off or liven up the visuals; Jethro Tull’s is very clearly mimed; and, at the risk of being run out of music critic town, I’ve always found “A Quick One While He’s Away” to be too damn long so The Who’s performance, whilst snarling with energy, got a bit boring by the end.
That said, when this rocks, it really rocks. Taj Mahal is an artist I’d never heard before now but need to immediately dive into the back catalogue of. The Dirty Mac presents a vision of an alternate future where John Lennon and Yoko Ono became a garage blues jam band post-Beatles and I frankly wish we’d gotten that rather than Lennon’s actual solo work. Then, in the last 30 minutes, the Stones at the beginning of their imperial phase take the stage and the results are just as rapturous and electrifying as they sound. “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” conjures this near-religious energy that the crowd both feed off of and return in equal measure, which then gets twisted to delightfully sinful ends with “Sympathy for the Devil” straight after in a vamp that feels like it could last forever. Some post-viewing reading revealed that this performance never actually made it to air on TV as intended because Jagger was embarrassed and felt like the Stones got upstaged by The Who. I cannot disagree more with that assessment; the band are locked in, Jagger is in full mesmeric peacock mode, and the rowdy crowd add considerably to the atmosphere.
Hence why the film sat unfinished for 40 years. (Poor Michael Lindsay-Hogg, the man who made major documentary concert films for both of the 60s biggest rock bands only to see the results buried because the subjects disliked how they came off in the finished product.) At least the restoration by ABKCO that I saw was pristine. The warmth of that 60s full-colour TV film doing a lot to bring intimacy to the performances long before Jagger starts eye-fucking the camera, and the sound mixing is sensational with bass in “Jumping Jack Flash” that’s properly filthy right in the gut. Overall, I think Rock and Roll Circus is more notable as a cultural artifact for that moment in British rock – a kind of nexus point for the American blues/hard rock influenced wave that features most of the big names from that trend – rather than a concert film worthy of seeking out casually. But it is still worth a watch if you’re into any of the bands featured, or just really nerdy about music and music movie/television history.
Nobody [Sunday 27th]
Dir: Ilya Naishuller
Still a heck of a lot of fun the second time around. In particular, the editing on this thing, by William Yeh and Evan Schiff, is just sublime and vital to both the film’s pacing and its sly comic wit. The opening montage of Hutch’s crushingly ordinary daily life is partly indebted to a similar opening exposition edit from Jaume Collet-Serra’s The Commuter, but twists the routine comfort of the prior film’s depiction into a cynicism of minor aggravations and simmering impotent frustration. The early stages, post-break-in but prior to the bus fight, draw out that tension in waiting for Hutch to snap in ways which reinforce writer Derek Kolstad’s trademark usage of suppositions and semi-comedic inference. There’s a slapstick-y sensation to all of the action which the edit work enhances by lingering on the beats rather than cutting upon or directly after impact; the hospital chair gag is a prime example. Meanwhile, the assault on the Obtshak has strains of Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here in only depicting fragments rather than the whole thing to build up the mythical reckoning powers of its lead, albeit here more to sell cool than fear. The editing provides a lot of Nobody’s character; really impressive work.
More important than technical shop talk, however, is the fact that my Dad really enjoyed it. Isn’t that the only metric by which all Dad Movies like this live and die, really? He got a real kick out of seeing Christopher Lloyd toting an entire police locker’s worth of shotguns.