Landlords, lost loves, lowlifes, and The Nan Movie.
Been quite a busy month for yours truly, even if it doesn’t exactly look like it. Penned multiple reviews, continued to take on more Set the Tape editorial duties to help manage the load for the overstressed editor, seen friends, and been banging my head against various PR agents for interviews and other access. Not a massive amount to immediately show for that busyness, granted, and I have also spent just as much time ‘goofing off’ since I can seemingly only focus on writing for two hours at a time before my brain gets so restless/self-conscious that it vacates the building. But I have been occupied in ways which don’t just amount to playing video games and YouTube surfing all day. Not once this month did I feel the urge to pad this article out with a feature-length video essay rather than a proper movie; progress!
It’s also been a low-key expensive month as I converted my Little White Lies paycheque into buying even more gig tickets. At time of writing, I have eighteen different gigs confirmed between now and mid-October, and that’s not counting the ones I’m wanting to go to but am yet to drop money on. Way more than movies, the thing I missed most thanks to that initial strain of the pandemic – which is the verbose descriptor I’ve chosen to use since the pandemic is still not over no matter what governments/bosses/twats try to insist – was live music. Gathering together in an enclosed space with hundreds to thousands of fellow music lovers for the express purpose of connecting to some damn great songs, strangers and friends communing only through the music being played by mega-talented performers who are as thrilled to be there as the throng. I was a real late-bloomer to gigs – spent my entire pre-uni life fearing that gigs were like that one Portlandia sketch and I’d be outed as a fake fan or something – but pretty much as soon as I left Earl’s Court after seeing Arcade Fire in 2014, I became a converted addict to the live music experience. At a certain point pre-pandemic, I was mentally living gig-to-gig, trying to stave off the worst of my depression with a “the next one’s only a few weeks away” mindset.
So, getting live music back has been very much a boon and I’ve responded by buying up tickets to almost any act I have even the slightest inkling of seeing. Early in 2021, when it looked like things might be on the upswing with vaccines and all, I even put together a spreadsheet to keep track of all the prospective ones I came across, ensuring there might be no clashes. It took another year on top of that to get them back consistently, but the spreadsheet has come in very handy this month. Around the time of Yeah Yeah Yeahs announcing their first proper UK shows in nine years, I feel like I made a mental pact with myself to take this one year to get tickets to any feasible gig by an artist I enjoy. One year of self-indulgence/care by splurging on experiences I couldn’t have for what felt like ages, tempting fate by dancing on the COVID cliff-edge all the while. I don’t do a lot else, I still live with parents so am privileged enough to not have to worry much about living expenses, I don’t go on proper holidays, and I saved up a decent-sized (for me) amount during the lockdown stretches of the pandemic. Why not? Who even knows how long some of those venues will be with us for. (#WeCantLoseLeadmill)
Perhaps this also speaks to my shift in passions over the last few years. But that’s a story for – hopefully, assuming I can yell at my brain to focus and do this little series I’ve been mulling over in my head for months – another soon-ish day. In the meantime, I got a six-day span where I’ll be seeing The War on Drugs, Dua Lipa, and Lucy Dacus coming up. I live my #brand, folks.
Here’s what I’ve been watching this month and, yes, we’ll get The Batman out of the way first.
The Batman [Friday 4th]
Dir: Matt Reeves
When I came out of The Batman on opening day, I had a whole mess of thoughts about it. Essay-length thoughts, at that. Lots of points both good and bad, ultimately settling on the hottest of takes that I thought the film overall was just okay. Brutally paced and murderously overlong, nowhere near as profound and radically deconstructive as it clearly thinks it’s being, lacking a compelling villain or central personality to justify the portent (admittedly sorta by design), and ideologically incoherent/chicken in a manner not dissimilar to Marvel Cinematic Universe movies which also try to play with hot button topics. But admirably committed totally to its tonal and aesthetic vision, solidly performed (aside from Dano), definitely visceral when action comes a-calling, phenomenally scored with intimidating dread by Michael Giacchino, and maybe the most tactile and believable Gotham City yet put to film which does so much for that mood. …like I said, lotta thoughts with a lot to talk about yet ultimately coming together for a relatively apathetic “it’s fine.”
However, instead of putting all those thoughts down onto digitised paper the day after viewing, I kept holding off. There were other pieces which needed doing more urgently, I had to help keep Set the Tape running, PRs needed chasing up, video games were so near completion that my Aspie brain wouldn’t let me focus on anything til they were done, I just couldn’t be arsed… Before I knew it, we were three days away from April 1st and I still hadn’t written my Batman entry, during which time I had stopped caring about the film or having any specific examples to beef up my base notes with. Turns out that my “it’s fine” relative-apathy completely overrode any desire to jump feet-first into THE DISCOURSE, or I’m just getting a little better at tuning that whole maw out for good and ill, and The Batman became just another movie to me. One I don’t feel compelled to have long conversations about. Yay!
Glad that so many of you are really digging it, though. I may be beyond tired of dark gritty Batman takes – which frankly may be the biggest reason of all as to why I can’t work up much creative drive to talk about the thing – but this is clearly the one that so many people have desperately been wanting for years. My timeline universally loves it and they’re all good people, so I don’t wanna be a party pooper. I thought it was fine, not great, and that’s all I got until when, if ever, I see The Batman again.
Cyrano [Tuesday 8th]
Dir: Joe Wright
Joe Wright’s best film in over a decade. Turns out that a swooning musical-ass period musical is the perfect outlet for his ostentatious approach to direction. There’s a sweep, joyful kineticism, and grace to every single movement, cut, image that I adore in my musicals. A larger-than-life romantic sincerity I can’t help but get swept up in. Everybody is great here but Peter Dinklage is outstanding. From the very instant his voice booms into the film, and that’s before he’s physically shown, he fully embodies that irascibly prideful charm of Cyrano with boundless charisma. Effortlessly smashing the vast range of emotions and traits the screenplay asks of him in one of those “no, seriously, why is this guy not one of the biggest movie stars on the planet?” performances which are a joy to watch.
The albatross around this otherwise fantastic musical’s neck, however, are the songs themselves. They’re not bad, I only found myself once wishing a song would stop cos it was killing the momentum (“Wherever I Fall”), but they’re largely indistinctive and written to melodies and range ill-suited for the cast. When you sit through two hours of people trying and failing to do the Matt Berninger voice, even a National sceptic like myself gains an appreciation for Berninger’s ability to emote in pitch. The Dessner Brothers’ score is actually really good and the instrumentation of the songs would work as part of that score if stripped out of context – varied, tender, lush but not excessively so. Makes me wish we were dealing with a West Side Story arrangement where the Dessners did the score cues and a different team did the songs cos, unsurprisingly, The National are a bad fit for writing musical numbers. It’s not as much of a dealbreaker as that reads on paper, but it what keeps Cyrano being merely great instead of essential.
Maybe if Aaron Dessner had called up Taylor Swift to do the songs instead…
Ali & Ava [Tuesday 8th]
Dir: Clio Barnard
What a wonderful, wonderful film this is. Handles heavy topics – the spectres of domestic abuse, racial discrimination and hate crimes; mental illness; class perceptions and biases – with a delicate sweetness which doesn’t pretend these issues don’t exist yet also doesn’t fall into the British social-realism trap of kitchen-sink misery. Every step of the way, Clio Barnard approaches these issues with real sensitivity and empathy. For example, realising that Ava’s past experiences of domestic abuse shape the kinds of relationships she cultivates with the men in her life but don’t completely define her. She and stars Adeel Akhtar & Claire Rushbrook craft one of the most naturalistic central romance dynamics I’ve seen in years, the actors giving two utterly outstanding performances which will go down as some of 2022’s absolute best. A realistic and vital depiction of intersectional Britain today that’s way more accurate than nearly anyone else in this industry is bothering to attempt.
Assuming I end the year in a mental position to do a Listmas, I’ll undoubtedly be spending time going properly in-depth on Ali & Ava. For now, I just want to quickly highlight the colour-grading that Barnard and cinematographer Ole Bratt Birkeland employ. This alternating mixture of wintery grey and really deep blue tints. They create a chilly, lonely atmosphere but in a way which renders the viewer in Ali and Ava’s respective headspaces, reflective of their emotions rather than the Northern town of Bradford in which they are both based (and the film was shot). Living in modest homes, Ava just barely above the poverty line based on the crampedness of her house and the number of people residing in it, not exactly in ideal circumstances but also not resentful about them either. There’s a cinematic sweep in many of these images, particularly ones of Ali raving out by himself in the early-morning fog, which reveals a deep abiding love for Bradford without overly-romanticising it (nor condemning it in the way a lot of alleged “working class” films/docs do). In turn, that makes the film’s depiction of a Northern working-class town one of the most accurate I’ve ever seen on a cinema screen. It really resonated with me.
Unsurprisingly, despite the distributor’s best efforts, opening same-week as The Batman meant this bombed horrendously. But I urge you to see this movie if it’s playing anywhere nearby. This is what British cinema is capable of and should be striving for.
Hive [Tuesday 15th]
Dir: Blerta Basholli
My review’s over at Soundsphere Magazine where I honestly struggled to come up with too much to say. Hive is fine, there’s a strong central performance, but I do feel like I’ve seen this exact kind of international indie drama far too many times in recent years. Maybe the pandemic miasma has sufficiently jaded me to them or maybe I’ve now watched enough in succession to be aware of the template most adhere to, but an emotionally detached, realist protagonist study where conflict never rises above a light simmer, all conversations have pregnant pauses brought to full-term, and that minimalist score which only appears in very select moments just doesn’t do so much for me anymore. At least when they lack any compelling USPs or mega-strong execution of the format, as is the case here. If the spell has yet to break for you, though, this is certainly worth checking out. It’s not bad, just not special either.
I mainly bring an already-covered film up so I can publicly praise Altitude Films for arranging non-London press screenings of both this and Ali & Ava. One such took place in Sheffield, a mere 45 minutes’ drive from my place, enabling me to attend without having to drop an exorbitant amount of money and planning/time on travel down to the capitol. The British film and film media industry remain unjustifiably cliquey and exclusive, where getting access if you reside outside of or are not financially-privileged enough to frequently travel to London means your prospective career chances are largely pissing in the wind. The studios exacerbate this option by refusing to open up opportunities outside of London in their screenings which, since much of the DISCOURSE requires having Hot TakesTM on the latest major feature, further limits ones capacity to pitch.
All those words to basically say: Altitude Films are good eggs, I hope they’ll do more regional screenings going forward, and I hope other studios follow suit.
Boiling Point [Friday 25th]
Dir: Philip Barantini
Allusions to SPOILERS
Cut the last 30 seconds, plus the godawful Sam Fender warble over the end credits, and Boiling Point is a near-masterpiece of restrained, anxiety-inducing, pressure-cooker tension. The one-take conceit (for once) works both thematically and technically. It grounds the setting and characters, closing in the world in a manner which communicates the hectic criss-crossing spinning plates of an in-demand restaurant; the cinematography by Matthew Lewis cleverly capturing previously-centralised characters going about their business in corner-frames of other exchanges. It sets a very tangible and professional day-in-the-life tone that draws attention to racial microaggressions, failures of management and deflection of responsibility, employees who are fun friends but active detriments to a team, and more as a slowly bubbling cauldron with the potential to blow. In turn, that allows some of the more melodramatic threads to skirt by without breaking the carefully orchestrated tone since they also have a professional matter-of-fact delivery. I never felt like Barantini was showing off or unnaturally shifting from beat to beat; it’s almost like a fly-on-the-wall, or more accurately a fly-in-the-middle-of-the-floor-trying-to-keep-out-of-the-way.
Assuming this was a proper oner – I couldn’t tell where potential cuts might’ve been, so that’s some exceptional editing if there were any – the choreography and control are applause-worthy, mainly by (again) never drawing attention to either. The pacing is tight, propulsive, and focussed in a vignette way. Yet the camera and sound mixing give the impression of everything hanging on by an unstable thread, casually flashing red flags to attentive viewers as they wait for things to fall down. Barantini sparingly utilises canted angles and unsteady tracking shots rather than overdosing his film on them, trusting his scenario and excellent actors enough that he doesn’t need to artificially induce histrionic flair. He’s right to; this had me on edge all the way through and all the more so since it never really explodes, for that’d be too neat and at odds with the snapshot scenario.
Which is what makes those last 30 seconds a sour note to end on. As if he and co-writer James Cummings suddenly don’t trust the ambiguous naturalism their screenplay originally sets up, so the melodrama bursts through the barricade unrequested to limply and all-too-neatly tie things off in a bow. Slightly undermines all the power of the previous 84 minutes. Without those 30 secs (and Fender), this is one of the best British films in years. With them, it’s still damn great but noticeably stumbles on exit.
Jujutsu Kaisen 0: The Movie [Saturday 26th]
Dir: Sunghoo Park
Feels like one of those abridged compilation movies where they condense a season-long arc into 100 minutes, stripping out the context and development in favour of all payoff to pop prior fans of the series and lure in neophytes with only the big bits. Just like a lot of those, though, Jujutsu Kaisen 0 fails to consider how the change in storytelling medium and structure requires a translation and major reworking to adequately satisfy. Development is sudden and often unearned, the plotting and pacing are very disjointed, the tone swings jarringly. Recurring flashbacks to prior events that would be understandable in separate TV episodes come off as blatant filler when used here. Post-screening research – I went into this not knowing anything about the series or manga, just like with Demon Slayer last year – revealed that this was a prequel to the series and manga which… honestly makes sense. It has that fanservice-y “y’all already know how our characters end up where they do, let’s not waste time” approach to narrative and pacing.
Not to compare the two too much, but the Demon Slayer movie had a much better grasp of the requirements in jumping to the big screen. I understood all the characters’ deals better, the pacing and storytelling provided a satisfying self-contained narrative for the first two-thirds, and for the parts I didn’t understand due to being a novice I was at least bombarded with jaw-dropping visuals and spectacular action. With Jujustu Kaisen, however, I wasn’t that impressed by the action, lacking the grace and clarity of boarding I expect from this sort of anime. Much of it was subjected to haphazard editing both rhythmically and geographically, whilst the human designs failed to stand out which made the ever-expanding cast of the final battles hard to keep track of. I imagine if I were a prior fan who got a kick out of seeing these characters on the big screen, I’d have had a lot more fun. More power to those people. The curse designs were appealingly grotesque and the score kicked arse, but the film otherwise just didn’t work for me.
The Nan Movie [Saturday 26th]
Dir: Josie Rourke (uncredited)
Before that whole Oscars mayhem kicked off, there was an actually interesting discourse-starter going around on Twitter asking people what piece of art which holds values on the complete opposite end of their political spectrum they nonetheless still love. Partly this was interesting to see what everyone declared as “art” and left- or right-wing. But I found it interesting for the questions it raises regarding how much we critics should balance reviewing a work’s values versus its artistic craft. Art with offensive, even reprehensible values is still capable of being extremely well-made and entertaining in spite of those things – my go-to is always 24, a show that, whilst a little more politically complex than it gets painted as, is very much an Islamophobic Patriot Act-justifying right-wing wet dream which famously influenced actual government policy at a volatile time in the world. So, how do we reconcile that in our evaluations? Which end outweighs the other?
It’s a question worth grappling with, especially outside of Twitter where nuance like this in debates is about as effective as one of those old-timey glove slaps. But it’s also not one I’ve had to wrestle with much, particularly in recent years, as a lot of offensive works of art outside of my political beliefs are often just crappily-made shit. For example, The Nan Movie would already be a near-zero-star work even without the unashamedly hateful destination it eventually arrives at. It is atrociously unfunny and not just in the way that it defaults to ‘gags’ in which Nan falsely calls her grandson Jamie “gay” at every opportunity, or from recycling past Catherine Tate Show bits hoping nobody will notice. Significant stretches of this alleged comedy don’t even seem to try telling any jokes at all? Dialogue often lacks the rhythm of a comedic exchange, the actors (seasoned comedy vets) place emphasis on wrong syllables or try to guess their way to something which sounds like a joke, and the direction – mostly handled by an uncredited Josie Rourke though the scuttlebutt is that a disastrous original cut saw the movie ripped from her hands and heavily retooled – has the overly-hazy budget tastefulness of a BBC Two drama without any interest in making the jokes pop whatsoever.
That lack of comedy wouldn’t be an issue if those attempts at drama were in any way compelling or dramatic. But the characters – mainly revolving around a WWII love triangle between Nan (Catherine Tate), her spitefully self-involved sister Nell (Katherine Parkinson), and dashingly perfect American soldier Walter (Parker Sawyers) – are basically drawn and not very compelling. The flashback structure means that each tender sequence of Nan in WWII has to be followed by a modern-day sequence of her being an unrepentant close-minded bigot which makes her feel like two different characters. And any scene of attempted emotional vulnerability is very quickly undercut by a mean gag afterwards in a way that robs all scenes of their sincerity.
Meanwhile, The Nan Movie looks pathetically cheap. The WWII flashbacks have that aforementioned BBC Two drama approach to composition and set design, the modern-day segments are flatly lit and often fail at basic blocking, and there are continuity errors all over the place (keep an eye on Nan’s seatbelt during several scenes with Officer Mahler). That’s without getting into the animated interludes blatantly designed to fill in scenes they ran out of time and money to shoot – whether they be a giant police chase or Nan stopping at a petrol station – and which are like if Cyriak had zero talent and never progressed past the technology available in 2003. Every aspect of The Nan Movie is utterly dreadful and deserves tearing down on craft alone.
Then, at the 82-minute mark, it’s revealed that everything which had come before was all set-up for the transphobic punchline that the seemingly perfect Walter, whom Nell had maliciously stolen away from Nan despite Nan and Walter being totally in love, likes to cross-dress. “EW, GROSS!” the movie yells and expects the audience to agree with as everyone laughs about this turn of events, “DODGED A BULLET NOT MARRYING THAT FRUITLOOP!” I regret ever trying to defend Catherine Tate over the years. Unforgivably shit.
Callie Petch’s love is bigger than your love, sing it!