Wizards, Vikings, vampires, and echidnas.
CW in the prelude: transphobia.
Yeah, I know this is almost a week late. Didn’t try to sneak any additional films in to boost the numbers, nor have I been massively busy with other paid work. It’s just been a tiresome month. Some of that tiresomeness is good – if you’ve been checking my Twitter, you’ll notice that my gig gauntlet has gotten underway and will continue running until the start of July in defiance of all common sense/survival instinct. Some of it has been a mainstay of my days for a while so can’t be explained away as special circumstances – my sleep routines have been dreadful even when I try to get them under control, so I’ve been energy-drained for a long while. Some of it, though, I think is a remnant of seeing my country’s Prime Minister go on live national television and repeat the same bullshit transphobic talking points terminally Online assholes have been attempting to mainstream for years.
In case you missed this – and you are very much forgiven for having done so, since a brand-new slice of disheartening bullshit spews from this government’s mouth every single day; it can be hard to keep track – the Conservatives opened April by planning to renege on their pledge to ban conversion therapy. After getting their shit kicked in by everybody, they partly reversed course and re-pledged to ban conversion therapy but with the major caveat that they would exempt transgender people from that protection. When directly questioned on the exemption by Sky News almost a week later, Boris Johnson proceeded to dispassionately rattle off the same transphobic lies any trans person has been forced to hear ceaselessly for the last several years. “Children shouldn’t have to take decisions about their gender…” insinuating that a child cannot know themselves enough to make their own decisions about their identity. “Irreversible treatments…” total lie, puberty blockers and transition therapies are reversible. “Biological men should not be competing in female sporting events…” all but stating trans women are not women whilst insinuating trans women have an inherent biological advantage that studies and sports statistics show just is not true. “Women should have spaces which are dedicated to women…” insinuating trans women aren’t women and scaremongering that trans rights mean taking away cis women’s rights when that obviously is not the case.
I’m privileged enough to not have this issue personally affect me – my family has turned out to be extremely supportive about my non-binary-ness and desire to look into medically transitioning, so I am not at immediate risk of conversion therapy. Yet seeing this clip just broke something in me for almost an entire week afterwards, sapped me of my drive or desire to do anything at all, barely even finding the energy to get out of bed. It’s just so exhausting having these continued aggressions against your very existence trotted out day after day largely unchallenged, if not outright celebrated, on bigger and bigger public stages. To see the most powerful man in the country stand there smiling on television as he gormlessly tells me that I don’t deserve to be protected… Not even with any real conviction, either, I might add. He’s clearly just repeating the talking points his press team told him to say in the hopes that it shifts the conversation away from his many crimes and incompetences. I fully believe that Johnson doesn’t give a fuck about trans people, but more in the sense that he literally never thinks about us or our rights. After he finished that interview, he was likely never going to think about the issue again until the next time his team briefs him ahead of a news cycle about the topic.
Yet, there he was on live national TV unquestioningly parroting the same horrible shit that Graham Linehan and Joanne Rowling sincerely, to legitimately crazed degrees, believe. Does it even matter if he actually holds, cares, or thinks about these beliefs? TERF Island scored a major victory. Their rhetoric made it to the ears of the highest office in the land and is being used to justify evil legislation designed to make people like me utterly miserable at best and dead at worst. I’ve still not quite been able to shake that; watching the clip back for quote-mining in this intro was triggering enough – luckily, I’ll get to distract straight after by jetting off to watch Doctor Strange and illuminati hotties. I feel it in my soul and, since our country’s ostensible Opposition is refusing to stop gesturing towards selling me and mine down-river if it even slightly raises the chances of winning over their mythical centrist voter, I’m tired of lacking hope that things might ever change.
At least I have My Chemical Romance in 15 days.
Here’s what I’ve been watching this month.
Santo in the Treasure of Dracula [Tuesday 5th]
Dir: René Cardona
Finally got around to watching the Gizmoplex backer-exclusive rough cut of Mystery Science Theater 3000‘s Season 13 premiere. One of those things which crept up with relatively little forewarning as a nice “oh, cool, that’s out!” even though I’ve been reading every one of those backer-updates which said that the turnaround between production and post-production would be real quick. Still, nice to be pleasantly surprised by the release of something rather than having it be trailed for months so I forget about it when it does properly release. As for the episode: the riffing was excellent! A much more relaxed atmosphere and pace than in the Netflix seasons; closer to late-period Joel in both quantity, quality, and tone. Everyone’s clearly in their element now and that brings the mood back into sitting in a room with three (sometimes four when GPC drops in) guys casually hanging out. The riffers let the movie breathe a lot more than in prior seasons, ease up on the meticulously-timed bits, and even crack audible chuckles at each other gags which all do wonders for the overall feel. I really liked those Netflix seasons, but this feels much more assured.
Everything else in the episode, however, was more hit-and-miss. The skits were really funny; two of them in contention for the best of the revival era. But the production overall looks… bad. COVID can take some of the blame, but a lot of the green-screen work is honestly amateur with poor lighting highlighting the sloppy integration. Everything looks really flat, flatter than even the already flat-looking Netflix-era sets. I miss the usage of model shots and other stop-motion work to set the scene or dramatize things outside of the ships; it makes things feel downright cheap and not in a charming way. The new intro is atrocious – instrumentally, lyrically, visually – and the worst first-impression an MST3K opener could make; I really hope it’s a temp one. And the sound mixing was off the whole time, the film being really quiet compared to most of the riffs but the in-movie score drowning out everything else. Whilst there are definitely flaws which can’t be revised, most of my critiques I imagine can be fixed by the time of the public premiere (today since I was late). The riffing is excellent, at least, which provides a solid foundation to clean up the mess surrounding it. Plus, y’know, it’s more MST3K which I cannot ever say no to. So, I’m pretty satisfied right now.
As for Santo itself, I had some good fun! One of those entertaining slices of nonsense which is clearly two disparate films mercenarily squished together into something which only barely makes sense yet manages to retain a tonne of character. Actually picks up a little bit in the last half-hour or so when things get really nonsensical – smashing together the vampire plot, an Inspector Gadget-level villain organisation, and an all-too-brief wrestling match – turning into something which could be good fun without Jonah and the Bots. It admittedly takes a very long while to get there, the first half being an outright Spaceballs gag level of watching our cast watch a different movie which takes forever to do anything, and there were a lot of jarring cuts to hide nudity and sexualised violence in this print. But the film overall lends itself well to MST3K-ing and the payoff is worth it for fellow connoisseurs of B-movie schlock.
Legend [Wednesday 6th]
Dir: Brian Helgeland
Two excellent Tom Hardy performances stranded in a Diet Goodfellas playing the notes without understanding the tune. Legend rolls off inoffensively for passive viewing – which was how and why I watched it due to that aforementioned trans-despair pit – predominately carried by two commanding Hardy turns which make both Krays larger-than-life characters without falling into caricature. He can be devilishly charming and callously abusive as Reggie; intensely psychopathic and painfully wounded as Ronnie. Hardy has a habit of falling into showy tic Acting when given enough rope and though he inarguably engages in some of that here, particularly with Ronnie’s nostril-flared eyes-bulged resting creep face, he’s able to locate both men’s respective hearts. The Krays convince as major characters who could command respect and danger in an alluring manner, especially Reggie, to a degree that ordinary people and the elites could build up their legends in London’s underworld and social circles. They’re great performances.
Shame that the filmmaking lurches awkwardly between Scorsese-wannabe style and momentum-stunting budget-saving. That the writing has your typical subpar biopic problem of disjointedly going “and then this happened, and then this happened, and then this happened” instead of examining its subjects meaningfully, doesn’t extend that characterisation to anyone outside of the Krays, or rein in its focus so things feel less structurally repetitive. That the dialogue can often be clunky. That Emily Browning and her “LAHN-DAHN” accent are honestly terrible, though not in the least bit aided by the film having even less of an idea of what to do with her than Goodfellas did Lorraine Bracco. There’s precious little meat on Legend’s bones despite running for well over two hours which means it neither says or does a lot of interest to offset that fact.
Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore [Tuesday 12th]
Dir: David Yates
A dour, lifeless, over-long snoozefest which tries to course-correct from its even worse predecessor yet, whilst not making the damage worse, doesn’t fix the fundamental issues either. Still basically no likeable, entertaining or interesting characters worth investing in – even Jacob has found his personality drained to nothing by now. Still spending well over two hours accomplishing absolutely nothing narratively or thematically which couldn’t be more effectively communicated in a pamphlet. Still desperately trying to prove itself mature and intelligent yet making a total hash of any deeper political commentary and piling up glaring logical inconsistencies one after another. (Seriously, what is the point of a public election if the result is decided not by the people but by a magical deer who can tell which is the innately goodest person?! Wouldn’t that actually make the political discontent Grindelwald is trying to stir up even worse rather than placating it?) Still a slave to David Yates’ trademark miserable, washed-out colourless, somnambulant direction that drains any semblance of fun or magic from the world.
I sincerely have no idea who this franchise is meant to be for. Potter-heads will see it shit all over established canon, perform active character assassinations on fan favourites, and actively suck the wonder and imagination out of a boundless world. Prospective newbies will be turned off by that lack of uniqueness and magic in the visuals and filmmaking, stuck with thinly-drawn characters even the film doesn’t seem to want them to care about, and fan-service which’d mean nothing to them. Young viewers will be bored stiff by the total lack of exciting setpieces. Older viewers will find it to have the narrative and ideological depth of a Peppa Pig episode, no matter how seriously Joanne tries to swing around her big girl pants and make Serious Political Points about how there are Very Fine People on Both Sides and that The System Always Works Trust It. (Quelle surprise the centrist-TERF Tory is politically vapid when writing too.) Who is supposed to be satisfied by any of this?!
Wish I could’ve seen the movie James Newton Howard thought he was scoring and Jessica Williams thought she was starring in. That movie sounded fun. I liked the scorpion-spiders. That’s it for virtues. Dogshit. Be thankful I don’t do Bottom Films lists, anymore.
P.S. The explicitly gay stuff between Dumbledore and Grindelwald is still nothing which cannot be edited out in homophobic markets without losing anything. (And, in fact, has been.) Neither their relationships nor their characters are meaningfully coded or informed by their queerness like how, say, Katie Mitchell in The Mitchells vs. The Machines can be identified as queer even when you cut out the explicit lines and shots of her quiet little relationship runner. The difference between a creative staff with the knowledge and lived experience of being queer attempting to bring authenticity to a character’s very essence, and those with none going for performative applause by doing surface minimum. Dumbledore and Grindelwald in this series have barely enough of a relationship for even a subtextual queer reading, and saying “love” out loud five times isn’t going to change that. If anything, adding those lines makes things worse. No longer was Dumbledore an actual fanatical Wizard supremacist who matured and changed his heart – an actually interesting character story and reflective of real-life experiences from former radicalised teenagers – but rather an innately good person who got seduced by A Bad Gay and only stuck around out of misguided infatuation. Ew, yuck, fuck off, Joanne.
Sonic the Hedgehog 2 [Tuesday 12th]
Dir: Jeff Fowler
The half of this which is a fun family fantasy adventure is, shockingly, really good! The setpieces have this kinetic technicolour staging, playing up and into the blue/red clashes of Sonic and Knuckles for some lovely-looking and immediately identifiable action. The cinematography in general plays much more to the strengths of its CG cast than last time; characters feel carefully placed in a scene rather than randomly shoved into any free-space, and there’s some nice set design in the non-Green Hills/Hawaii locations we visit. The screenplay has a much better handle on the personalities of its cartoon leads than in the first go-around so they’re fun, likeable, distinct and even resemble their game counterparts more closely. Knuckles and Tails slot right in as good foils to their respective pairings, Sonic gets reined in from the Scrappy Doo levels of pompous attitude he displayed in the last film to something much more honourable, whilst Robotnik has been substantially rewritten to be a more capable villain who can back-up his silly quirks with action. (This also really helps Carrey who gets to direct his schtick into a purposeful character, making for a goofy but effective and kinda menacing villain with unique flair.)
The half of this which is basically unchanged from the abysmal original film, on the other hand, is, unsurprisingly, really awful. The same stale cringe-inducing corporate kids film reminiscent of the early-2000s with bad jokes, over-used needle-drops, dance battles, Robotnik flossing, Olive Garden shilling, and really annoying superfluous human characters. I don’t know who looks at Sonic and goes “I want more of Natasha Rothwell’s brutally unfunny character,” but their judgement is bad and they should feel bad. You can legitimately cut the entirety of the Wachowski Hawaii wedding subplot and lose absolutely nothing of value; its jokes suck, its one action scene is terrible, its characters contribute nothing and are miserable to be around, and it screws up an otherwise well-paced story with nearly 30 minutes of pure filler. I look forward to the inevitable fan edit which cuts out that and the “Uptown Funk” dance-off that gave me Alvin & the Chipmunks: Road Chip flashbacks.
Despite that, I’m still inches away from calling this a three-star movie. When the not-shit half is on-screen, it’s a really fun time and way more of an improvement than I was expecting. Progress!
The Northman [Saturday 16th & Monday 25th]
Dir: Robert Eggers
First-time viewing and rewatch
Oh, baby; that’s the good, good shit right here! This is the kind of film that makes me want to run through walls when it’s done, in spite of it otherwise being a real bleak-ass heavy time at the movies. The sort of muscular, full-force, singular filmmaking that instils constant awe in a viewer. Conjuring up the type of intoxicating atmosphere that, whilst I would never want to live in the world of the film, I’d be more than happy sitting in for another two-and-a-half hours. For all of its fantastical trips and indulgence in the kinds of mythmaking that Vikings built their culture and morality on, Eggers has a real historian’s eye towards his material. The kind that can find the beauty in the brutality, the toxicity in the honour, the terror in the awesome. Action, in particular, embodies this philosophy. The long-take cameras roam through the carnage at a slight distance, at once in awe of and horrified by the animalistic fury characters unleash upon each other in a way which is both adrenaline-pumping and repelling. I’m reminded a bit of how Ari Aster’s Hereditary demonstrated how “arthouse” filmmaking techniques aren’t actually all that far removed from those in “mainstream” films; this is an artsy film in its style but is kind of accessible in its visceral immediacy.
I’d like to give Alexander Skarsgård his flowers for a moment, too. Amleth is intentionally a rather simple and straightforward character for the vast majority of the film’s runtime. A singular rage-fuelled husk of a man burning with an unquenching desire for vengeance and almost completely blinded to anything outside of his righteous quest. But Skarsgård teases out so many different notes of that characterisation in his performance, particularly in his physicality. Just watch the way that he walks when stalking his prey, the hunched-over animalism that simultaneously makes him look ten-feet taller – the kind of posture which sends any right-thinking person sprinting in the opposite direction at Mach speed out of fear – versus the faux-cowed submission when playing the role of slave infiltrating his enemy’s circle. See the seething fury that overtakes his entire person upon a late-film betrayal which rocks his entire worldview. The emptiness at Amleth’s centre when he admits that only when his vengeance is complete “will [he] discover if living is to [his] liking.” Skarsgård is just magnificent in this and I worry he’s not gonna get the acclaim he deserves because it requires real attentiveness to find the nuance.
Undoubtedly, I’m gonna be writing and/or talking about The Northman a lot more throughout the rest of the year, so let’s hold some of the many discussion topics available back for now. God, what a picture. See it ASAP and especially on a giant cinema screen. Those incredible Jarin Blaschke-shot vistas and the sensational Robin Carolan & Sebastian Gainsborough score deserve the biggest loudest screen available.
The Lost City [Wednesday 20th]
Dirs: Adam & Aaron Nee
Quintessential three-star movie. There’s something really comforting about sitting down and getting a nice enjoyable little trifle of a movie which doesn’t majorly excel at anything but also doesn’t do a whole lot wrong, either. The kind where you come out in a relatively satisfied glow at having your baseline expectations met since it’s merely aiming to be a nice, breezy, fun way to kill almost two hours. This is not to say that the movie doesn’t have problems which I haven’t thought over in the days since, the sort which hold back a pleasant trifle from becoming the kind of trifle I’ll take multiple spoons of. In particular, the screenplay definitely contains a lot of leftover detritus from prior drafts of a meaner, more cynical movie which unpleasantly spike the tone and an excess of characters whose scenes really should’ve been cut. (There’s a wasting of Da’Vine Joy Randolph.) Also, a few nights later I saw about 10 minutes of The World’s End on TV and that threw into sharper relief the uninspired directing of Lost City. Lacks kineticism for the action sequences, the editing could be tighter to make jokes pop, and the colours feel weirdly muted; despite shooting on-location, the Nees don’t do a great job of translating that fact to the finished film.
Crucially, though, The Lost City gets its core relationship right. Loretta and Alan are charming characters which play well into Sandra Bullock and Channing Tatum’s personas but also provides enough unique wrinkles to let the two inhabit characters. Alan is a well-meaning himbo as his been Tatum’s most successful persona to date, but he’s a lot more insecure about that fact than similar turns in the Magic Mike and Jump Street movies with an earnest desire to live up to his book-counterpart’s legend that Tatum plays with winsome sincerity which skirts past seedy implications. Loretta plays into Bullock’s no-nonsense straight-woman sensibilities, but she’s also got major social anxiety and dysfunction that clearly eats at her self-confidence exacerbated by the death of the one person who she could properly connect with (her husband). Together, Bullock and Tatum share a rather unconventional chemistry than one usually sees in this type of movie. No immediate sparks, more slightly disparate wavelengths where the fun is not about waiting for them to admit obvious feelings but rather watching them gradually get more in tune with each other so that they eventually make real sense together. Resultantly, the payoff is really sweet, a much more effective genre subversion than everything done with Brad Pitt’s extended cameo.
Callie Petch could build something for two or burn it down.