What I’ve Been Watching: February 2023

Dancers, DJs, rockers, and wankers.

Yeah, I know.  But I have been properly busy this past month, in addition to my usual crippling inability to time-manage.  In the last week of February, I finally had the metaphorical gas peddle give out after nearly two straight months of writing work, necessitating I take a week off to speed through the new Spongebob Squarepants game because I am 28 years-old.  For the most part, though, it’s been a frenzied time.  The Meet Me in the Bathroom interview you’ve hopefully all read and shared by now came about out of nowhere, then coincided with my brain-fry!  The BAFTA preview and fantasy awards booking pieces were a lot more intensive than I thought they’d be!  I’ve been taking on more operational load over at Set the Tape’s backend!  Plus, trying to see movies and go out and be there for friends and all that fun jazz!  Most of those were time-sensitive, too, so I had to keep pushing this back for those jobs which were either paid or going to keep the metaphorical lights on.  You know how it is.

Got one more proper surprise left for this month, at time of writing, so this is my last chance to get this out before I’m swallowed up again.  Going to try and not dwell on the paradox of always feeling busy yet still not meaningfully moving forward all that much.  Also: last week of March will be when my Top 10 of 2022 finally drops.  Sorry.  Anyway, let’s talk movies al-goddamned-ready.

Belatedly, here’s what I’ve been watching last month.

Photo by: BMG/Fatboy Slim/PA.
Right Here, Right Now [Sunday 5th]

Dir: Jack Hutchcraft

Year: 2023

First-time viewing

Thank heavens!  A music documentary which has a real point of view about its subject instead of just running through the Wiki summary with portentous music at the really serious bits!  Admittedly, that’s not fully obvious at the outset.  Right Here, Right Now kicks off with an abbreviated history of Norman Cook’s extended career prior to the 2002 Brighton beach party, the film’s real focus, that’s presented in much the same dry surface bullet-point way as any other music doc.  Arguably the context is important, so that people not up at least a little on both Fatboy Slim and dance music’s history in the UK pop scene can understand why 250,000 people descended on a Brighton beach not in the least bit ready for them, but I can tell that’s not where Hutchcraft’s interest really lies and he’s just going through the motions until reaching the announcement of Big Beach Boutique II.  At that point, the film shifts and becomes hyper-specific, fixating on the infrastructure and organisational details of the show and just how close it all came to exploding in tragic fashion.

Right Here almost turns into a disaster-thriller, in all honesty.  Interviews with police officers on duty, volunteer event staff who abandoned their posts when it got too much, city councillors debating on whether it would be safer or more dangerous to let the event go ahead when you have a quarter-million pissed-up drugged-up ravers who’ve driven hundreds of miles in the sweltering Summer sun pushing your beach beyond total reasonable capacity.  Hutchcraft doesn’t position this as some kind of laugh, though he doesn’t add histrionics either; he’s really interested in treating the gig’s chaotic risk with the gravitas it deserves.  Oblivious ravers (including some famous faces) from out-of-town contrast the Brighton residents and officials terrified of it going horribly wrong and left to pick up the island of trash afterwards.  Nobody regrets the show, per se, but you can also understand exactly why nothing like it has been attempted since in this era of heavy regulation.  It’s a very compelling doc even if you’re not a Fatboy Slim fan.

Meet Me in the Bathroom [Tuesday 14th]

Dirs: Will Lovelace & Dylan Southern

Year: 2022


As someone who believes the first two Strokes records are some of the best rock albums ever made, thinks Karen O is one of the coolest people alive, held Turn On the Bright Lights close for several years as an album which got them through tough times, has LCD Soundsystem in their all-time favourite bands, and bought Lizzy Goodman’s book on the 00s NYC indie scene which forms this movie’s foundation the first chance I got… I am the target audience for Meet Me in the Bathroom. And it was one of the biggest disappointments of 2022.  There are lots of problems here, but the two chief ones are scale and tone.  Since it’s a 107-minute movie rather than a multipart TV/streaming series – though Southern & Lovelace revealed to me in the interview which prompted this rewatch that they did try to pitch this as a series but got turned down – you just weren’t going to be able to replicate the exhaustive completism of Goodman’s tome.  Yet the filmmakers haven’t downscaled their net enough, either.

There are four main characters.  The Strokes, whom Southern & Lovelace clearly did not have open-enough access to, so their picture is mostly painted by other interviewees talking about and speculating on Julian Casablancas; Yeah Yeah Yeahs; Interpol, and James Murphy of DFA/LCD Soundsystem.  All battle for screentime and all end up missing large chunks of each other’s story because of that constricted space.  Then you also have half-dozen other adjacent bands getting prominent appearances despite the film dropping them like a bad habit almost as quickly as they’re introduced with no further resolution; Mouldy Peaches, TV on the Radio, Liars, The Rapture, Ryan Adams.  Add on top a sincere desire to mirror these bands’ uprisings with the state of NYC, but without the time or depth to make these parallels stick or explain their importance.  As such, the 9/11 footage comes off borderline tasteless here compared to the book, where it gets multiple chapters rather than 5 minutes, especially when you have the Interpol guys grumbling about a bad UK tour minutes later; real “people are dying, Kim” energy.  It’s the worst of both worlds.  Too shallow to achieve greater resonance for those who want something more than just vibing to archive footage of early performances, but also too large to create a focussed satisfying narrative.

As for the tone…  One of the great things about Goodman’s book was how she structured the emotional journey of its participants.  Capturing a stifling frustration over New York rock in the years pre-Is This It; moving to a whirlwind of thrilling fun and debauchery where the red flags go unnoticed when the scene starts to take off; before a harsh comedown once the fun dissipates amongst infighting, media vulture-ism, and gentrification which gives way to regret and wistful nostalgia.  There’s an evolution, a tone whose journey mirrors that of its protagonists.  Meet Me the film, by contrast, is nearly all regret and wistful nostalgia with only sporadic traces of fun and thrills to be found.  For the most part, it’s just kinda dour, lacking any of the rambunctiousness the book showed these bands having for at least some of the time.  For a movie that so badly wants to be an in-the-moment time capsule, where almost everything is sourced from archive including most of the interview audio, I find this such a bizarre choice to make.

The archival footage is entertaining for fans, as are the vintage live performances – although more than a few of them have had the live audio replaced in post by studio recordings; YOU CAN’T SLIP THAT SHIT PAST ME!  But this movie neither compliments nor supersedes Goodman’s book in any way.  The whole time I just found myself wishing I was reading that again.  You should read my interview with the directors, though.  It’s pretty good and I managed to hide the fact that I didn’t think much of their movie the whole time, which I wasn’t certain I’d be able to do!

Courtesy of Warner Media – © 2023 Warner Brothers.
Magic Mike’s Last Dance [Thursday 16th]

Dir: Steven Soderbergh

Year: 2023

First-time viewing


Oh no, it’s baaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaad.  Heartbreakingly bad.  Much of the charm of Magic Mike XXL comes from just how effortless it feels.  A sweet and breezy buddy road-movie where conflict is almost non-existent and everything seems to just be a vehicle for the outstanding strip/dance sequences.  Except, of course, for the fact that XXL has had a lot of effort put into it.  There’s not much in the way of conflict, but there is plenty of character to every scene, every featured person, and every single character arc.  You get to know these guys intimately, you get to know about the women they meet on the trip, and you relax into a wonderful fantasy of sweet perfect himbos who make their dreams come true just as much as they make women’s (and by extension the audience’s) dreams come true.  It’s a film of great focus and sureness, which resultantly makes it a miracle of feminist and positively-masculine cinema.

Last Dance is effortless but in the sense that neither Soderbergh nor Reid Carolin seem to have any interest in or idea of what the movie they’d committed to making was actually supposed to be.  I get the comparisons to Ocean’s Twelve, a Soderbergh sequel which also traded in all the crowdpleasing tricks of its predecessor to try something divisively different.  Except, for all its faults, Twelve at least knew what it was aiming to be and committed fully to that French New Wave pastiche.  Last Dance awkwardly veers between being a romantic-drama, a Step Up movie, and an advert for the Magic Mike Live stage show with neither the commitment or craft to make any of them good.

Courtesy of Warner Media – © 2023 Warner Brothers

The romance-drama is, despite Channing Tatum and Salma Hayek’s best efforts to force something of a spark between themselves, heatless and bereft of meaningful romantic connection from either party.  Even with Mike giving Maxandra the business in what should be a scintillating opening dance, Soderbergh is weirdly back to shooting the dances and romances in the same way he shot them for the original Magic Mike.  In that movie, both are intentionally hollow and sad, indicative of the film’s wider commentary on American economic depression, so they make sense even if they’re a cruel bait-and-switch.  But that’s not the aim of Last Dance, so why are Soderbergh & Carolin so distant from this central romance?  Not to mention the placeholder butler, resentful child, and snobby ex characters who just never make an impression whatsoever and skip all development.  (Also, flaunting wealth porn is not a good fit for this franchise and this is Soderbergh’s stodgiest-looking film in ages.)

Theoretically, Magic Mike and Soderbergh should be perfect fits for a Step Up movie.  Step Ups, the good ones, are the Ocean’s of dance movies when you think about it.  But, based on the results here, I don’t think Soderbergh or Carolin seem to understand how Step Up movies work?  Those have central characters, but also a large likeable ensemble whom you see grow and gel together over the course of the narrative.  They’re fun and silly but emotionally sincere, truly believing in The Power of Dance and the process behind that.  There’s character and conflict which resolves by the time of a great final dance-off.  Last Dance, though, has no conflict and no real character.  The ensemble are just nobodies with perhaps four lines total.  For all the arguments it causes Mike & Maxine, almost no time is spent on showing the process and evolution of the show, and every external speedbump arrives with no rhyme or reason before being resolved just as quickly.  Nobody goes on an actual arc. This is why the narration stinks because it’s delivered with no conviction – both meta-textually, because Soderbergh & Carolin don’t believe the pretention they’re speaking, and textually, cos Jemelia George’s line reads are woeful.  So there’s 90 minutes of dicking around and then the finale happens.

Courtesy of Warner Media – © 2023 Warner Brothers

And it’s… bloodless?  This part of the film feels like an ad for Magic Mike Live in all the worst ways.  The editing frequently breaking viewer concentration from the action on-stage for the same character reaction gag which only gets less and less funny the more times it happens; a deliberate balloon deflation.  Two of the dances are truncated and have the ambient noise of the room and crowd taken out, so the sequences are more akin to watching a music video.  Since we never got to meet or learn about any of the dancers or routines, aside from “Permission” which is mostly good stuff, it does end up being dancing for the sake of dancing.  And with Soderbergh often cutting away from the dancing for something else not-dancing, the sequence ends up all tease before blue-balling and carnival-barking “boy, I bet this follow-through would be real sweet!  Come on down to London and pony up an unspecified amount of cash to see it!”

(Also, for a movie constantly preaching about listening to, appreciating, and including women in its fantasies, this movie overall seems less inclusive than XXL?  Less diversity in age, race, body type of both dancer and recipient on-screen?  Am I imagining that?)

I genuinely believe Magic Mike XXL to be a perfect movie.  I have wanted, and still want, to see the stage show for years.  I was forcing myself to have a good time with Last Dance.  And when the jarring kitten-filled intermission card popped up, I resigned myself to the reality that this is Soderbergh’s worst movie in over a decade and a colossal crushing disappointment.  God is dead.  Soderbergh and Carolin killed her.

Photo by Scott Garfield. © 2022 CTMG.
Bullet Train [Sunday 19th]

Dir: David Leitch

Year: 2022


Leitch right now might be the ruling king of the three-and-a-half star B+ action movie.  The kinds of self-consciously goofy and mindless good times that aren’t going to become anybody’s true favourites, and certainly suffer from letting their runtimes get more than a bit unruly, but accomplish precisely what they promise on the tin with no major screw-ups and no pretentions to anything loftier than their station.  I often have a blast with these when they do show up and such is the case with Bullet Train.  On a rewatch, the flaws of my first go-through – editing could’ve tightened the pace more, the CGI and composite work of the last twenty/thirty minutes are abominable, and it’s culturally-insensitive at best – are more apparent with the thrill of the new gone.  But I still think Leitch and his team get some fun stunt concepts out of their restrictions, the cast are all having a whale of a time which is infectious, a lot of the gags hit, it’s got the kind of character that a decade of Gerard Butler/Liam Neeson tyranny has otherwise drained out of this type of flick, and it comes together satisfyingly.  Plus, again, you really have to go out of your way to ruin a “crazed ensemble of killers in an enclosed space” premise with me.

© 2012 – A24
A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III [Wednesday 23rd]

Dir: Roman Coppola

Year: 2013

First-time viewing


My intention was to do an anniversary write-up for Set the Tape on this.  It sounds alluring, right?  A24 are now, at a decade old, the biggest name in independent American cinema whose studio logo, through careful cultivation of marketing resources towards the stuff they think will actually hit, is synonymous in cinephile circles with quality.  So, why not take the opportunity to revisit their maiden release and see if their inauspicious start signified anything about the studio’s later more-acclaimed output?  And with such a 2013 movie, as well!  A movie which based much of its identity around that stretch of time where Charlie Sheen’s meltdown (to put it reductively) was all over the public news, and he was trying to turn such notoriety into a career revival.  A movie which was the vanity project of nepo-baby extraordinaire and Wes Anderson collaborator Roman Coppola with a murderer’s row of cult-stars and cult-stars-to-be backing them up.  A movie so infamously bad that it arguably put the final nail in the coffin of Sheen’s comeback and Roman hasn’t done anything of note besides story work for Wes since.  Then I actually watched the thing and it was… just really, really boring and empty.

Charles Swan thinks of itself as a break-up movie, one of those which takes place from the POV of a narcissistic cheating douchebag throwing a pity party about how he both hates and loves this perfect woman who dumped him once she finally got tired of his copious shit.  (The final straw?  Finding a draw with polaroids of naked ex-girlfriends he uses as wank material.)  Break-up art can be messy, venomous, and spiteful or self-reflective, mournful, and even-tempered so long as it’s honest and has things to say because those are valid emotions one needs to process.  Look at Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The 1975’s “Somebody Else,” or even, for all its twee quirk, (500) Days of Summer – which, incidentally, is the good version of Charles Swan.  But Coppola’s film fails on all accounts.  Not having anything to say about dysfunctional relationships or narcissistic geniuses in general.  Charles Swan himself being just a thinly-veiled Sheen stand-in with no unique character traits or complexities to sustain a full movie.  And the try-hard abstract affectations of the first half which at least communicate Swan and his friend Kirby (a dreadful Jason Schwartzman)’s innate disrespect for women are mostly gone by the second half with nothing left to take their place besides more scenes of a checked-out Sheen moping.

© 2012 – A24

Instead, all of the effort seems to have gone into the aesthetics.  A hodgepodge of played-out 70s iconography – vinyl records, polaroids, afros, tacky suits, pop art, hotdog-shaped sofas, exotic birds – that don’t cohere with any believability or service the story in any meaningful way.  You can tell so very badly that Roman wants to be Wes Anderson, but he completely lacks Wes’ intelligent and purposeful design choices as well as the man’s emotional depth and sincerity.  A movie which features a sequence where Charles and Kirby are chased and nearly-scalped by Charles’ ex-girlfriends all dressed in Native American gear yelling nonsense sounds like something which should at least be weird, wild, or offensively interesting.  One of those fascinating failures which tells you something about everyone involved and makes you question how it got made.  But it isn’t.  Roman solo is not that interesting of a filmmaker.  It’s not even obnoxiously dull, it’s just vacuous.

I couldn’t muster up the drive in my spare moments to write properly about Charles Swan, so I abandoned the task.  Turns out there’s no greater story here.  Just a run-of-the-mill bad boring film.  No wonder everyone glosses over this and acts like Spring Breakers kicked off A24 instead.  Say what you will about Harmony Korine’s film, at least you can say something about it with your whole chest.

© Oscilloscope Laboratories.
Joyland [Saturday 25th]

Dir: Saim Sadiq

Year: 2022

First-time viewing

Still not quite sure what to think of Joyland.  It’s a lot and shifts constantly.  Felt like things verged a bit on misery porn by the end, in pursuit of exploring repressed desire and the irrevocable damages modern Pakistani society causes from it, with some queer drama clichés busted out.  But there are some fantastic performances, wonderful cinematography, and I was always engaged even if I was never fully moved.  Think I need a second go, this hasn’t clicked for me and I think that might be cos it was heavily mis-sold. I kept hearing it talked about solely as a transgender romance drama by both friends and the film press, and it’s… not that, but it kinda is, but it’s also really not.  With the benefit of hindsight on where Sadiq’s film ends up, I think I may be better able to follow along with the journeys of his characters.

One thing I will say that I unequivocally loved was how Sadiq makes sure to frame Biba, the transgender erotic dancer that Haider ends up working for, at all times as a woman.  A lot of trans-featuring dramas by cis filmmakers, even the well-intentioned ones or the ones explicitly trying to explore passing, have a nasty habit of utilising their camera and scene-blocking in ways which draw attention to the trans character’s otherness.  How they stick out in a crowd when put next to cis examples of their gender, like they’re wearing a costume and will never fully pass, causing the viewer to also see them as Other rather than as a man or woman.  It’s not just garbage like The Danish Girl, either; Women Talking fails at this exact thing with Melvin despite trying to be respectful.

But Sadiq ensures, through shooting and framing her just like any other cis woman in the story, that Biba can never succumb to that fate.  No matter how much the characters in the story disrespect or question her gender, Sadiq presents her like any other woman.  I was actually taken aback by the train seating scene because Sadiq doesn’t frame the shot like Biba sitting in the women-only section is a problem or inviting potential pushback, which makes it all the more intentionally jarring when the older woman starts transphobically policing her.  This resultantly allows Alina Khan the space and dignity to put in a phenomenal performance that never feels like it’s having to accommodate a cis mindset of trans existence; powerful yet messy.  I really appreciated that.

Callie Petch let the dream go, and the promise broke and make-believe ran out.


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