Ok. Here we go.
Here it is: Here’s the London Graphic Novel Network Film Club’s 2019 in Review.
(Sound of cheering and applause).
I know right?
For those of you who haven’t played before: Here are the rules:
1. Yep. You can talk about any film you like
It doesn’t need to have come out this year. It doesn’t even have to be something that you liked. If there was a film that you really hated then you can talk about that. Or maybe you felt massively lukewarm about it. The only real requirement is that it’s something that you’ve seen in this past year and there’s something you want to say about it. (You’re also welcome to lobby for any particular film that you feel like the LGNN Film Club should do in the future if you feel like it…).
2. Name the film in bold at the start of what you write
That way if someone wants to see it and they don’t wanna get spoiled then they can just skip over it with no harm done. (Also if you can find some images from the film and include them – then that would be cool too).
3. Please don’t just recount the plot instead: tell us what you think
Instead of just writing a synopsis (yawn) try this – Talk about what you liked (or didn’t like) about it. But grabbed you / what left you cold. What it did well / what it could have done better. How it made you feel. What kind of things it made you think about. All that good stuff.
4. If someone else has already mentioned a film then don’t worry – that’s ok
This isn’t a first come / first served thing. If someone else has mentioned a film then it’s not off the table – you can still write about it all you want. Ideally we don’t just want lots of solipsistic thoughts floating separately from each other so yeah – if someone mentions a film and you have a differing view please feel free to share (just you know obviously – try to play nice).
5. If you want to talk about a film that the LGNN Film Club has already done then that’s cool too
I’ve often been told that three weeks is never long enough. So if we talked about a particular film at some point in the past and you felt like there was stuff you wanted to say about it that you didn’t get a chance to say – then now’s the time… Go crazy.
If you’re still a little unsure how it works please feel free to look at how we’ve done it in the past:
So. I think that’s it. Hopefully should be fun and interesting and a cool time for everyone (that’s the idea anyway).
The rest is up to you.
Brief summary: 2 girls who have studied hard all year wonder if they’ve been wasting their youth and decide to have one night of partying ahead of graduation.
Initially I was going to say something like “Endgame aside this is my film of the year” but actually Endgame is Endgame but Booksmart is just a great movie. It’s not life changing, it just does absolutely everything right. To expand on that, I grew up being looked after a childminder who during the summer would just let us raid her 18 year old son’s movie collection. So by the time I was 10 years old I’d seen Back to the Future, Ghostbusters, The Fly, The Jerk, Indiana Jones, Gremlins, Short Circuit, and various other classics dozens of times. So my baseline for movie competence was pretty high.
The first terrible movie I saw at the cinema was Superman IV. Even at 8 or 9 I remember thinking it was kind of weak. Maybe that was because my dad just couldn’t avoid eye-rolling I can’t remember, but remember being confused as to how it could be bad. I also recall losing my shit because my sister made us go and see Who Framed Roger Rabbit instead of Scrooged and looking back, I think “you lucky bastard, imagine having to choose between 2 movies that good as a child!” I’m not sure my children have ever seen anything at the cinema that wasn’t produced by Disney or the company that makes Minions. Those 80s movies were all just good stuff, from sparkling dialogue, down to the little sight gags you’d only recognise on your 4th viewing. For some reason I was thinking about Young Sherlock Holmes the other day. I mean how much fucking fun was that film! This is the sort of spirit we need to get back somehow.
And Booksmart is that level of good, not just because it’s really funny, but because it just feels like they filled in all the edges. It’s not particularly high budget but every frame, every needle drop, and every line of dialogue is cared for. It’s real triumph is while it’s characters are kind of Generation Z, they are really stand-ins to allow the plot mercilessly goes after previous high school movies, and indeed previous generations. Booksmart sets up the nerds, the jocks, the rich kids, the mean girls and various other tropes and proceeds to cheerfully show how that’s all bullshit. Booksmart’s generosity of spirit to all its characters is so refreshing while arriving all wrapped up in little gleeful package.
So these are listed in chronological order across the year:
Keep an eye out – Dupieux
A police interview that goes very wrong. Every moment feels like it couldn’t go more wrong for the innocent sap being exposed to negligence, incompetence and a level of bad luck so absurdly high it could be deemed a motion picture conceptualisation of celestial torture. Dupieux keeps finding new rugs to pull out from under you, until he runs out of rugs, pulls out the floor boards, the ground, the dirt and keeps on going with a cheery shit eating grin – well aware that he’s about to pull another one out from under you, even though there is literally nothing left. And you are more than fine with that.
Pity – Makridis
It’s a boring, slog of a first half – but this pale, black comedy about a dull family man who comes to live for the pity people give him while his wife is in a coma goes to increasing, tragic, violent means to keep getting it when she wakes up. It’s a restrained nightmare, told in pallid colours, it’s discipline in underplaying its very potent dramatic hands at every turn, much like the quiet man who wants pity, turns it into a haunting farce like no other. Rarely have I laughed so cruelly.
If Beale Street Could Talk – Jenkins
Some people say this film is too long. That there are moments that could be cut. Extended shots of wood being carved to slow, elegaic music that serve neither plot nor necessarily character.
Those people are not wrong. But they’re missing the woods for the trees. Beale Street is less concerned with perfect storytelling as it is to offer us a sensory, expressive rendition of young, love halted by a world that demands we come to terms with its wanton cruelty. It’s an instance of a film maker taking all the clout in the world and telling it to tell a tiny, sad and sweet story on his own expressive terms – less concerned about whether each moment gives “the audience” the accessible ride their after on their terms, but more concerned about saying what he wants to say. It would be a lie to say every moment had me, that my mind never wandered. But I didn’t mind, the good in it was so personal, so unique. It was an artistic effort, and I can ignore a few stray brushstrokes if it means I see a painting no one else could ever make.
Under the Silver Lake – Mitchell
This is one of those films where the film maker basically grabs the screen halfway through to announce and says “this is no longer the film you came for”. People walked out. Andrew Garfield lost his shit and I watched a director take a ton of Hollywood hype and spend it telling Hollywood that it was a stupid sack of shit. It’s so fucking funny, it’s thrillingly fucked up and it’s exactly what I want stories to be. And it’s got a great absurdist sense of humour. It’s another great example of how the neo-noir being used to play on the way we want stories to dole out not just information, but certain answers, and Mitchell is interested in pointing out that we typically want bullshit answers for bullshit reasons. It’s full of curve balls, jokes and it’s Andrew Garfields greatest, maddest fucking role. This is my midnight watch of the year.
Avengers: Endgame – Russo Brothers
I’m obsessed with how stupidly satisfying the portal and hammer and hug scenes are and like the rest of the Russo’s work in the MCU, it’s so innately, easily watchable. It is as previously mentioned, the thing you wanted, in a surprising envelope. It’s junk food and it is very, very, very good at that.
Beats – Welsh
A couple of teenagers in Scotland want to go to an underground rave and get wrecked. Herein lies an honest story about the passion of young friendship, of the stakes you expand in your own head at that age, of hilarity in the characters, of genre tropes openly worn and absent mindedly discarded with charm and aplomb. And as a take on being a Scottish teenager, what that means in terms of class, in terms of masculinity – no film has ever hit it on the head like this one. The scene where they drop, is one of the best uses of a cinema I’ve seen all year. It was thrilling and so utterly funny – the guy who plays Spanner is maybe my performance of the year – and just a bit of a gut punch that made me look back.
Toy Story 4
I genuinely couldn’t believe they pulled this off. But it works. Because for the first time in the series, this story works as something more than a ripping character driven yarn, it has a new idea. The series is premised on “what if toys were sentient/could talk?” – this one asks what does it mean when a sentient toy doesn’t have a child. What is this being when it can’t fulfill the function it was built to accomplish? Oh and forky? The toy that doesn’t think he’s a toy and so spends half the film trying to kill himself? Possibly the best idea of the year. One of the funniest at least.
Parasite – Joon-Ho
All I know is, I wandered into a screening with no idea what it was and came out whatsapping everyone, demanding/threatening them to go see a film they had no earthly way of seeing for months. This is a film with surprises that span genre and tone with utter mastery, all of it boiled down to a simple rule – what would those characters realistically do in those moments?
Brazil – Gilliam
Wrote about this un on the LGNN film chat for it, it’s a masterclass. An icon of dystopian cinema, and certainly the funniest, most charming among them.
The Brothers Bloom – Johnson
I’m a pretty stupid viewer and unless I’m fully focused (which is at best, on every 2nd blue moon), the essential minutia of heists, conspiracies and whodunnits are often lost to me. Despite this, many of my favourites belong to this world. Bloom is a film of endless heists, layered on top of each other, like a Russian doll hidden in an Escher painting. Outside of it’s design and visual composition lifting from the likes of Godard and Demy in the way Anderson does and it’s brilliant sense of comedy, there’d be good odds I’d barely follow the story. And the idea of spending 2 hours chasing after a binary question “is it a con or not”, usually fills me with dread. But here, I loved it.
The difference here is, so many characters are trying to play each other in this, but in one way or another, they’re not doing it to gain from each other, they’re doing out of love. There are no baddies, just miscommunicated endearment. And it’s funny. It’s a deadpan pie to the face. It surprises you, possibly too many times,
It’s a film that treats it’s audience as a “mark”, but because this is a con film that doesn’t hinge on anger over a lie, but more on a character wondering if he can actually live outside the lie, in the midst of the wit, the colour and the music – it’s beyond captivating. It’s one of those films that knocks you out of a world of Disney-fied “good to decent” at every turn and gives you something imperfect, something personal, something that reminds you why we started watching and talking about things in the first place. And the music. The fucking music:
You just have to go along with it, through all the locations, the character actors, the gags and the beautifully, obviously over-designed, over-planned worlds they exist in.
It reminds me of something Brooks said about The Simpsons, he said you could put the family and the characters through whatever zany, surrealist scheme you wanted – but unless the audience knew the family loved each other, none of it would matter. He was right.
Wine Country – Poehler
Amy Poehler, Tina Fey and all their improv friends get pissed and wax stupid about aging. The only thing I can recall of it is that it isn’t funny. It’s the comedy equivalent of watching the Oceans 11 characters getting caught nicking Hubba Bubba out of a Londis.
Avengers Endgame – Russo Brothers
For the same reason I love it, I’m also disappointed in it. It gave me exactly what I wanted. To the tee. And that feels unsatisfying. I get what Scorcese was talking about. While I think the idea of a one size fits all definition of art is insane, I guess I feel that “art” isn’t about going into a room and getting the feeling you want when you want it because that’s what you ordered at the ticket booth. It isn’t transactional. It’s not a contract of £8.99 in exchange for dopamine. It’s conversational, it talks back, it challenges you, it expands you. You go into the room because you want to hear someone say something. You don’t know if it’s the feeling you want, but when it’s good, no matter if the room is filled with pain or mirth, you walk out enriched, your brain expanded by a thought, an idea, world or experience you would never have had on your own. Endgame is incredibly satisfying fun, but it is exactly what I wanted it to be – and while I have no earthly idea what it could/should be otherwise, I somewhat wish it was a bit more of that unknown thing anyway. And maybe that’s asking too much. I get that these are films purely for entertainment and they are great for that. They are masterclasses in fun. But to do that, they can’t actually say anything beyond “goodies are good” and when I think about that, it gets harder to ignore what Scorcese was talking about. For the reason I loved the surprise of Silver Lake or Parasite, or the shag dog storytelling of Beats, I’m dissapointed in Endgame, as much as I will love watching it again.
The Dead Dont Die – Jarmusch
Jim Jarmusch does a zombie movie and assembles a cast of his favourites to tell it.
It looks a bit shitty. It just does. It’s like he did a film that needs alot of effects work and suddenly his style, his tempo, they all flew out of the window. It all looks a bit flat, it feels cheap. It has some nice moments, enough to amiably motor the whole thing along but… a couple of good jokes do not make up for a dull Jarmusch that lacks much in story, in atmosphere or the quiet cool that have made his works from Ghost Dog to Paterson so easy to get hazily lost in.
Joker – Phillips
There are moments of greatness in this film. There is incredible film making. There is daring, surprising, hilarious storytelling – some of the best moments of the year. But this is a political film that doesn’t use action so much as it does hackneyed speech. A political film with a point about as thoughtful as gravity = sticky floor. A character portrait undone by an obsession with convoluted pointless origin story theatrics. This could have been a tragicomedy like no other, it should have been a statement on what malice is and how it manifests – instead it’s a lazy headline in size 72 font, red ink and bold. An awards bait smash grab that triggered nothing discussions.
The Irishman – Martin Scorsese
There’s a difference between good films and entertaining ones and given the choice I’d much rather choose the latter. Maybe this is one of the problems of living in the 21st Century? Our brains have been bombarded by so many new and crazy frequencies at increasingly rapid speeds that anything that tries to slow down and more at a more meditative pace just doesn’t work anymore – it’s like trying to put a VHS cassette into a laptop. I was listening to a little bit of random classical music this morning and while I could tell it was beautiful I was also mystified by the idea that anyone could actually sit still in one place and listen to it for a few hours straight. You know – music needs hooks right? And yeah ok maybe I’m just hopeless damaged and numbed towards the more subtle pleasures of life but I can’t escape the conviction that actually the stuff that’s entertaining is better. That the skill I value the most is the skill to tell a story that’s moves you and pushes you in all sorts of crazy new directions and shows you things you’ve never imagined in a ways you’ve never seen before.
The Irishman is… not that film. It’s slow and ponderous and takes its own sweet time getting to places – like an old man walking from the living room to the toilet. There was a big deal made about The Wolf of Wall Street when it came out back in 2013 about how it seemed like the work of a fresh young filmmaker rather than a guy in his 70s and well yeah – The Irishman is the opposite of that in that it totally feels like it’s made by someone really old who’s going to tell everything at very tedious length (“The important thing was that I had an onion on my belt, which was the style at the time.” etc) which – well – is definitely a vibe I guess?
And here’s the thing – it’s obviously very much a good film and it’s making a point and everything leans towards it (put simply: “Crime doesn’t pay and we’re all going to die.”) and I’d say that there’s a very good case to be made that even the criticisms you can make against it – notably how the CGI make-up is never really as convincing as you think it should be and how no matter what age De Niro is supposed to be he still walks with the gait of a 70 year old man – actually work thematically in it’s favour. If you go and see a play and an old actor is playing a younger version of themselves that has it’s own kind of resonance you know? But the problem I have is a much more fundamental one which is: why on earth would you want to watch a movie like this anyway? And mean yeah – all these people are horrible and they’re all dying in horrible ways and infecting their souls with poison that slowly eats away at everything until they’re completely isolated and alone living in a world without love – but by taking away all of the glamour you’re left with nothing but 3 hours of slog. I mean – the most exciting shot of the entire film is the opening one where you zip around the nursing home and after that it’s basically just lots of stationary set-ups of actors talking (yawn). I mean: if I wanted to see that I would have gone to watch a play. And I hate plays.
All of which is not to say that I wished that The Irishman had lived up to the promise of it’s title and was actually a Marvel film about a man from Ireland who suddenly gets superpowers (altho I would pay to watch that) – but something more like The Wolf of Wall Street which also manages to make the same kind of points about how like crime and masculinity are like bad and stuff and yet still manages to be off the charts entertaining and fun and exciting to watch. I mean shit – The Ludes Scene. The Speech Scene. The Matthew McConaughey Scene. The Ludes Scene again. In comparison: how many moments from The Irishman are etched into your mind? The bit when they push the taxis into the water. And when Al Pacino does all that acting. And erm – oh: all those bits of De Niro looking tight-lipped and pensive. Hell – Silence had more cool cinematic moments you know and that’s a film about monks.
Rise of Skywalker 2019 (spoiler free)
It feels like there are 2 competing narratives around this movie. The first is that while the Force Awakens was an adequate and inoffensive reboot, the Last Jedi was everything that was wrong with modern cinema and therefore the Rise of Skywalker should be judged as falling along that gradient: does it retreat to safe ground or continue the rot?
The second is that the last two movies were both fine and did their best to get a little more juice out of a beloved but withering franchise, and the question is how much more flavour can we squeeze from the Rise of Skywalker?
Having set up these two both fairly damning straw men – the first assuming Disney are squandering the legacy, and the second that they are flogging a dead horse – I think I am in both camps. I think all three movies are fine and I also think they are a wasted opportunity. For me there are a couple of moments which show the story I wanted to see. In Force Awakens when Kylo Ren stops a phaser blast with the Force; in last Jedi when Luke stands invincible against an army; and in Rise of Sky Walker when Rey shows the extent of her powers.
Because in my mind the story of a new Jedi should be more like Akira or Dark Phoenix, where their potential should be both wonderful and terrifying. These beings shouldn’t just be conjurors, but walking nuclear weapons who could take on invading armies or crush civilisation with a thought. As they march with one foot in reality and the other communing with an all powerful force, the audience is torn between wanting them to do the “good” thing and wanting them to find an excuse to go medieval on the protagonists.
That seems to me the real struggle of the light and dark side that was implied in the tragedy of Anakin Skywalker. The light side is about building things slowly and dark side is moving quickly and breaking things. The problem is that while these choices are presented in the Rise of Skywalker they don’t really feel earned and you never really feel like Rey is the answer to a real problem. This kind of means the films while perfectly adequate lack real stakes.
One thing Rise does do that previous films have failed to do is make the Galaxy Far Far Away seem like a larger place instead of spending half the movies loitering around Tatooine. It still has the Super Mario problem of each world being either water planet or forest planet or dusty planet, but you feel like they are actually travelling around these worlds and dealing with them on their owns terms.
The last thing I’ll say in this very charitable round up of what is a movie and a trilogy with many unnecessary flaws is that if this movie has been Star Wars 7, it would have been amazing. There is so much exposition here that you really didn’t need the previous 2 movies and if they had gotten all these issues out of the way the groundwork would have been laid for 8 and 9 to build a new legend. Instead as you can tell from the title, they dodged it.
Directed by Ari Aster
I just finishing watching Midsommar. It’s not one of the best films I’ve seen this year but as it’s fresh in my mind and it’s one of those films that’s supposed to be one of the top contenders I thought I’d write down some thoughts to share with you all… (you lucky people). I’m gonna spoil the fuck out of tho so maybe look away if you haven’t seen it yet.
The first thing that strikes me is: maybe there just is nothing new under the sun? I mean when I started I was expecting big things. In the first 30 minutes or so I was like: ah. Cool. So this is what a proper movie looks like (I watched Dolemite Is My Name earlier this week and it was like watching an extended pilot for a TV series that never got made. I mean hell – Eddie Murphy is legitimately one of the funniest men that ever lived (I don’t own many standup films – but I do own a copy of Raw) but Dolemite just kinda made him seem – sedated? And it looked like the whole thing was filmed on someone’s phone but whatever….): there’s a specially nice bit in Midsommar where it looks like it’s doing a Shining homage and then it literally flips it on it’s head and I was – oooh cool.
But then the final stretch is basically The Wicker Man for couples which yeah is kinda funny but didn’t really me enough of a payoff for everything that came before. I mean with such a long tense buildup I was expecting something that was going to blow my mind wide open or at the very least smash it on the rocks a little. Instead: oh ok. Cool. They set the thing on fire. Only instead of one person it’s nine.
Emmat: “It’s another Death Star”
Poe: “I wish that were the case, Major. This was the Death Star… and this is Starkiller Base”
Han Solo: “So it’s big.”
I mean: I’d admit it’s quite a good funny twist – girlfriend burns her boyfriend in The Wicker Man and for the final twist she’s happy. Cut to black. And without wanting to get into anything that sounds too much like “it’s political correctness gone mad!” (they should have called it #MeTooSomma etc) it’s interesting in how they kinda fuck it up by not going too far enough (which funnily enough is the same problem with Joker: can someone please explain to me the point of basing a film on a crazy homicidal manic supervillain and then making sure that all of his actions stay completely relatable? I mean sure we’re not all going to kill our mums because she abused us as children and then shoot Robert De Niro in the head because he humiliated us in front of the entire country: but we can see where you’re coming from right? Which is not the movie I signed up for – I mean: when is he going to go on the random trail of destruction? Or is that kinda thing not allowed anymore? I mean: everyone spent so much time talking up a movie that was going to destroy civilised society and have copycat killers out on the street en masse which you know: is the kinda movie I get a kick out of watching… oh well).
Same problem with Midsommar basically. The boyfriend Jack Reynor (who looks like a Chris Pratt that was ejected from its tank a few hours too early – or is it just me?) is given too many chances to get off the hook. I mean: yeah he forgets her birthday and is pretty aimless and lackluster but then at the end he gets drugged and then drugged some more. Wouldn’t it have been more interesting if he was given more agency in the big church naked ladies fuck scene? If he realised what was going down but then was like “what the hell? May as well…” Most people don’t need the excuse of drinking mind altering substances to cheat after all. And yeah ok I get that it’s kinda dark if he can’t speak or move at the end and is taken away to his fate with his eyeballs twitching – but wouldn’t it have been more delicious (and interesting) if him and Florence Pugh could have had at least a little back and forth? Or does that run the risk of making her a less sympathetic character? I mean: the crazy pagan Swedish cult basically mute him and block him and then dress him up as a bear and set him on fire. Hell – actually maybe it’s more of a damning indictment of #MeToo than a first thought LOL.
Final random thought: is it bad to say but just going from the pictures I’ve seen of him the director Ari Aster kinda looks like exactly like the kinda guy that would lose out on dating a girl and then invite her and her finance so he could sacrifice them at his local summer festive. Or is that just me?
Basically what I’m saying is: Mandy did it better. Even in terms of their scary triangle building that gets set on fire in the exciting climax design.
And was more fun and exciting to watch too. As all films should be.
The Irishman was one I almost added to my list.
The lack of glamour does turn it, not into a slog in the middle, but less entertaining than say Goodfellas or Casino or Wolf Street. I’m not convinced it’s simply the slow pacing that does it so much that I had less of an idea of what was going on in The Irishman, it’s all about weird random 50 year old trade union rules. And I think I barely understood what I knew owing to the various Jimmy Hoffa references that The Simpsons have made. Wolf Street is crazy traders selling nonsense, it makes sense on its own. Goodfellas, is about a kid that wants to be a mobster and enjoy its life, that too makes sense on its own. Irishman – well, I didn’t understood the minutia of what was going on or why Hoffa was being indicted.What I understood were the relationships, between De Niro, Pacino and Pesci – and how De Niro’s daughter responded to the affection of the one who was tragically flawed, and the one who was terminally irredeemable.
So during that hour, where you don’t quite get all the trade union law minutia, it’s not the greatest (but it’s still fun). But then at that final trade union dinner scene, where you see the inevitability of De Niro trying to get Pacino out of cross hairs, and Pacino’s stubborn refusal to – it makes everything that happens after, so thrilling and so haunting. You can’t look away, you can’t forget it. And watching a film take so much of it’s power from the aftermath of it’s climax, drawing it’s point from what happens after the peak – it’s a fairly unique and characterful insight for the mobster genre. It’s fucking great for that.
I’d also note that there’s a washed out approach to the colours of The Irishman – it seems to exist in maroons and dulled blues, which feels like a sharp (and not so enjoyable) aesthetic turnaround from how amped up and colourful Wolf of Wall Street was. I get there’s likely a clear, thematic choice behind that shift – but still, one is more pleasing to look at than the other.
I guess the trade is, would you deal with a slightly less that peak hour of Scorcese in exchange for one of the best hours he’s ever directed?
Star Wars? What a let down after the subversive fun of Last Jedi and the perfectly popcorn formed fun of Awakens (i’m fine with the New Hope rehash as its awash with fun new characters). Outside of watching a trilogy I’d actually engaged with limply end in the name of placating fans, shareholders and no one else by abandoning the themes and characterisation of the first two films. I think the thing that really annoyed me watching it though, was how obviously they’d set things up so they could pay them off later or avoid accusations of doing a deus ex machina. And also Rey, she’s not so much a character as she is an entirely good person whose journey in the film is to be worried that she could be capable of character depth (i.e. be something other than absolutely good in every imaginable moment), only for the cast of the saga to collectively assure her she has no character depth and thats a good thing. Most of the film resorted to Ikea manuals to explain the character choices being made. Blech. I do agree that it did alot to make the galaxy to seem like a larger place, the Kojima planet or whatever it was called was a particularly fun visual highlight.
Frozen 2 (2019)
When people discuss the best Bond film, there is a certain subset of people who will suggest Goldeneye. It has some things going for it: the post-Cold War setting; it’s tightrope walk between camp Bond and sullen Bond; and very sensibly casting Alan Cumming. However it is a dreadful movie and I dare anyone to find a fan that isn’t really just a fan of the excellent Nintendo 64 game based on the movie. Of course the film seems like it has more depth if you have muscle memory of controlling the main characters, fleeing from Xenia Onatopp (steady on grandad) through the Cuban jungle; and gunning down enemy troops while duel wielding sub machine guns. But go and watch the movie, no actually save yourself the bother, cos it really doesn’t improve after the opening credits.
Frozen is also a favourite of many, and that is because of you are aged between 4 and 8 its soundtrack is filled with banger after banger. Also just like any album, once you sit through enough playthroughs even the weaker songs start to come in to their own. And so Frozen has its icy grip on the hearts of many children and their parents, despite the fact it’s plot makes no sense whatsoever. All the characters are all literally strangers and behave as such throughout, moreover, the bad guy is not signposted at all! He is demonstrably a goodie for 95% of the movie, and even does nice things when no one is looking! Frozen 2 actually hangs a lantern on this when Olaf the talking Snowman recaps the plot to the bewilderment of his fellow characters. But because I’ve sung some of the songs so many times, know some of them by heart, and indeed have in-jokes with my family about misheard lyrics, that gets mingled up with my mind so I start to think that maybe it was a good movie. Except that the kids don’t even watch it much anymore, and when it goes on every so often they wander off, because it is a very strangely constructed movie.
This may explain why Frozen 2 took a number of years after the first one despite the clear opportunities to stack up massive piles of cash. You can imagine the original creators wondering they were supposed to do to make lightning strike twice – the lightning in this case is not just $billions in ticket sales, but also $trillions in merchandise, and the most precious commodity of all: valuable real estate in the hearts and minds of millions of children.
Of course there are plenty of successful movies that aren’t very good, but can easily replicate their success. Harry Potter has a clear template; when Jurassic World sailed past a $billion they just needed more dinosaurs; and when the Fast and the Furious started to bring in the cash they knew it just needed more sweaty biceps and growly voices. But what do you toggle on the Frozen graphic equaliser? More Princesses? They already have 2; More snowmen? Same problem; More superfluous trolls? There’s already a whole superfluous trolls movie franchise.
So the producers had a real conundrum. They know the first movie is weird, they know the characters don’t have much of a journey to go on, and so they know that their only salvation is to write some more tunes that everyone will love. Except that simple task is extremely difficult and the result is the main song in Frozen 2 “Into The Unknown” is trying so hard to be the next Let it Go that it misses by miles. You know you are supposed to like it because the weave the hook line through the whole movie, record a cover version of it for the credits and its back by a million person string section. But The songs are largely forgettable, my family have been humming them for the last month, but tellingly none of the lyrics have stuck and I am not sure I can remember how any of them go.
Frozen 2’s plot is actually mildly interesting, with more than a nod to Princess Mononoke, but it’s trying to do so much that it sort of collapses under its own weight. It strives to rekindle the spark between the main characters, except there never really was any to begin with. And so while this movie has already made a $billion I can predict with a fair degree of confidence that no one will remember it.
Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019)
Speaking of films no one will remember. This is another film that exists uncomfortably in the orbit of a box office behemoth.
One of the laments of pretty much all the Batman movies is that they go too big. Batman is a street level detective who takes out violet thugs, but every movie creates an existential threat with several bad guys working together and more recently the Justice League in the frame as well. Many have longed for a gumshoe Batman who gets back to basics, and checking the gigantic cast of The Batman they’ll be waiting a long damn time I suspect. The most recent Spider-Man franchise serves this role well in the Marvel franchise, combining the wider universe with compact scenarios such as a school trip to Europe which allow Spider-Man to feel like a regular guy. This is an extremely welcome reset after the two preceding Avengers movies, but it comes as a price of struggling to make the stakes seem tangible.
The film is so meta that it even acknowledges this, but if everything is kind of a joke then how can we really be worried? So although I liked it, I felt like I spent the whole movie waiting for the really plot to start, and it kind of did but in the end-of-credits sting which made me instantly forget everything I had seen and wish that I had watched this new more interesting proposition.
If anything there is a question here about whether Marvel’s greatest success may raise the bar too high for them in their next phase. Do people want or expect galaxy sized stakes or huge revelations in every Marvel movie from now on? I guess we’ll see.
Other People’s Money (1991)
When we rightly mock the Phantom Menace one often doesn’t have to go far beyond the opening crawl. After 15 years waiting to see the backstory of one of the baddest bastards in the galaxy it was perplexing to be immersed so quickly into a trade embargo storyline. Why not just say:
[fanfare] “Shit is crazy. There is a big fuck off war with massive spaceships that can cut planets in half, and angry Taken guy and Renton from Trainspotting have been sent to rough up some aliens based on problematic ethnic stereotypes and also thousands of battle droids. Aww yeah…” [pan to star field, enter spaceship]
We can all agree this would have been a significant improvement. But the thing is business deals can be cool and sexy as Other People’s Money demonstrates. It is not even a unique film in demonstrating this, but it is however one of the best. Some will tell you that Glengarry Glen Ross is good, but those guys are liars. Sure is has the best cast ever but it’s only good for the Alec Baldwin shouty scene and in Other People’s Money Danny DeVito does this for the WHOLE DAMN MOVIE [bangs table before sweeping out in disgust].
I was thinking about this because the new Star Wars movie was working so hard to be interesting and bring character and yet it constantly tripped over itself. Yet Other People’s Money has about 4 characters, 4 sets and a story about the sale of a cable company and I’m still thinking about it 25 years after I saw it.
I guess I had forgotten how bad the late 80s/early 90s was but suffice to say it was a dark time for the Republic. One of the side effects of this is that while there was lots grandstanding anti-capitalist sentiment to enjoy in entertainment, whatever you watched it was generally agreed across the piece that the system was pure evil, and whether it was government conspiracy or evil billionaires the elites were planning to take us all down. This basic truth wasn’t even up for discussion. Sure Other People’s Money is enjoyably strident but it’s not trying to be performatively subversive in the same way as Sorry to Bother You, it just recognises that there are sharks in the shark tank.
DeVito’s Larry the Liquidator is not a nice guy but nor is he a heartless monster. He’s the sort of person who does well out of the system, not a particularly bad apple. Nor is Penelope Anne Miller such a boring character that she only loves him or loathes him for his morality or lack thereof. The characters are mature enough to have complicated opinions of their own. The romance between them is not just a sideshow to pad out a plot which largely revolves around the price of stock of a fictional company, but an essential element for humanising the characters. We need to have confidence that the law characters are emotional and rational so that we care about the impact of external events now matter how boring those specific events are. That’s why when Alderaan blows up snuffing out a billion lives it doesn’t hit me as hard as when one of the characters in Other People’s Money makes a dicey decision about his stock options.
Not that it’s just about drama. I remember reading someone (possibly Joel) contrasting Jurassic Park with Jurassic World and saying that a key difference was that after watching Jurassic Park you felt smarter. It offered complex characters explaining complex ideas concerning genetic cloning, ethics, chaos theory and habitats. By comparison Jurassic World implied Starlord could train velociraptors by waving his hands around. Similarly Other People’s Money doesn’t really have goodies or baddies, it just shows different actors in a system which it tries to explain. As someone who can’t walk into a restaurant without doing a cost-benefit analysis maybe that’s just my jam, but I felt like I knew more after watching it than before, plus it’s got a speech about communism so that’s also cool.
Moana – Ron Clements and John Musker
My niece loves this movie. I think I must have heard her say “Return The Heart of Te Fiti” about a thousand and one times before I even made a connection that it was something from a Disney movie and not just something she made up. (Which is the opposite to a wreckiosaurus which I thought was a real name of a real dinosaur but which just turned out to be her translation of brachiosaurus. But whatever). When we finally came round to watching it I didn’t really have any high expectations – I figured it was just another Disney product. Just another output from the global monstrosity slowly stripping out our cultural imagination and replacing it with cheap plastic. The only thing I did know about the movie before I saw it come to think of it was the fact was that it won lots of checkmarks in terms of diversity and representation – finally a woman of colour is the hero and it all being very respectful to the Polynesian people etc. Which yeah I don’t know – always just strikes me as being a little horrific somehow: like it’s ok for the monster corporation to completely take over the world just as long as it does it with the right skin colour and you know – the term “cultural appropriation” gets thrown around a lot by a lot of people – but it’s ok if you’re selling off a culture just as long as you get people of that culture to help you sell it? But whatever lol. Maybe I just want the evil corporations to be evil.But yeah – The bit I want to talk about is the ending – see the whole thing of the movie is that it’s about Moana going on this epic question doing her best to “Return The Heart of Te Fiti” (they say it in the movie about a thousand and one times too lol). Te Fiti is the local nature goddess and the source of all the goodness in the world.
She looks like this:
There’s a thing that happens at the start where the demi-god Maui (voiced by the Rock) steals her heart and then this volcanic demon called Te Kā shows up and starts blasting things and being all evil and firey and stuff.
Te Kā looks like this:
Anyway – the whole thing is a thing to defeat the demon Te Kā and return The Heart of Te Fiti to Te Fiti which all seems pretty straightforward up until the final twist where you find out that – holy fucking shit – Te Fiti and Te Kā are the same thing (!!!) Where basically the thing that happened is that because Maui stole her heart she became this evil angry fire demon and the only way to make things right again and reset the balance of nature and return her to her original state is to – well – (say it with me) “Return The Heart of Te Fiti.” And that’s what happens and everything is right away and everyone lives happily ever after.
Except me because I’m watching this crappy corporate Disney movie and I’m just sitting there fucking floored because I’m all like holy fuck that’s really powerful stuff and probably the deepest thing I’ve seen in a movie all year. The evil monstrous bad guy is a good guy that just got her heart stolen? And the way to fix it isn’t by blowing her into little pieces with a gun or dropping a bomb on her or some other kind of violence but to actually face her head on and accept her wrath and return her heart to it’s proper place? And once you do – then she’ll be ok again? In my eyes that’s fucking revolutionary and the kind of moral message that I’ll give the two thumbs up. And interestly – now I think about it – the complete opposite to Midsommar which slowly turns it’s protagonist into a monster and then expects us to cheer about it (which apparently most people did).
There’s also lots of interesting wrinkles around the edges that kinda make this stuff deeper in strange ways – at the end Te Fiti is like “ah – I’m my real self again” which of course is something they have to include because it’s a kids movie but had me doing the thinking emoji face because I was like: but wait – maybe both aspects are equally real? Maybe you need to accept that you can be a fire demon sometimes Te Fiti because otherwise it’s kinda liable to come back again – no? You know: don’t deny your nature. Plus well yeah – The Rock – ahem – stealing your heart has all sorts of levels that could be picked apart in ways that could get rather adult. (And let’s not even get into the thing about him having this big hook that lets him change his shape…).
And well yeah – this is the fucked up thing. As much as I hate the way Disney is slowly eating every entertainment product and changing all our movies and TV into the most brainless pap imaginable (has anyone actually watched The Mandalorian? It’s like it was written by a dumb 5 year old that can only think in cliches). The most Disney of all the Disney movies – the Disney the movie that’s actually been made for kids – is the experience that ends up moving me the most and delivering the kind of moral insight and humanity that currently seems to be escaping everyone else. Or maybe that’s just me?
Hell – if every other movie was as thoughtful as this that would actually be kinda cool.
Also – there’s a bit with these coconut people that was apparently inspired by Mad Max Fury Road and when I read that after I’d seen it I was like: oh yeah. That makes total sense actually.
I have to say I was disappointed with Midsommar and when the film finished my response was a sort of shrug/suspicion that I had missed some really important twist. The setup is excellent, the slow creeping tension had me gripped early on, but then it just plays out completely predictably. However a colleague of mine who moved to Sweden last summer said she didn’t sleep for a week after watching it and that the Swedishness of the film is very well observed. So maybe that was the trick everyone loved.
It’s not that things don’t stay with me, earlier this year I started watching popular teen drama Euphoria and there is fairly unpleasant beating in one of the early episodes that stayed with me for ages. It’s not that I am particularly sensitive to violence, I’ve been watching TV for a long time, but it was the manner of the violence which combined a fairly cold and methodical cruelty against a victim with no means of escape or redress. There is something about that no-way-out-scenario which is particularly terrifying. I recall after 9-11 someone produced a parachute to enable executives to leap from the 30th floor of a burning building. Presumably this is a ridiculous waste of money but for all the horror of the event, the small stories of being trapped in a building, alive but beyond rescue, haunted people enough that someone saw a gap in the market.
I also enjoyed Us by Jordan Peele which shows a group of people completely at the mercy of others as almost living mannequins, and that was also kind of horrible, but the nature of the film meant that this problem of theirs was resolved within the films internal logic. Much worse is the bit in Nightmare on Elm Street 3 where one of the children has his tendons ripped out so that he becomes a living marionette.
There is something particularly disturbing about being helpless prey which these scenarios have in common. Michael Haneke’s Funny Games is the best example. It’s about 2 teenage boys torturing and murdering a family and there is very little the family can do about it. The film relentlessly plays with the audience and even shows you the family wriggling out of the trap only to be pulled back in. Even more awfully it bookends itself showing the previous victims and next victims so you know that the wheel of torture and death keeps spinning and spinning. Never have you wanted so much for one of those families to have a Ripley style mum who flamethrowers the antagonists’ faces off in righteous vengeance.
I wonder how much these stories feed or feed off of the paranoia of people who are almost completely safe in their lives and who will almost never face much in the way of danger. Maybe everyone wants to live in a gated community, surrounded by security guards and CCTV and pin codes. It’s certainly one of the points made by Fight Club but not explored particularly thoroughly. What if all the people guarding us while we sleep were in underground boxing club, living life to full without fear and plotting the overthrow of my comfortable gilded cage?
It’s interesting that the American protagonists of Midsommar are so carefree, so arrogantly happy to go to a completely foreign culture, take drugs with strangers, and observe their quaint traditions for their PHDs while expecting to be looked after. They think they are the smart ones and all the while they are wandering around like Turkeys on the 23rd December. Damn, maybe I did miss something?
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