On the slate for this month’s freewheeling movie opinioneering are Aquaman, A Star Is Born, Velvet Buzzsaw, and Can You Ever Forgive Me?. Tune in to find out our thoughts on these films! Obviously. That’s sort of the point of these podcasts. We hope you’ve got the general concept by now.
I believe I mentioned in passing during some podcast passim my thoughts on the trailer for Aquaman, and for once that trailer proved to be quite representative of the tone and general quality of the final product. So, the very short form of this review is “go watch the trailer and judge for yourselves”.
But I’m not being paid the big bucks to shirk my duties. I’m not being paid at all. More fool me. Anyway, the latest of the quote unquote troubled DC universe films to appear centers on Jason Momoa’s Aquaman, or Arthur Curry, which splits it’s duties between action outing and origin story, although perhaps less origin story than assuming the mantle story.
Sure, some attention is paid to what happens when a lighthouse keeper (Temuera Morrison) and Nicole Kidman’s exiled Atlantean Queen Atlanna are very much in love and do a special cuddle, and how a young Arthur is trained by Willem Dafoe’s Atlantean majordomo Vulko on the quiet to harness his powers, but for the most part we’re joining Arthur after all that Justice League unpleasantness, with him still wanting nothing to do with the undersea world.
However, the undersea world has decided it wants a piece of us, in particular Aquaman’s half brother and ruler of one of the powerful undersea Kingdoms, Orm (Patrick Wilson). He’s underhandedly setting about uniting the clans against a perceived common enemy, us landlubbers, and Vulko and Amber Heard’s Mera, Princess of something or other, come to the conclusion that the only way to stop this is have a highly reluctant Arthur challenge his half-brother for leadership.
As part of that he’ll need to be recognised as a rightful ruler after his long absence and “half-breed” status are counted against him, so he’ll have to seek out authority by reclaiming the legendary Atlan’s MacGuffin, sorry, Trident from the bosom of the water which if you ask me is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony. Out to stop him are Orm’s goon squads and Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), a human mercenary / pirate powered with Atlantean technology, holding a grudge against Arthur.
Like most comic book movies it’s a silly premise, and like most of the best of them it leans into this rather than trying to fight it. It’s helped massively by Jason Mamoa being such a likable, charismatic son of a gun, and he’s rapidly becoming the best hope for Hollywood action cinema’s survival after The Rock’s hip goes or something.
Of course, it’s basically one big parade of CGI, which here is on a sliding scale between works really well and really doesn’t. Most of it’s used to create fantastic undersea worlds the like of which could not be realised before Renderware was a thing, and this is all gravy, the usual unreality of CG swinging back to being an advantage rather than a hindrance.
Sadly the pendulum swings the other way for a few scenes taking place on-shore, and in a film that’s half an hour too long there’s one particular Italian village destroying scene that could have been pruned out without anyone missing it. It’s not enough to sink the film, ho ho ho, do you see what I did here, but in common with damn near everything we speak of there’s a great, tight 90, 100 minute film here scraped out past two hours. Also, Black Manta’s character design looks daft, in a bad way, on land, as opposed to some of the underwater army shenanigans towards the film’s end, which I find to be daft in entirely the correct way.
While there’s nothing overall outstandingly great or dreadful in Aquaman, some fun dialogue, decent performances, Momoa’s presence and the unique visual stylings make this a pretty enjoyable slice of entertainment, and I liked this as much as any other of the least dreadful Marvel or DC Universe films. Worth catching up with, should this sort of thing be your bag, and I congratulate it for have the incredible twist of not having Willem Dafoe be a bad guy. I did not see that one coming.
As a side note, I’m glad that Aquaman‘s the first DC film to cross the $1 billion mark purely on the basis that we can now retire the silly DC films are doomed argument, which never made a lick of sense to me. Sure, Marvel films made more bank, but when even a film as irredeemably awful as Suicide Squad can take in nearly $750 million, I don’t think we need to worry about customer demand. Now they seem to have worked out how to film something without reshooting half of it and paying for cutting edge mustache removal work, I suspect there’s a Scrooge McDuckian future awaiting them. For better or worse for the cinema landscape.
A Star Is Born
In a time of seemingly peak remake, it is worth remembering that Hollywood has always been remaking stuff; it just seems that our generation has a particular bee in our collective bonnet about the perceived sanctity of RoboCop, Ghostbusters and Total Recall. I’ve stopped caring about remakes any more, which is probably just as well as my blood pressure would probably have been beyond tolerance in the event of watching A Star Is Born.
I’m going to lay my stall out straight away and say that if you are going to remake a movie that has already seen three iconic incarnations you had better a) have something new and valid to say about the subject and b) have a pretty good excuse for placing a single foot wrong. So then, c) none of the above.
For what it’s worth, A Star Is Born isn’t a terrible movie – far from it in fact. It’s perfectly serviceable in any number of ways, and perhaps even above average in a great many. Bradley Cooper makes his directorial debut here, also starring alongside Lady Gaga as a fading country rock musician who takes a young protégé beneath his wing after drunkenly discovering her performing burlesque at a gay bar.
As they become romantically involved the pair begin to pass each other on inversely proportionate career paths, and you can probably guess just about every beat in-between; they say there is nothing new under the sun, which is of course demonstrably false, unless that is you base your case on A Star Is Born. Having said that, Cooper does turn in his best performance to date, even from beneath the regrettable choice of a Sam Elliott-aping gruff drawl (Elliott plays Cooper’s older brother in this film, and why he allowed this flagrant insult to pass I’ll perhaps never know). Cooper also proves himself perfectly capable behind the camera, though I’ll say it again – this roadmap has been revised three times, and with all due respect you’d have to work pretty hard to completely fuck it up. Mostly assured it is, an eight minute standing ovation at Cannes it ought not to have been.
If there is one thing that does genuinely stand out it’s Lady Gaga’s performance. I say Lady Gaga as that’s how she has chosen to be been billed here, but I really wish she hadn’t: to the best of my knowledge that’s a stage name for the musical endeavours of the fantastic performer, musician and songwriter Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, and it is most definitely she who shows up here. Gaga (if she must insist) is excellent; raw, unpolished, and refreshingly honest, and among all of the spurious awards nominations the movie has garnered it would be she who deserves genuine recognition for her efforts.
I don’t actively dislike A Star Is Born, but I find myself swimming pretty hard against the current of popular opinion. It is a four star movie and no mistake, but Sean “Self-righteous Garden Gnome-looking Prick” Penn does really need to sit the fuck back down and take his meds. I feel like this is a lazy choice for someone looking to make their name as a director, and we all know how much the entertainment industry likes to celebrate and revel in its own distorted, self-indulgent mythology. Go in knowing that and this is perfectly fine.
The trailer for Velvet Buzzsaw looked mildly interesting, seguing from art criticism to bloody horror, but the real draw was from Jake Gylenhall starring in another film written and directed by Dan Gilmore, ala Nightcrawler. Could they rebottle that lightning?
At this point I’d normally devote a few paragraphs to the film’s plot, but to be honest it’d be a waste of everyone’s time. Not, for once, because it’s badly done in and of itself, it’s just that it sets up so many strands that are ultimately unresolved, unless you count killing the protagonists for unrelated reasons a resolution.
Anyway, in a nutshell Gylenhall inhabits Morf Vandewalt, a highly influential art critic whose word can make or break careers. He goes about his routine interacting with other artists, agents and gallery owners like Rene Russo’s Rhodora Haze. Finding his love life with his boyfriend unfulfilling he starts one with his friend, and employee of Haze, Zawe Ashtons’ Josephina.
For a while it trucks along examining the generally unsavoury or ridiculous lives and relationships of these people before taking a hard left when a elderly gent in Josephina’s apartment building dies, leaving behind a body of dark, disturbing art that, spoilers, is haunted. And somehow causes other art to be haunted. Which then kills people, with no regard to any internal logic, rhyme or reason.
It’s not entirely clear for a while that “random murder” is the path this film’s committing to, as for a while it seems to be aiming for some investigative look at the artist’s life as Morf researches a book, before abandoning that, or at the psychological toll this takes on survivors as people start showing up dead in grisly tableaus, before abandoning that, or how it affects the already strained relationships of the leads, before abandoning that. All strands abandoned in favour of an admittedly often fun murderous special effect, but it does leave this film feeling like a directionless waste of time and effort.
I’d heard some take recently disliking it as it was pushing a message of criticism being inherently worthless and feeling like it was a thin-skinned reaction piece on Gilmore’s part. I think that’s giving this film far too much credit, because I don’t think it’s anything like cohesive or thought out enough to be accused of holding any sort of meaning or message at all.
Really, this is very much less than the sum of its parts. The thing of it is, a lot of those parts I quite liked, taken by themselves. The acting’s all pretty good, with support from the likes of Toni Collette and John Malkovich. The characters are all interesting in various ways and nothing like as one-note as the trailer might have led us to believe, and in general all the production values are very high.
Apart, that is, from the script, which feels like four decent enough story ideas passed thorough a woodchipper and reassembled at random, and is ultimately a waste of everyone’s time that doesn’t deserve a great deal of analysis. So let’s not do that.
Frustratingly, that’s not to say I hated watching Velvet Buzzsaw – the performances, characters, effects, et al are good enough to have it pass muster as a casual watch, but I absolutely hate thinking about Velvet Buzzsaw. It’s very much a film that gets less enjoyable with every second spent thinking about it, so let’s not do that.
Can You Ever Forgive Me?
An abrasive, misanthropic criminal who is far more interested in cats than other humans is perhaps not the most obviously compelling central character of a drama, nor would Melissa McCarthy be the first name most would think of to play such a role, yet here McCarthy is. Based on the memoir of the same name, Can You Ever Forgive Me? is the tale of New York writer Lee Israel (McCarthy), a once-popular writer of biographies whose latest novel is consigned to the discount piles and who is struggling to both write and to make ends meet, but doing just fine at the whole “alienating the entire human race” thing.
A chance discovery in an archive of an unknown letter written by the subject of her current book leads to Lee pocketing the document and selling it at a local bookshop. While this act may have been driven by desperation and worry over her ill cat, the one other sentient being she seems to have any compassion for or interest in, we have already been shown she’s not above the pettiest theft, and she’s soon running a cottage industry in forged artefacts from literary figures like Dorothy Parker and Noël Coward, using antique typewriters, headed notepaper and hot ovens to add a touch of authenticity.
As doubts begin to mount about the veracity of her wares and words gets around about her, Lee steps up to planned thefts to obtain genuine documents, while also enlisting the help of her recent acquaintance, and almost certainly only friend, Jack Hock (“Jack Hock, big cock”, as he charmingly introduces himself), to help her peddle her creations. Jack, played by Richard E. Grant, is a charismatic drunk who, if not living on the streets, is certainly couch-surfing at best, and who seems to support himself with small-time drug dealing, and who angers Lee by not fully appreciating the skill she is displaying in making fake letters from dead celebrities to scam people out of money. Truly, artists are not appreciated in their own lifetimes.
However, while there are no victimless crimes, we’re not talking about violence here, or the sort of fraud that can bring down companies and truly affect lives, nor is it fakery on the level of, say, The Hitler Diaries, and so, with such low stakes, it’s much easier to feel sympathy for Lee, even if she herself resists, and probably would resent, it, and to appreciate the tension and worry as the FBI begin to investigate.
Melissa McCarthy is great here, her performance a world away from the comedy roles, both good (Spy) and unbearable (The Boss) with which she made her name, but her comic acting skills underpin the irascible and sharply-cutting author whose persona bears more than a little resemblance to Dorothy Parker, whose literary voice she of course tried to mimic. She also gives a large helping of the pathos and loneliness which she has displayed a handful of times before, present even in her breakthrough role in the comedy Bridesmaids. Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty’s script no doubt helps, but it takes a substantial heap of talent to make such an infuriating character endearing, tragic and sympathetic while she works so hard at preventing you from feeling those things.
McCarthy’s co-star, Richard E. Grant, has received much acclaim for this film, and many comparisons have been made to his legendary turn in Withnail and I, and in particular his ability to play drunk, a nifty feat for a teetotaller who is allergic to alcohol. These comparisons are hyperbolic, of course. Indeed, how could they be otherwise? Withnail owned the screen, here Jack is necessarily second fiddle to McCarthy’s Israel, but it is still a great performance and probably the best turn I’ve seen from him in years. The scenes between these two lonely, damaged misfits are hugely enjoyable, touching and often funny, and there’s an easiness and warmth between them that holds your attention even when the film is crying out for a little more substance.
It’s this lack of substance that keeps Can You Ever Forgive Me? from being great, but Marielle Heller’s film is a still very rewarding watch. It’s not that there’s no substance, it’s just that more would be preferable: there’s unspoken acknowledgement between Lee and Jack that their lives are unfulfilled and that their loneliness and situation has been brought about by their own choices and also, though not always willingly, by their sexualities, and a deeper character study of each of these personalities would have been welcome.
A final word of praise for the film’s 1991 New York City setting, an aesthetic so well-realised and authentic that it almost seems effortless, and therefore no doubt was quite the opposite.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a low key heist movie about people who don’t know how to be with or around people, and the paper-thin façade we create to protect ourselves, and is funny, tragic and absolutely to be seen.
Thanks to everyone who has got in touch with us on this, or said kind words about the show – it’s all very much appreciated.
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