We get our laughing gear around In and Of Itself, Earwig and the Witch, The Kid Detective, The Dig, The Endless Trench, and Promising Young Woman. What revs our motors and what blows our gaskets? Tune in and find out!
In and Of Itself
Derek DelGaudio’s In & of Itself is, in no way, a film. However, this recorded version of the stage show was directed by Frank Oz, and IMDb lists it as a documentary, so I’ll take it, as what I really wanted was an excuse to watch this and talk about it, as, apparently, everyone has been talking about it, or so I am led to believe.
Premiering in Los Angeles and then moving to New York for a run of 552 performances, In & of Itself is a magic show that, in large part, eschews the use of magic, which is a bold choice to be sure. Rather than using elaborate, showy set pieces, the soft-spoken DelGaudio favours subtler fare, often close-up and card tricks, to focus his audience’s attention and to help tell the story that is the backbone of the show.
That story is of DelGaudio himself, a selective autobiography, as he ponders the question of “Who Am I?”, and asks the audience to consider the same thing, while curiously infrequently performing low-key tricks. (I rather worry about the audience members wowed by what is, clearly, Kinetic Sand, a children’s toy, or the later brick “discovery”: “oh my god, how could a non-unique brick possibly get to somewhere in New York City 30 minutes to an hour after its location is described during a show? It’s a murkle!”)
Most of the gasps and the emotion are left for the finale, though: an impressive feat of memorisation, certainly, but the basic mechanics of which seem very easy to guess at, and the actual pay-off seems astonishingly manipulative, especially compared to the genuinely emotional letter sequence a little earlier in the piece. I have seen this portion described as “an emotionally devastating sucker punch”, but to me the appropriate term is “cheap shot”.
Near the beginning, in a voiceover recorded for the film, DelGaudio tells us:
“You think this is a performance. You see a man in a theatre, there’s an audience, his lines are memorised, his actions rehearsed. It is difficult to see past what this looks like. Hell, it’s easy to lie on a stage, it’s even easier to lie in a film. I do not expect you to believe anything you’re seeing or hearing.
And knowing you won’t believe me, that’s the only reason I’m going to tell you the truth. You do have a choice, though: you can see it for what it is, or you can imagine what it could be.”
I wish that I could see it for what it could be, but I can only see it for what it is: bullshit. This is a performance, and DelGaudio a good actor. I certainly hope it’s the case, because if his tears are actually genuine, then after 552 performances he must surely be destroyed and suffering from PTSD. But I’m not buying it, especially as I know the story of “El Ruletista”, that forms a significant part of the narrative, is a 1993 short story by Romanian novelist Mircea Cărtărescu, not the Spanish urban legend it’s presented as.
Despite what I appreciate seems a very negative review, I still found this passably enjoyable, and certainly interesting, so it’s worth seeing. Just don’t believe the hype.
Earwig and the Witch
It’s a hard knock life for 10 year old Earwig. Not, perhaps surprisingly, because she’s grown up at St. Morwald’s Home for Children, where she was donated, I believe is the term, by her mother as a mere babe. She’s quite comfortable there, having the staff wrapped around her little finger. No, trouble comes when Bella Yaga and Mandrake decide to adopt her, in part because Bella Yaga is a witch and Mandrake appears to be a demon.
Taken to their home slash potion store, Earwig is set to work as an extra pair of hands slash slave, with the doors sealed by means majickal. So Earwig starts to plot an escape, working with Yaga’s put upon cat familiar Thomas, and along the way might uncover a connection between Bella Yaga, Mandrake, and her long lost mother. Although it could equally well just be a massive coincidence, as this film seems to have no concept of structure, character development, or basic action and reactions.
We are, as evidenced by podcasts passim, generally fans of Studio Ghibli’s output but not without some exceptions. However even in the less interestingly or altogether too minimally plotted outings, there’s still a level of appreciation for the artistry involved in the artistry and beauty of the piece. And, to be fair, there’s a few background frames where this looks entirely on Ghibli’s normal level. However, this is the studio’s first venture into 3D animated features, and it looks a lot like a failed beta test that’s escaped into the wild.
The character design on these supposed humans is frankly repellant, and that makes this a very difficult film to invest any emotion in. And, well, so does the minimally described characters, the let’s politely say spartan plot, and the general sense that there’s an interesting film in here about a touring rock group composed of witches and demons that’s very occasionally glimpsed between what feels like vast stretches of (to be fair, justified) moaning about Earwig’s lot in life, even though this film barely runs to 80 minutes.
Not interesting, looks ugly. Not Gorō Miyazaki’s finest hour, by a long chalk. I’ve been trying and failing to find some concrete production timelines on this, as it feels as though it’s been rushed, or as rushed as something like this can be. But speculation aside, this just isn’t worth your time.
The Kid Detective
Imagine peaking in early adolescence, your greatest achievement arriving before your facial hair. So it was for Adam Brody’s Abe Applebaum in Evan Morgan’s The Kid Detective. While we’re not talking Bobby Fischer here in terms of achievement (nor, fortunately for Abe, in terms of decline), his adult self is very much stuck in a rut, coasting on the acclaim (and free ice creams) of his youthful successes.
Now 32, Abe is a private detective who once operated out of his tree house, solving great mysteries like missing cats, stolen trinkets and whether or not someone’s friend really trained with the Mets during the summer, for nominal fees. The tree house has now become an office, and… actually, that’s about all that’s changed, apart from adhering to a pretty strict, uh, drug, uh, regimen to keep his mind, you know, uh, limber. Well, and the addition of a goth secretary, played with superb “I could not give less of a fuck” disdain by Veep’s Sarah Sutherland.
The title suggests a live action Disney film, perhaps with shades of The Hardy Boys, and the colourful early flashbacks do little to disabuse you of that notion, but in the desaturated actuality of Abe’s life things start less happy and get dark, quickly. Always lurking beneath Abe’s storied successes is his great failure: his friend and employee, Gracie, disappeared when they were 14. Everyone in the town knew that it was only a matter of time until he found her, but he never did. Since then he’s become an object of ridicule and pity for pretty much everyone in his small town, including his parents, a situation not helped by defending himself at a family dinner by stating that he has “solved over 200 mysteries”.
It’s a surprise, then, when a dame he knew would be trouble walks into his office… well, a high school student who he’s actually done work for before, though he doesn’t remember her, though in Abe’s head he’d clearly love to be Sam Spade, and she a femme fatale. This dame is Caroline (Sophie Nélisse), who wants him to solve the murder of her boyfriend Patrick (“Somebody murdered my boyfriend” “Seriously?!” “Pretty seriously – he was stabbed 17 times”), something the police seem unable to do. Taking the case, but charging no fee, Abe wants to use the opportunity to restore his reputation, but that decision will take him down darker roads than he ever imagined, and awaken old ghosts.
Adam Brody has a face I knew, though could only recall from the recent Ready or Not, but apparently had been tipped for great things in the past, something that never quite transpired. It is perhaps inspired casting, then, but whatever the reason for his presence, Brody is excellent as the defeated and rather pathetic gumshoe, with his hangdog expression. He has a wonderful foil in Sophie Nélisse, who came to fame in Brian Percival’s The Book Reader, as Caroline, whose trusting innocence and bright charm contrast wonderfully with Abe’s moroseness and cynicism, and there’s a delightfully wholesome relationship between them.
Both the writing and direction are hugely assured from first-timer Evan Morgan, who manages to successfully balance the tonal shifts of the mixture of black comedy, regular comedy, film-noir pastiche, existential introspection and ennui with an intriguing mystery a good 90% of the time. There’s particular joy in seeing daft clichés called out by characters, and a great pay-off to a running gag about hiding in wardrobes.
While not as good, though certainly much funnier, The Kid Detective is very reminiscent of Rian Johnson’s Brick (a comparison that the world and its dog has made, but is no less apposite for it), which you ought to consider a high commendation.
It is surely a peculiarity of rural British life that some situations may not be resolved to satisfaction until such time as a weary father figure, typically clad in beige tweed, has cast his gaze upon it, huffing assuredly upon a well-worn pipe, and only after some time asserting confidence through some single, regional syllable.
Such it is that Carey Mulligan finds herself enlisting the services of Ralph Fiennes in The Dig, one of early 2021’s hot Netflix tickets and an early contender for the Best British Copse, Pasture or Arable Acre award at this year’s BAFTAs. The former plays Edith Pretty, a naturally inquisitive landowner from Sutton Hoo, Suffolk, who in 1938 decided to tackle the mysterious burial mounds located on her land. In doing so she enlisted the help of enthusiast archaeologist Basil Brown (Fiennes), and as this film would have it so began a beautiful friendship which saw the pair take on the British historical establishment armed with nowt but a sense of discovery and some good old fashioned elbow grease.
Brown’s hunch that the site is Anglo-Saxon rather than Viking turns out to be well founded, and word of the dig’s historic cultural value soon spreads. As is to be expected of the early 20th century middle classes the Ipswich Museum, nominally Brown’s employer, and the British Museum, represented by eminent archaeologist Charles Phillips (portrayed here by Ken Stott’s nose) profess their disdain at Edith’s management of the site, and attempt to assert their particular brand of bureaucracy upon what has become an excavation of national import. After all, the poor woman is clearly hysterical! Fwah-fwah-fwah-fwah-fwah!
After much wrangling, demotion, jurisdictional assertion, humanistic appealing and smoking of pipes, a side-lined Brown is allowed to continue digging along with a cabal of somewhat more academic types, and Britain is rewarded with one of it’s most significant archaeological finds to date. Shame everyone was more concerned with the onset of war, really…
There is something reassuring about The Dig that I can’t quite put my finger on. It’s a proper mint humbug of a film that just wants to pour its audience a cup of tea and a good yarn without necessarily challenging them too much, however it manages to avoid coming across as lazy or trite by virtue of some wonderfully committed performances, a decent script, and occasionally beautiful cinematography that all work to cement the feeling of time and place pretty well. Nothing about it is necessarily groundbreaking, but then nothing about it is particularly bad either.
I was concerned at a point about half an hour to forty-five minutes in that there was going to be some romantic entanglement between the leads, and while there are hints of repressed emotion here and there the script wisely keeps their relationship firmly platonic. Duties of lust instead fall to Lily James as archaeological assistant Peggy and Johnny Flynn’s Rory Lomax, Edith’s cousin to whom she entrusts management of the dig, and I think it benefits the movie on the whole to have this theme of buried emotions more evenly distributed throughout the fabric of the narrative.
There are some other bits and bobs going on that don’t amount to as much as they might, such is the intent of director Simon Stone to keep things as low key as possible, but they do serve to shoehorn in moments of mild tension and occasional levity, and as a result The Dig is just…very difficult to dislike. I’m not sure the praise being heaped upon the movie from certain quarters is necessarily all that deserved; if this is a film that has something to say about the fleeting nature of time and how we tend to bury our feelings in the past then it does so while operating at little more than a surface level.
Still, as I say it’s a very difficult film to dislike, and it came along at a time when I was in the mood for just this kind of thing. I rate this film “fine” out of “hmmm.”
The Endless Trench
Imagine being trapped inside for ages, unable to see anyone, unable to go anywhere, seeing only the same four walls, day after day, while your life seems on hold…
In 2019, when La trinchera infinita, or The Endless Trench, was produced, this probably seemed hard to comprehend for most. How times change… But now imagine being trapped in what is, save the mud, more or less an actual trench, and it’s for 33 years, trapped, metaphorically and literally, in the structure of an actual war. Ah, now we’re in nightmare territory.
The Endless Trench is based on real events, but rather than an embellished “true story”, it’s an imagined fiction working from numerous real-world examples of “topos”, or “moles”: enemies of Francisco Franco’s fascist regime in Spain who had been in hiding since the Civil War, fearing retribution and possible execution for crimes – whether real, embroidered or simply invented – relating to having supported the Republican faction and, therefore being on the wrong side (i.e. they lost). A number of these “moles” eventually emerged when an amnesty was declared in 1969 to commemorate 30 years since the ending of the war.
The mole at the centre of The Endless Trench is Higinio (Antonio de la Torre), who is hidden by his new bride, Rosa (Belén Cuesta), after a raid on his small village in Andalucía by Nationalist soldiers. He almost escapes the village at first, but his attempt is thwarted by his Franco-supporting neighbour, Gonzalo (Vicente Vergara), and is forced to return to his house and hide in a void hidden by some wooden steps.
The grudge-bearing Gonzalo is an ever-present threat to Higinio, especially in a small village where everyone knows everyone else’s business, as are intermittent searches of homes by the police and military. Even after hostilities end, Higinio is warned by Rosa that Republican supporters have been executed when found, so there’s no end in sight to Higinio’s confinement, and dark irony for the audience as he pins his hopes on the Allied defeat of Nazi Germany to force Franco’s ousting by the international community.
A move to Higinio’s father’s house is engineered after a few years, but it is, in reality, simply an upgrade to a slightly bigger trench in which to be confined, while life and the world move on around him. Threats to Higinio and Rosa, from both within and without, mean that tension is never eased, that there can be no relaxing, and when a child comes along things only get more complicated.
Parts of the film’s two and a half hour running time drag but, and this you won’t hear from me often, is both legitimate and necessary: the portions in which nothing much seems to happen or change (while, in the outside world, much changes) are crucial to selling Higinio’s plight, the grind where one day is indistinguishable from the next (it really is a serendipitously timely film) becoming hypnotic and monotonous.
There’s plenty to chew on and ponder, though, even when there’s no action to speak of, particularly the changing of gender roles (and Higinio’s perceived “emasculation”) in the hugely traditionalist Spain after the war, as well as the effects of a civil war on a country, so much more damaging and insidious than wars against a foreign power: in that case you can go home and hide away. How does one do that in a community where your neighbour, literally, was your enemy? Gonzalo is a victim of this in a way, his zeal and obsession confining him to a prison of his own mind for the 33 years that his nemesis evaded him, and one that, unlike Higinio, he may never escape.
Despite having three directors (the Basque trio of Aitor Arregi (Arrevi), Jon Garaño and Jose Mari Goenaga), the vision of the film is very coherent, unlike the opening credits which, after the Netflix logo, display that typical low-budget, especially European, list of eleventy-one production companies and various governmental and cultural funding bodies that probably contributed 15,000€ each, that makes you marvel that anything ever gets made. I am, however, glad that this did get made, and that Netflix is now making it more widely accessible, as it’s an extremely rewarding watch.
Promising Young Woman
Carey Mulligan’s Cassie Thomas leads an unconventional life, a disillusioned coffee shop worker by day, and a To Catch A Predator honey trap by night. Masquerading as hopelessly drunk she allows Ohio’s selection of “nice guys” to help her get home whereupon they invariably attempt to parlay that into date rape, at which point she can spring a gotcha, although I feel there ought to be some further step involved beyond pointing out the hypocrisy and peacing out. Seems like a dangerous hobby.
But why do this? Glad you asked. Turns out it’s largely a response to the sexual assault suffered by her friend Nina when they were at med school, the trauma from which caused Nina to drop out and Cassie to follow suit to care for her, although she did eventually commit suicide after the crime was not taken seriously and brushed under the carpet.
This all resurfaces when an old med school friend, Bo Burnham’s Ryan Cooper, walks into the coffee shop, and a relationship begins. However, when Cassie realises that one of the perpetrators of Nina’s gang rape is about to get married, she hatches a scheme for revenge.
I found Promising Young Woman to be an uncomfortable and not particularly rewarding watch, not just because of the subject matter. My main problem was an inconsistent tone, and I’m not sure whether that’s by design or accident. It bounces around between dark comedy, straight drama and slasher flick so often that the whiplash very much detracts from the film.
Similarly the lauded performance of Mulligan, which I’m also not sure if I can decide whether its a really great, subtle piece of work, or a piece of something else entirely. When she’s being, well, a normal human being in the relationship with Ryan she seems, well, human, but I’m not convinced by her turn as a nihilistic wage slave or as a cunning femme fatale.
All that puts me rather off balance, which I suppose is the point of the film, but I think it’s getting there through its intended route. I don’t dislike the general concept of the film though, and there’s a good, modern update on a grindhouse genre staple in here somewhere, but for my money, not quite in this iteration.
Ultimately it’s not something I’d recommend, although I’m sure a lot of people will get much more out of it.
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