A masterpiece of high trash from the king of high trash. Pink Flamingos may be John Waters’ most infamous work, but Female Trouble is the more cutting, more acerbic and more intelligent film. Where Pink Flamingos set out to destroy respectability by virtue of being blatantly explicit, Female Trouble wraps the insanity into a plot and characters that serves to make a pointed and jet-black indictment of middle America’s hypocritical values. Divine was never more glamorous, luxuriating in her movie-star power, whilst the jokes and the sheer preposterousness of the film just keeps on coming.
Added note: I saw the film in a 35mm print in The Cube microplex in Bristol, with the best crowd possible, cheering, whooping, laughing and applauding the film throughout. Perhaps the best single experience I have ever had in a cinema.
Perhaps the most exhausting ninety minutes ever put together on film, His Girl Friday is certainly an impressive accomplishment of breakneck dialogue and thespian prowess. On the one hand, I’m always impressed by the film’s accomplishments at holding such a pace for such a long time—director Howard Hawks films most of the scenes very simply, in long takes and basic mid-shots, so there are few cheats of editing going on here; that really is Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell reeling off every line so quick that the sonic boom can just about be heard at times—but I’m not convinced it makes for a truly classic film as the minds of most mere mortals cannot keep up with that kind of pace. Nevertheless, when I can keep up long enough to catch the dialogue, it’s always smart, funny, and well-delivered. I only wish I had a chance to breathe at times.
Black Mirror returns, this time with a bigger scope, bigger budgets, and longer and more numerous episodes. What does this mean for Charlie Brooker’s warped, sinister creation? In some cases, the bigger scope allows for a fuller realisation of Brooker’s vision, but the series’ greatest asset to date has been its very nearness; almost all the episodes in the first two series were based on premises that felt very possible within the near future (or in the case of a certain Mr. Piggy, actually happened). Series Three strikes towards implausibility more than once and as a result struggles to have the same otherworldly impact at times. Still, it’s a damn good series all the same, and the move to Netflix allows it greater freedom in terms of episode times and structure, leading to a larger variety of stories being told and perhaps a stronger overall impact.
Episode Ranking (+spoilers sometimes)
1 – Nosedive (3.5/4): The most openly humorous of the third series, Nosedive is a satire on our Instagram/twitter-obsessed culture where people base their self-worth on how others view them. The tragedy is of course that much of the world depicted herein has already come to exist, and the more totalitarian elements of Nosedive (firing of employees or lack of access to certain services based on your social media ranking) already have certain real-world precedents, with employers more and more frequently implementing strict social-media policies at work.
2 – Playtest (3/4): The weakest episode of the third series, although it is certainly the most fun one to watch for video game fans. Whilst its premise is within the realms of near-plausibility, its execution is less so—who would agree to playing a virtual/augmented-reality game which penetrates your deepest fears and makes them seem real and also includes a painful-looking implant?—but despite that, Playtest is an effective mini-horror, tense and jumpy enough to be worthwhile.
3 – Shut Up and Dance (4/4): Not so much plausible as already reality, Shut Up and Dance tells the story of Kenny, whose webcam is hacked mid-wank; he is then blackmailed into carrying out instructions decided upon by a mysterious organisation. Such things have already become reality in many ways, although not yet in such a dark, ugly way. The entire episode sustains a mood of itchy, nervous tension and panic. Easily the fastest-paced and best of the series.
4 – San Junipero (3.5/4): Despite being the most implausible episode premise-wise—the terminally-ill and the already-dead can pay to stay in San Junipero, a digitally-crafted beachside paradise town to party their infinities away in whatever era they choose—San Junipero is also the most heartbreaking and humane episode of the series. Two visitors meet and fall in love, but troubles arise as we find more and more about their real lives, the ones they live outside of sunny San Junipero. San Junipero sets its sights high, aiming to handle such lofty topics as the finality of death, the commitment and hard work of a lifelong marriage, and the ephemeral nature of youth. For the most part it succeeds with supreme confidence, helped along by two brilliant performances by Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Mackenzie Davis, both of whom are real rising stars. Unfortunately SPOILER Charlie Brooker pulls his punches at the very last moment. San Junipero is the only episode with a happy ending in the entirety of Black Mirror. Our two leads riding off happily into the sunset sounds great on paper, but with all that comes before it, it saps the emotive character of Brooker’s message. What could have been one of Black Mirror’s best ever episodes is merely just an excellent one, sadly.
5 – Men Against Fire (3.5/4): Bearing similarities to the recently-released British zombie film The Girl With All the Gifts, Men Against Fire is a fine treatise on the nature of propaganda control and how it effects how we view others, particularly refugees and the poor. Its central premise SPOILER, that soldiers are implanted with chips that make them see the enemy not as fellow human beings but as horrendous, vile monsters is almost certainly something that militaries across the world are already working on, and the episode’s ugly atmosphere goes a long way to creating the right degree of verisimilitude. Of all the episodes in this series, Men Against Fire offers perhaps the bleakest view of humanity’s future: everywhere else our protagonists are at the very least able to retain some glimmer of humanity, no matter how dim. Here, it is the very thing we have long since lost.
6 – Hated in the Nation (3.5/4): This one would work just fine as a standalone film. It’s perhaps the most idea-loaded of the six episodes, many of which again feel entirely plausible. SPOILERS It’s entirely logical that we might soon have to use drone bees to pollinate flowers and prop up the ecosystem. It’s entirely logical that governments would want to use them as spies. It’s entirely logical that the public would be goaded into using Twitter hatestorms to kill people, and only the episode’s late-game twist feels implausible in real-life, even if it is perfectly logical in the context of the episode. Some excellent performances here too, and a fine way to cap off an excellent series. Series Three may not reach the same heights as earlier episodes so frequently, but when it does it’s a pleasure to watch.
Perhaps the pinnacle of Robert Altman’s style, Nashville is truly a great work of American cinema. How many other filmmakers have the confidence and guts to put together a movie with not one, not two, but 24 major characters? Even more staggeringly, Altman pulls it off without barely a hitch, stuffing his film with layer upon layer of minor revealing details, aided by actors who were every bit as invested in the project as he was. In addition (and its easy for me to say this as I do love me some country music), the songs are fantastic too; mostly written by the cast, they function as revealing moments of character development themselves, all part of a larger tapestry of an America that was then standing at crossroads between the cynicism of Watergate and the lost promises of Carterism. A stone-cold masterwork.
As with many Charlie Kaufman’s scripts, Adaptation. is almost too clever for its own good, loaded with self-reflexivity, metatextuality, and self-awareness. It works by virtue of also being endearing and humane, something lacking in his most recent work, the stop-motion animation Anomalisa. The film is aided by a stellar cast, featuring not one but two Nicolas Cages in a career highlight; as well as Spike Jonze’s low-key, simplistic direction. A smart decision given that the complexity of Kaufman’s screenwriting calls for such a style simply to be able to tell the story clearly. The best of the films the two did together.
Some of Duck Soup has dated quite badly in the intervening 80+ years. Frankly, it’s even more amazing that so much of it still holds up today. Duck Soup, like most Marx Brothers films, is little more than a collection of gags and jokes latched onto a nonsensical plot, and well…that’s about it. Groucho is a never-ending stream of one-liners, Chico a never-ending stream of one-liners with an accent on it, Harpo a never-ending stream of buffoonery, Zeppo a never-ending stream of “wait, why the fuck is he one of the Marx Brothers again?”, Gummo a never-ending stream of “wait, he was a Marx Brother?”, Karl a never-ending stream of astounding socio-political analysis, and Duck Soup a never-ending stream of laughter.
Truth be told, whilst I appreciate Mel Brooks’ place in the pantheon of American comedy writing and filmmaking, I’ve never been that enamoured about his films. The original version of The Producers is much the same. The premise, about a producer and an accountant (Zero Mostel and a fresh-faced Gene Wilder respectively) teaming up to make money out of a surefire bad-taste Broadway flop, is superb, and there are some genius one-liners (“will the dancing Hitlers please wait in the wings”). Yet, significant sections of Brooks’ first feature have dated badly in the almost 50 years since, and the perpetual hysterical mugging at the camera does come across as being desperate to please instead of endearing; a shame considering how tight some of the writing is. Still though, singing Hitlers.
Outside of the deservedly famous and genuinely brilliant traffic jam sequence and a few other mildly funny scenes, there isn’t much to like in Week-end. Godard again gets himself confused with someone intelligent and radical and again his political points here (that the bourgeoisie will collapse under the weight of their consumerism) are portrayed with all the depth of a urine puddle. Yes, his left-leaning thinking is nice and he has the right ideas, but it doesn’t change the fact that he’s a fucking bore to listen to with no unique or interesting ideas of his own except for staging an 8-minute long traffic jam. A cinematographer as talented and brilliant as Raoul Coutard was wasted on this hack.
Let’s not beat around here, Borat is one of the funniest comedies of the 21st century, and despite the overall simplicity of its targets, also one of its sharpest satires. And as with so many of the best satires, those who accuse it of racism, anti-Semitism and all manner of bad things are often precisely those whom the film is targeting; the lazy, self-centred, posturing progressivism of so many, not to mention the plain stupidity and ignorance of the those on the other side of the political divide. That Borat was so successful seems to me to be in spite of its own targets, as if the average idiot simply laughed at Sacha Baron Cohen’s character rather than his targets, but then that in itself is the mark of a good satire.