Didn’t get a chance to see anything big this week, though if Irish cinemas stay open long enough I’ll be checking out Pixar’s Onward soon enough. In the meantime, a return to a round-up of a few films I have seen this year but have not otherwise been able to comment on:
Taylor Swift has gone from being a contestant in regional country music sing-offs to one of the most famous names in the entertainment industry, and the journey has not been without its controversies. In this frank documentary, Swift opens up about her successes, how she deals with the pressures of fame, the intense hatred she seems to engender from some quarters and her entry into the world of political commentary.
I have no compunction is declaring my appreciation for Taylor Swift, a woman whose constant reinvention, in my opinion, only masks her incredible singing talent, which has run the range from country to future-pop. And yet, she is surprisingly, also in my opinion again, detested by a whole load of people. Both these aspects of her life are at the core of Miss Americana, an otherwise by-the-numbers musician documentary.
Swift is at the heart of sexism in her industry. As is adroitly pointed out here, male musicians are not required to reinvent themselves as constantly as female ones, and don’t have the same expiry date either. She was the focus of incredibly misogynistic behavior from Kanye West (several times), and ended up being made the bad guy by numerous people. And, worst of all, she was the subject of sexual assault herself, and had to go through the pathetically limited court system to get justice. Miss Americana is a full recounting of all of this, showcasing Swift as a conscientious and tough woman.
But tell that to “the haters”. Whether it is people on the street, other musicians, the media or Twitter, “Tay Tay” just can’t catch much of a break. The film offers an excellent summary of the cavalcade of bile that is often thrown in the singers direction, usually for no more reason than manufactured drama or the need to concoct some sort of asinine narrative. This subject alone could have made a feature-length documentary, and Miss Americana is at pains to showcase not so much Swift’s suffering, but outlining how she deals with such negativity mentally (and with the very human desire of just wanting to be liked). That’s an encouraging aspect to focus on, and one that is bound to ring a chord with a lot of different people.
Other than that, this is largely the same as Gaga: Five Foot Two, and to a slightly lesser extent Beyonce’s Homecoming, all from the same streaming home. The subject will always be portrayed positively, and will attempt the same kind of narrative-setting that the film nominally decries. In this case, the spine of the film is Swift’s attempt to influence the outcome of the Tennessee senatorial election, and here things fall apart a little, as director Lana Wilson struggles to really inject verve into proceedings: the inclusion of this little bit of drama seems forced, when there is so much of more interest to talk about elsewhere. Miss Americana has its insights to make, but perhaps does not linger enough on the main ones, preferring instead to make the whole experience a mite too palatable. It’s recommended, but don’t expect it to make any lasting impression.
In the midst of Ireland’s ever-worsening homelessness crisis, activist Sean Kavanagh decided to try and use football as a recovery device, setting up programmes and leagues dedicated to helping those without a home tackle their fitness, addictions and other issues in a positive manner. A few years on, and the programme has grown large enough that both male and, for the first time, women’s teams can be sent to play in the Homeless World Cup in Oslo, where they will put their footballing skills to the test. I caught a screening of Street Leagues at the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival.
I’m cheating a little bit here, as Street Leagues isn’t a feature, coming in at a lean 60 minutes, more of a TV documentary than really something for the cinema. But the subject matter is worthy of attention, so here we are. Anyone living in an urban area of Ireland, but especially Dublin, will know that the homelessness problem is a crisis that seems only to grow: official responses have been lacking in practicality, compassion or, most importantly, results. More notable has been more private responses, and the football programme initiated by Kavanagh is one of the more eye-catching.
So, for fans of helping the needy, and for fans of dramatised football, Street Leagues brings the goods. The benefits of physical activity for physical health (well duh) and mental health are obvious, but it refreshing to see such a prime example: men and women who have suffered abuse, substance addiction, serious psychological problems, all being helped to recover by the basics of a ball, two goals and two teams. Boiling sport down to those elements is a welcome distraction from the bluster and sensationalism at the highest levels of football: here, it is as simple as a father wanting to build a better life for him and his daughter, and needing the esteem boost that football brings to get there.
And then, to the World Cup. Perhaps not quite as dramatic as Italia ’90, but the depiction of the events in Oslo is entertaining, a rollicking ride through a feel-good tournament with a friendly, but competitive, air. Both genders acquit themselves well, with some going far into the knock-out stages: a nation holds its breath, etc. The framing here is basic enough, just a succession of highlights from the tournament, but some kinetic cinematography and behind-the-scenes glimpses of the two teams’ preparations give you a sense of the excitement and exhilaration.
In the end, the healing qualities of sport are on full display: addictions are managed, self-confidence is restored, people are getting second chances at establishing normal lives for themselves. In the screening, the filmmakers, players and Kavanagh were all present: the latter outlined the huge cost that running the leagues across the country entails, with the venture not exactly generating a huge amount of revenue. We would do worse than to support such movements, as our caretaker government continues to ignore the issue in favour of shadowboxing with each other. Recommended.
Heroic Losers (La Odisea De Los Giles)
In rural Argentina, Fermin (Ricardo Darin) and Lidia (Veronica Llinas) dream of buying a disused granary and creating a co-operative that will enliven their struggling community, but their plan turns into a nightmare following the 2001 financial crash. When money they had put into a bank goes missing in dodgy circumstances, Fermin teams up with others in the local community to enact their own form of revenge. I caught a screening of Heroic Losers at the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival.
Always good to take in a comedy from the other side of the globe, and Heroic Losers was a good one, losing little in translation and telling an enjoyable, albeit occasionally maudlin, tale of corruption, deceit and vigilante vengeance. While heavily grounded in the world of rural Argentina and the 2001 “corallito” scandal, an Irish audience is bound to find something worth resonating with here, in the story of a plucky community whose lives were ruined by greedy bankers, looking to get their money, and their own, back.
On the comedy side of things, Heroic Losers is an enjoyable ride, a film that is part Ocean’s 11, part Tower Heist. Fermin must get an eclectic group of characters together in order to enact the madcap scheme of doing over the villainous banker who is holding their money is a secret safe in the middle of a literal corral: they include his own son, ineffectively disguising himself as an office gardener to spy on the banker; the local mechanic, who keeps a bat handy in the incredibly unlikely event that the banker just turns up, the guy who happily chooses to live in a floodplain because the Army will always come to rescue him; and the two brothers who buy the village’s first cellphones that, of course, can only call each other. Despite having to experience the laughs through the written word, Heroic Losers gets it right, delivering a caper-comedy that is sure to bring a smile or two to most faces, provided you aren’t completely without joy.
Things escalate nicely, as Heroic Losers verges between a few different comedic set-pieces, but can never quite get away from the seriousness that it also wants to imbue into affairs. Of course the financial crash of 2001 was no joke for a number of people, but I do feel that a film of wacky rural village-dwellers basically attempting a ramshackle heist could do without spouse death, survivor guilt and other deadly serious sub-plots, that all combine to change the mood just a bit too much.
Without meaning to diminish the film’s attempt to be a cipher for the experience of Argentinians too much, it’s the kind of premise where you have to be a comedy or a drama, and not this kind of quasi-melding. If you can look beyond this slight failing, then Heroic Losers is a perfectly acceptable comedy film that is just the kind of foreign cinema that more people should take in on this side of the Atlantic. Recommended.
Mewtwo Strikes Back: Evolution
Pokemon trainers Ash (Sarah Natochenny), Misty (Michele Knotz) and Brock (Bill Rodgers) receive a mysterious invitation to travel to an isolated island. There, they will come face-to-face with someone claiming to be the world’s most powerful trainer: the genetically engineered Pokemon Mewtwo (Dan Green), out for revenge on the world that created him.
The year was 1998. France shocked us all by beating Brazil and original Ronaldo in the World Cup Final. Bill Clinton was impeached after engaging in an extra-marital relationship with Monica Lewinsky. Titanic became the first film to ever gross a billion American dollars. And a ten-year-old NFB clamoured to get into the cinema to take in Pokemon: The First Movie, after a whirlwind few months of cards, Game Boy addiction and basic anime enjoyment.
My impressions of that movie were uniformly positive, a year before I would have the same impression of The Phantom Menace. Re-watching it years later on a whim, I realised just how monumentally dull and ill-stitched together it all was, an elongated episode of the TV show that got just about everything wrong with its pacing. That, and it exhibited a frankly bizarre approach to Pokemon fighting each other: a completely normal state of affairs for the universe otherwise, in the movie it was something terrible to behold, apparently.
So when it was announced that said film was getting a 3D makeover, I did roll my eyes, and I did guffaw audibly, but I also did give it a look, out of sheer curiosity and nostalgia. And what I found was not all that great. A fairly straightforward remake of the original with some, ahem, “fancy” new graphics installed, Evolution makes a mockery of its title. This is not an evolution, but sheer running in place, with all of the same flaws that I listed above, with some new ones to boot.
To wit: the film’s second and third acts are exercises in drawn-out conversations and boring “realistic” Pokemon battles; the titular villain is written in an underwhelming fashion; the three main characters are just sort of there in a lot of ways; and the resolution, a real exercise in “A wizard did it”, is far more insulting to an adult audience than a children’s one. All Evolution really has going for it is the animation style, and while it certainly looks more modern, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it looks good. As static as the original anime was – legendarily so – this isn’t all that better: basic, cheap, uninspiring 3D animation, where movement is not fluid and where faces just look as dead and incapable of emoting as possible.
This is essentially a cash-grab, one that grabbed at my cash through Netflix. More power to them I suppose: the Pokemon franchise has always proven adept at slight alterations to keep the franchise going just that little bit longer, and will be doing so for some time to come yet. Don’t make the same mistake I did. Leave the memories alone. Not recommended.
(All images are copyright of Netflix, Bankhouse Productions and Warner Bros Pictures).