October was the Month of Television with me as I blazed through an unprecedented three series, two of which I will comment on here (my head is still spinning re: Succession). And of course, If you know me, you know why I am morally obligated to weigh in on a new James Bond film. Let’s goooooooo!
SPOILERS AHEAD FOR ALL OF THESE SHOWS AND MOVIIES
I went into Midnight Mass with absolutely no information other than the title and the fact that Hamish Linklater plays a creepy-looking priest. All The Big Short alums instantly earn my attention, so I hit play in hopes of some sPoooKy fun.
Fun is not what occurs in Midnight Mass. The show’s lack of commitment to any genre makes the first three or so episodes difficult to get through: we’re not sure if we’re watching a small-town drama, a religious thriller, or a supernatural horror series. We receive enough hints of the latter two options to keep us going, but at the cost of a lot of extremely talky and slow-moving sequences of sad-sack Riley Flynn (Zach Gilford) awkwardly existing in his Stephen King-sian island home town and re-connecting with high school crush and sweater-wearer Erin Greene (Kate Siegel).
In terms of identifiable screenwriting issues, this protagonist is extraordinarily inactive. Riley is not at home for any perceptible necessity, and is not trying to do anything in particular. This lack of causal fulcrum makes the show frustratingly meandering until the vampires show up.
Oh yeah! The vampires!
The appearance of a blood-sucking flying monster brings much-needed action but also a head-scratching layer of incoherence to the proceedings, especially given the religious ideas that the show has dealt with so far. So are angels actually vampires? Vampires actually angels?
The show also wants us to think (or at least consider) that vampirism just a scientifically explainable disease. So is the big vampire is just in the latest stages of that disease? If so, why the claw-ed wings and the ability to fly? We don’t know, and the show isn’t interested in letting us find out. But finding out is usually the most compelling part of a show of this type.
Thematic incoherence follows logical incoherence: we don’t know if the town’s religious hysteria is directed at anything real, so we don’t know how to view it in context of what the show is trying to say about human nature, or belief, or anything.
I wasn’t familiar with Mike Flanagan’s work before the show, but apparently he has a penchant for monologuing, which is absolutely out of control here. Show don’t tell? Yeah right, not in Mike’s world. Why show a story beat in two shots when you can accomplish the same thing in a three-minute anecdote about something tangentially related to the story beat?
Learned: Since Midnight Mass has been described as Mike Flanagan’s “passion project”, I think the best takeaway might be to never make a passion project. Kill you passions before they become boring television that only makes sense to you.
What can I really say about the global phenomenon that hasn’t been said? It’s brilliant, inventive, weird, messy, disappointing, and thrilling.
It might be worth just talking about the ways in which squid game inspired me personally, and the (smaller) ways in which it didn’t.
The first thing that hit me about Squid game was the sheer inventiveness of the concept, which is interesting because taking a step back, it isn’t at all new. The Hunger Games, Battle Royale, Saw, and plenty of others have all done different takes on the compete-for-your life subgenre.
So what made Squid game feel so fresh? I think it has to do with the details of the execution, especially in the design of the games themselves and the whole system that surrounds them. We understand early on that there will be games and the losers will die. The suspense comes from how specifically that will play out, and in what decisions that the characters will be forced to to make.
Maybe the best example of this is the Dalgona candy sequence, in which the characters are given a seemingly innocuous choice of four different simple shapes. We have no clue what these shapes will mean, but one character, Sang-Woo (Park Hae-soo) does. With this knowledge, he must decide whether to help his fellow players, or let them make a mistake that could kill them.
Squid Game gives us characters that we like and understand, and then pushes them to the absolute brink to show us who they really are. To tie it into my favorite Coen Brothers quote: “We get you invested, then shake the floor”.
Where the show broke down a bit for me was its need to give us a couple of last-episode reveals that if anything undercut the strong character work that was built up. I couldn’t come up with with a thematic point that the reveals underlined — they seemed to be there just for the sake of surprise. The show had so much dramatic power in its central engine that the gotchas felt cheap and meaningless, and also not the best setup for a second season.
Learned: Character is built by decisions made until pressure. Shake the floor hard.
No Time to Die
In February of 2020, my friend Laura and I came to the sad realization that pragmatically, we would probably never get around to watching every single James Bond movie.
Unless… we dared each other to watch one every single day for 24 days. We threw in the two non-canonical Bond movies for good measure, topped the month off with Austin Powers, and the 29 days of Bond February was born. It was a true test of endurance and sanity, but we came out on the other side with priceless confidence in the knowledge that NO ONE has seen more Bond than us.
Therefore it was with great anticipation that I approached the long-delayed No Time to Die, since I am now a leading authority on the subject.
I could easily nit-pick the film, but I had fun watching it and was engaged for all of its (very long) runtime. Fun set pieces, entertaining new characters (Ana De Armas and Lashana Lynch), and a third act that was one big callback to Dr. No made this a worthy conclusion to the comparatively outstanding Daniel Craig entries of the series.
This got me thinking about how the franchise could logically move forward, which I think boils down to one important question: what is the dramatic engine of James Bond?
While you can change his external features, Bond’s nucleus has to remain intact: he’s fundamentally a hardened killer who does not allow personal matters to get in the way of his job. Because of this, there’s really only one way for any semblance of an arc to be introduced into a Bond film: give him someone to care about against his better judgement, and then take that person away from him, either by their death or betrayal (or, in Casino Royale, both simultaneously). This breaks down his hard exterior and reveals a human man underneath. No Time to Die repeats the betrayal beat (then takes it back), which might be a bit predictable, but again, there’s not many other things to do with him.
Then my thought experiment became the following: what would happen if you reversed that dramatic arrow, starting with Bond as human and then showing how he loses that? Would it still be a Bond Movie? Just a thought, I dunno.
However I do have a pitch for the next Bond: Make James Bond Kinda Lame Again. We all fell in love with the super cool, super buff, super not embarrassing Craig Bond, but what if we headed back into Roger Moore territory of corny uncoolness? I think this is what we need to breathe life into the franchise, and there’s only one actor for the job:
Yes, big-eared softboi and The Crown‘s Prince Charles, Josh O’Connor. Unfortunately, googling “Josh O’Connor Bond” only yields the result of Josh O’Connor stating in an interview “I will not do Bond”, but let me dream, OK???
Learned: The distinctive core of a franchise character can limit the narrative choices that you can make, but that limitation must actually make for a really interesting writing challenge.
Last Night in Soho
Last Night in Soho marks the arrival of Edgar Wright as a true auteur — i.e. a director who is successful to the point that everyone is afraid to tell him his script is a complete mess with nothing coherent to say. You can tell that meaningful notes were not sought out or given during the writing process, because Last Night in Soho is full of first draft problems.
Last Night in Soho is about Eloise (Thomasin McKenzie), an aspiring fashion designer who leaves her home in the British countryside for London.
What happens next is as hard to explain as it is to comprehend while watching: Eloise has vivid waking (and not waking) dreams even before she arrives in London, but when she gets there, her apartment is also perhaps haunted. The dreams/hallucinations take an intense turn, with Eloise inhabiting the persona a woman who was possibly murdered there in the 1960s every time she goes to sleep. Here’s the first first-draft problem: Wright should have chosen either the hallucinations or the ghosts, or at least make it more clear how or if they are interacting with each other. As written, it’s incredibly confusing.
Last Night in Soho is on its surface meant to be a film about nostalgia: Eloise’s fascination with the 1960s is emphasized well, emphatically. However, that thematic line is not played out in any coherent way. The film fails to draw a meaningful distinction between the SoHo of the past and the SoHo of today, with both portrayed as a relentless hellscape for women with lots of colorful and moody lighting. Despite her discovery that the past is pretty scary, Eloise finds success and praise for her retro dress designs at the end of the film. Has her relationship with the past changed at all? If this is meant to be an indictment of nostalgia, it isn’t a very strong or clear one.
Edgar Wright’s approach to the experience of being a women is a predictable brand of nice-guy condescension. It’s implied that Eloise had never been harassed by random men before coming to the BIG CITY, as though seedy urban environments are really the problem, not, you know, men. Eloise is also given a saintly male love interest who is designed to make Scott Pilgrim fanboys comfortable. They can point and declare that they are like that guy: Nice To Women!
This note COULD be a nit-pick if the rest of the script was written better, but it’s actually worth pointing out that the entire plot, including the “twist”, hinges on the fact that the old actors do not look like their younger counterparts. This feels like a cheat because in any kind of realistic context knowing who the villain is would just be an observational no-brainer.
Learned: No one is so good that their first draft works.