Notes on Split

Notes on Split

I went to see Split on my twenty-third birthday, and I was very excited. That was partly because my birthday was the day Donald Trump was inaugurated as President and it was a way to not think about, you know, events. But it was mostly because I am an M. Night Shyamalan apologist, and he was back! I love The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable and The Happening, and after a string of bad decisions, he was resurgent. He’d had a surprise hit on television with Wayward Pines and his previous film, The Visit, had been both well-received and profitable. Now it was time for his redemption story to go mainstream with his biggest success since Signs.

And it did.

Measured by return on investment, Split was Shyamalan’s most profitable movie, turning $9 million into over $250 million, and it received some of the best reviews of his career. It was number one at the US box office for three consecutive weeks (a record in Shyamalan’s filmography matched only by The Sixth Sense), it had a sequel greenlit by April, and James McAvoy is one of the year’s prototypical examples of an actor locked out of the Oscars race by genre rather than merit. M. Night Shyamalan brought his reputation back from the dead with one of the year’s most successful movies.

And I hated it.

Continue reading “Notes on Split”


The One Where Pop Culture Disintegrates

The One Where Pop Culture Disintegrates

Why do people still love Friends so much?

To be clear, I love Friends. I’ve seen every episode of Friends multiple times. It was a good show, and often a great one. It was such a massive juggernaut hit at the time that it’s inevitable that it would have some staying power – I can’t imagine a world where Friends was forgotten, consigned to the ash heap of history. Anything that big hangs around for a while. Culture doesn’t have a reset button, you just turn it at right angles and draw over what’s already there.

But Friends isn’t just hanging around in the background. It’s still hugely, actively popular. BuzzFeed’s clickbait pop culture listicle/quiz department pumps out posts about Friends on at least a biweekly basis. People get engaged on the Central Perk couch on tours of the Warner Brothers lot. The whole series was recently added to Netflix in Ireland and the UK, and – even though the show finished fourteen years ago, even though it’s been in reruns constantly, unavoidably since then – it was treated as a legitimately big deal.

And that’s weird. It is so far outside of the norm of televisual afterlife that “it’s a good show” doesn’t go a tenth of the way to explaining it.

Continue reading “The One Where Pop Culture Disintegrates”

Because I Choose To: The Horror and Hope of Free Will

Because I Choose To: The Horror and Hope of Free Will

The final battle between good and evil at the end of The Matrix Revolutions is the best part of a very flawed movie. Whatever else the Matrix sequels did wrong – and they did a fair bit – the last fight between Neo and Agent Smith is basically perfect. It’s not just a punching contest, it’s a distillation of every moral value at stake in their conflict. I know that’s a controversial statement because I’ve seen so many people make fun of the best part of the scene:

Agent Smith: “Why, Mr. Anderson? Why, why, why? Why do you do it? Why? Why get up? Why keep fighting? Do you believe you’re fighting for something? For more than your survival? Can you tell me what it is? Do you even know? Is it freedom or truth? Perhaps peace? Could it be for love? Illusions, Mr. Anderson, vagaries of perception! Temporary constructs of a feeble human intellect trying desperately to justify an existence that is without meaning or purpose. And all of them as artificial as the Matrix itself, although only a human mind could invent something as insipid as love. You must be able to see it, Mr. Anderson. You must know it by now! You can’t win! It’s pointless to keep fighting! Why, Mr. Anderson?! Why?! WHY DO YOU PERSIST?!”

Neo: “Because I choose to.”

I worry about what it means that such a beautiful and simple encapsulation of what it means to be a human being is so routinely mocked for its alleged meaninglessness: “Because I choose to”. There is something in our language, always present, but more and more prevalent as we sink deeper into the grey muck of modernity: we don’t know how to talk about freedom. We don’t know how to speak about each other as beings with free will. We speak of people driven by rage, rather than people who choose the path of rage. We speak of people who can’t help but be who they are and do what they do, rather than people who consistently choose to continue in their habits. We speak of people as if they’re machines, rather than people.

Some of it is well-intentioned, I’m sure. There are legitimate critiques of theories of freedom that ignore the ways we are prevented from exercising our free will. But we’re at risk of sprinting towards the other extreme. We’re at risk of denying that free will exists at all.

Continue reading “Because I Choose To: The Horror and Hope of Free Will”

The Year in Film(s That Didn’t Come Out This Year)

The Year in Film(s That Didn’t Come Out This Year)

One of the most annoying things about being a young critic – or just any young person who likes to talk about movies – is the pressure to pretend like you’ve already seen every great film ever made. Some of that is a purely self-imposed anxiety about sounding knowledgeable enough to justify your opinions, but mostly it’s the fairly explicit comments like “What!? How have you not seen X!?” or “Come back to me when you’ve watched Y, then maybe you’ll know what you’re talking about”.

But no one, not even Edgar Wright or Quentin Tarantino, has seen every great film ever made, even when you leave aside that anywhere between 70% and 90% of films made before 1929 are lost. The last time anyone could conceivably watch ever film every made was the early 1930s, and more great films have probably gone unnoticed or forgotten than will ever be recognised. People have families and friends and interests and jobs and also just can’t physically stare at screens for a long time with no breaks. Even if you could somehow make time to watch a film every day, not including new ones, it would take you years to make a dent in the canon of great American cinema, let alone every other country, let alone alternative, experimental and avant-garde film, let alone all the great movies that were dismissed on release and have yet to be rehabilitated by dorks like us.

You don’t have to pretend to have seen all the “great” or “important” films to think, speak or write about movies. We sure haven’t. You can find out our favourite new releases of the year when we post the Sundae Film Awards 2018 in March, but we’re ending 2017 with a look back on the best films we saw this year that didn’t come out this year.

These films are great, and you should watch them. But it’s not a big deal if you don’t.

Continue reading “The Year in Film(s That Didn’t Come Out This Year)”

Weekend at Bernie’s Is Not the Film You Think It Is

Weekend at Bernie’s Is Not the Film You Think It Is

Weekend at Bernie’s might be the most misunderstood film I know. It was a hit in 1989, despite bad reviews, and has had staying power since: the image of Andrew McCarthy and Jonathan Silverman propping up Bernie’s lifeless body is seared onto the cultural memory, one of those iconic cinematic images that has been parodied and homaged and referenced enough to take on a life of its own beyond the film itself. It’s a very famous film, is the point – though not exactly acclaimed – but when I watched it, I kind of felt like the first person to ever see it.

Here’s what I assumed Weekend at Bernie’s would be like: a extremely dumb, extremely wacky 1980s comedy, in the vein of Porky’s or a National Lampoon movie, that is probably not very good but has a kind of charm that not very good films from the 1980s tend to have. I knew the basic plot – two guys pretend another guy, Bernie, is alive, while staying at his place for the weekend. I assumed – either because it’s how it turns out in any given Weekend at Bernie’s-inspired TV episode, or because of the existence of Weekend at Bernie’s II – that Bernie wasn’t really dead. That our heroes found him unconscious and panicked, but, by the end of the film, Bernie would wake up, and we’d arrive at our happy ending.

Weekend at Bernie’s is something much stranger, and much more interesting.

Continue reading “Weekend at Bernie’s Is Not the Film You Think It Is”

I Took My Time, I Hurried Up

I Took My Time, I Hurried Up

This article is part of the What Pop Punk Gave Me series. Previously, My Chemical Romance as armour in a world full of misery and cruelty

It’s hard to believe now, but once upon a time it was quite a thing for a pop punk band to write a downbeat song about depression. Pop punk has always had a deep and abiding commitment to sincerity, but the genre’s early breakouts, especially Green Day, generally maintained a weird ironic distance from their feelings even as they exorcised them. “Basket Case” is a typical example: it’s not that it isn’t upfront about its subject matter – the sense of disorientation and purposelessness that is most definitive of Gen X alternative rock – but it’s delivered with a kind of self-deprecating, tongue-in-cheek, throwaway attitude that’s very hard to describe and very uniquely pop punk.

Partially that’s a product of the inherent irony of pop punk as a genre – the tension of sad lyrics over upbeat music – and partially it’s a product of the pervasiveness of irony in Gen X pop culture at large, from Kurt Cobain deadpanning positivity slogans to the relentless cynicism of Seinfeld, which is one reason the balance shifted heavily (but never completely) towards sincerity as this early wave of pop punk bands were succeeded by bands like My Chemical Romance, Paramore and Fall Out Boy in the noughties. Though mostly not millennials themselves (MCR’s Gerard Way is only five years younger than Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong), their fanbases are, and these bands were at the vanguard of millennial pop culture’s reaction to the excessive and counterproductive irony of much Gen X art, a reaction that came to include Green Day themselves with American Idiot (2004).

Several successful singles from the turn of the century played a big part in that reaction: “The Middle” by Jimmy Eat World, “Perfect” by Simple Plan, and the first and most devastating shot, “Adam’s Song” by Blink-182, one of the most perfect songs ever written.

Continue reading “I Took My Time, I Hurried Up”

Goodness or the Choice of Goodness: Vice Principals, Empathy and Deserving

Goodness or the Choice of Goodness: Vice Principals, Empathy and Deserving

I spend a lot of time thinking about empathy and compassion. I believe in those things, as deep down as I believe in anything. I always thought this was relatively universal, at least outside of right-wing fringe groups, but I don’t really think that anymore. Not just because a Yale professor wrote a book literally called Against Empathy (in a video for The Atlantic he explains that empathy for victims is used to justify the Iraq War, but conveniently doesn’t mention if empathy can and does motivate anti-war activism), but mostly because of how often I find myself recoiling in horror from political discourse. I can’t cheer an elderly man getting brain cancer, no matter what he’s done. I don’t think that someone who punches a Nazi is suddenly as bad as a Nazi, but I can’t comprehend the ease with which people advocate the punching. I oppose violence in all its forms – structural or personal – and I don’t think that any person deserves to be killed, by the state or anyone else. I don’t think “deserve” comes into it. I don’t have the stomach to be a revolutionary.

Continue reading “Goodness or the Choice of Goodness: Vice Principals, Empathy and Deserving”