Evil sharks, evil children, evil cops, and an orgy.
Here’s where I am at since we last spoke properly. I’ve had a miserable Summer marked by an extreme uneventfulness that enabled my mind the opportunity to whisper at me non-stop about my failures, inadequacies, the fact that I am wasting my life, and the fact that I will die someday. Attempts to find a job have petered out after a slew of completely-ignored application entries, plus the realisation that I would likely quit any job I got within a week because my mind has gone full-bore on its assault against my self-worth in prior such situations catalysing a breakdown, and that looks awful on any CV. My GP, whom I met with after being discharged from my last extremely unhelpful therapy, rather than give me any helpful advice or something to take the edge off of my mind’s assault instead ordered me to get a job – or a girlfriend, via initial questioning of my life situation to figure out a next step.
I have written precious little over the past several months, many times sitting down to write and just hitting a mental brick wall that I can’t get past and ultimately waste a day on. I’ve been living in fear that my depression is making me embittered and resentful towards others, that one day I’m going to wake up and realise that I have turned into a properly horrible human being. I have pledged to stop writing when the new year rolls around, an attempt at a hard break cold turkey-style – because, as I detailed this time last year when I was also going to try a lesser version of this idea, not-writing makes me feel worthless, I’m not a good writer anyway, and I do not have the temperament to pitch to people I don’t know so it’s not like this’ll ever be anything other than a time-consuming miserable hobby anyway. Then I walked it back with my commitment to covering WWE PPVs for Set the Tape through to WrestleMania. And now I’m not sure I could stop even if I wanted to, because I have an addictive personality and can’t break out of ‘safe behaviours’ I’ve set for myself. (Fun Fact: I turn 24 in 11 days and still pick my nose because my mind rationalises it as a better method of unblocking bogies than nose-blowing, cos it’s sort of true from a certain perspective.)
Then I hit the pile-up of my Mum going on holiday necessitating house-sitting, followed by this year’s London Film Festival, so I got/am stuck in that purgatory pause until those are out of the way and I can try Attempt #362 to Get My Shit Together. That maybe this time it’ll be different. Levelling with you all, it probably won’t be because I’m at the point where I don’t know if I can change or what life outside of this cycle I’ve cocooned myself in is like. Because it’s me. Oh, sure, there are also extenuating circumstances beyond my control that also feed into this, but the root problem is me and my mind and my complete lack of self-worth making me effectively an infant incapable of handling the world outside of his bedroom and bubble. And I don’t know how to change this, how to meaningfully and consistently change this, because I am not strong enough. The second something goes even slightly wrong, I retreat back to square one and burrow down because I am mentally not strong enough to push through regardless. And I don’t know how to get better. I don’t.
So, until some magic breakthrough happens, I’m going to keep coming to you in this cycle. Sometimes I’ll be a bit more Up, in a brief high of hopefulness and attempts at change. Other times I’ll be more Down, extremely cynical and very LiveJournal-y for what is supposed to be a professional-ass website with high quality content. Weird thing is, despite how this reads, I’m actually currently coming to you in the middle of those two extremes. I’m really just tired and somewhat apathetic, so some days things will really bother me and other days I’ll just exist. Sometimes I’ll at least have the decency to provide you with new things to read, and other times I’ll also have the decency to not write anything and save you from my whining. Who wants to hear the 900th cry of “I’m going to get my shit together” or “my life sucks and my mind is a weapon bent on my destruction,” right?
London Film Festival coverage starts Monday or Tuesday. Depends on whether I get into London to see Mandy on time or no.
Here’s what I’ve been watching this week.
Teenage Cave Man (Tuesday 25th)
Dir: Roger Corman
Unlike certain other parts of my formative years, I continue to be extremely happy that I found and got super into Mystery Science Theater 3000. I’m committed to writing a full article explaining in proper detail around the time of Turkey Day and the dropping of Season 12 (WOOP WOOP), so short version is that MST3K rips the absolute piss out of terrible, often-unwatchable pieces of tripe that would be extremely dull to watch without Joel/Mike/Jonah and the Bots riffing along with them, yes. But there’s a genuine appreciation for movies underneath that riffing which is what makes the act of doing so great fun coming from a place of heart instead of meanspirited, cruel and cynical. Even during the worst films, you can tell that the show’s writing staff actually loves these kinds of inept and often excruciating B-movies in ways other than “they put food on the table,” and that kind of earnest appreciation gets passed on to the viewer. I do feel like I better understand and appreciate terrible films like the ones featured on MST3K, rather than just writing them off as wastes of time or ironically ‘great,’ thanks to this show. That I understand their construction, their recurring traits, the ins and outs of budget filmmaking, the unique feel and identity found in the best bad movies, all from having watched enough of this show and that this has had a positive impact on my film criticism and how I read films. (It’s also why the Nostalgia Critic-style of nitpicky film commentary is basically unwatchable to me now, but again that is all for closer to Turkey Day.)
As for Roger Corman’s Teenage Cave Man: it’s pretty goddamn dire, alright. I mean, it has a tonne of potential and is still relevant today – the main conflict effectively boils down to regressive aggressive Conservatism literally dragging mankind back to the Stone Age and how society collectively beats optimistic Liberalism out of its offspring, plus it’s an anti-nuke movie because The Cold War – which is how I like my B-movies, and it is at least narratively consistent and not falling apart at the seams. But it also very obviously does not have enough story, characters, ideas, or budget for the 65 minutes it runs for, so there is a tonne of painful time-killing, pointless stock footage that adds nothing, and hilarious attempts to hide around the no-budget that quickly lose their entertainment value. The acting is wooden, the exposition dump at the end is awkward, there is so much filler. Like the best MST3K films, it is technically watchable enough without the Bots but doing so will likely bore one to tears. Honestly, it’s a shame that The Twilight Zone was a year out from the release of this because, with some pruning, additional craft and a talented hand behind the camera, Teenage Cave Man would have made a great episode of that show.
How to Plan an Orgy in a Small Town (Wednesday 26th)
Dir: Jeremy Lalonde
Orgy does enough things right, or at least sets up enough of the right moves, that I’m disappointed the film is merely ok instead of great or even good. Writer-director Jeremy Lalonde goes for using the sex comedy premise of its title as basis for more of a social comedy, one based around a collective societal impotency to just talk out our feelings and emotions regarding sex and sexual desires instead repressing them to such an extent that direct conversation about relationships is near-impossible, and that’s a smart play. There’s some enjoyably awkward humour mounted from the topics of consent and organising an orgy without shaming the idea of an orgy altogether, and the cast are all adept physical performers which is vital for a film like this on both a comedic and thematic level.
But the film is stuck in this awkward middle-ground of being both too broad and not broad enough. Since it’s still resolutely an Indie movie, one that eventually turns towards the dramedy end as these things do, its heavy reliance on broad, played-out and often regressive stereotypes for its comedy, its characters, and its worldbuilding causes the film to feel lazy and lunkhead subtle. The town is ultra-conservative, composed mostly of well-off White folks who talk about the one Native in their midst (who’s also the mayor) like his mere existence is a scandal. The cast contains a super high-strung mega-conservative Type A Mom, a henpecked husband, the guy who climaxes should a stiff breeze brush past him, the cool female love interest of the B-couple who works in an Indie record shop, the hyper-masculine guy who is super-obviously a closeted gay guy because he is desperate to have sex, the town nympho who dresses in a perpetual walk of shame… See how these don’t fit the mould of an Indie movie but otherwise would do in a mainstream studio comedy? The rub, though, is that the jokes are, for the large part, also not broad enough for a more mainstream comedy, although they can be lazy enough for one – there’s a virginial videogame-obsessed nerd stereotype who literally lives in his Mom’s basement that gets a tonne of screen time despite adding nothing to the film – so you just get the worst of both worlds, plus some prominent gay and trans-panic that is really unwelcome in a film like this.
I have one perfect example of how much Orgy ends up wasting its potential. Cassie (Jewel Staite who took this fresh off of her excellent turn in the sadly-too-short-lived Canadian soap The L.A. Complex) is a famous and successful sex advice columnist who herself has never had sex, despite a misconception back in High School that made her the town pariah. It’s an obvious twist for an old-fashioned farce but it does carry some genuine satirical bite, that we as a collective society are largely still so repressed and unwilling to publicly discuss sex that we’ll believe the words of literally anybody who sounds even vaguely authoritative on the subject. One of the town’s occupants is even set-up as a fan of Cassie’s work… But the film does nothing with it. The moment the secret gets out occurs randomly, doesn’t really bother anybody, and ultimately gets lost in the shuffle of the film’s late-game quest to resolve itself in Stock Rom-Com Ending B7-69 “Sex Comedy” Variant. Orgy isn’t bad or unpleasant, but it is a wasted opportunity all the same.
Jaws (Friday 28th)
Dir: Steven Spielberg
That “?” comes from the fact that I feel like I had seen Jaws before this past Friday, but that I am not certain of my feeling. Like, I distinctly recall it being on TV one time a good 15 years ago, on a Saturday early-evening on one of the BBC channels, and watching it but I can’t recall if I stayed and saw the whole thing or left at certain points because I was 9 and easily frightened. You’d think that the eventual rewatch would have one of those moments where I go “Oh, yeah, I definitely remember seeing [x, y, z]” or “Nope, definitely don’t remember seeing [x, y, z] before” in order to settle this once and for all. But Jaws is rather like Ghostbusters in that, if you somehow didn’t see the film itself when you were a kid, you still saw it just through osmosis as every pop culture touchstone has riffed on its every facet mercilessly over the years. So, basically, I can’t say with certainty that I had seen Jaws before last Friday, but I can certainly say that I have now seen Jaws.
Jaws is pretty great. Don’t really have anything I can add to the conversation around it. It’s great, I loved it, Steven Spielberg is probably the best to ever do it. NEXT!
The Omen (Saturday 29th)
Dir: Richard Donner
Hot-take: I just found this really silly. That said, I get why it’s gone down as a Horror classic and I get why it can still unsettle and unnerve the bejeebus out of people to this day. Donner gets some brilliant individual shots and arranges a few properly tense individual scenes – I’m mainly referring to when Robert returns home and has to lure one of the hell hounds into the basement – Gregory Peck is magnificent and the kid (Harvey Spencer Stephens) is also surprisingly good, and I can appreciate the themes of Catholic guilt and the deep-rooted parental fears of traumatising one’s child, corrupting influences, one’s fitness as a parent, or the possibility that despite all of your best efforts your child may be straight-up evil. So, I appreciate the film but I just wasn’t scared by it, or unnerved, or any of the many intended responses by the filmmakers.
Part of it is because, and I will happily be That Guy here, the filmmaking is showing its age on many of the bigger stunts (although the famed beheading still looks fantastic) so sequences like Katherine’s fall just look ridiculous now despite everyone’s best efforts. But mainly it’s because I’m not a parent, so that side of the film’s coin doesn’t carry much weight, and because I’m not Catholic or religious in the slightest – I have an interest in learning about religions, but my mind/brain can’t compute non-tangible truths about life so I don’t have the faith required to be religious myself – so much of that side just came off as campy hysteria to me. Admittedly, I’m still freaked out by The Exorcist and First Reformed is currently one of my favourite films of the year in spite of that fact, but yeah, I just wasn’t moved by The Omen. I appreciated it, and I liked a lot of individual things about it including that rather inspired ending (not so much the non-smile parts of the tag), but mostly I wanted it to be over for non-spook-related reasons.
Touch of Evil (Monday 1st)
Dir: Orson Welles
Well, that’s the most arresting opening I’ve seen in an age! I should specify, because I’ve been through Film Studies and know just how much of a boner White guys on that course have for one-take scenes such as the one that occurs during the beginning of Touch of Evil, that it’s not just because of that epic tracking shot. Admittedly, it does play a part but that’s less due to the fact that it’s One of Those and more for how the shot adds to the scene. This is not an observation that’ll be revelatory to a lot of readers but I also hang out with people who are still creaming their pants over that one-take from True Detective so I guess it’ll be new to someone. There are two kinds of long takes, and I’m going to use very recent examples to make my point. The first are like the ones in Creed, where the entirety of Adonis’ first two fights occur in one uninterrupted take. These are ones that are designed to force the viewer into the character’s world, to block out all other distractions to be in that moment with them so every punch is felt, every dodge and dive means something, and we become tenser about what might happen. The second are like the one at the start of SPECTRE which does nothing, tells us nothing, adds nothing to the scene and exists purely for garbage surface-level YouTubers to point to the showy nature of a long-take as a (false) shorthand for high-quality filmmaking.
The oner that kicks off Touch of Evil is the former, following the car-bomb from setting on the Mexican side of the border to detonation on the American side. We get a firm sense of geography and place that makes the world feel more tangible and alive, we have the ticking bomb of, well, the bomb as it gets stuck behind cars and pulls up next to pedestrians and is cut off by a herd of goats, all with no idea of when it might go off, and we see how the seedy corruption of the illicit goings on in the town’s dark side is breaking through the veneer of lawful civility. It’s an attention-grabbing and explosive opening that gets the film straight down to business and doesn’t stop until all 95 minutes are up. (Note: my viewing was of the Theatrical Cut on Netflix.) Great opening and great movie! The way it plays with noir tropes, almost as a deconstruction, whilst still working as a high-quality example of a noir is inspired. The performances are all excellent, even if it is really weird to see any film straight-facedly try to pass Charlton Heston off as Mexican. Most of all, though, I love the tangible sense of place Welles is able to convey. There’s a space and size and tactility to the city streets and buildings that the main plot takes place in that you just don’t get in many movies nowadays, working on a perfect middle-ground between the stagey nature of classic Hollywood and the location-based shoots of modern films through excellent cinematography and full-on camera movement.
Hereditary (Monday 1st)
Dir: Ari Aster
I didn’t sleep the night I watched Hereditary. That fact isn’t actually entirely down to the film itself, because I have had trouble sleeping for pretty much my entire life, but every little creak in and outside of the house felt a little bit louder than usual that evening. My God, what a movie! What a brilliant, confident, and absolutely frightening movie Hereditary is! I loved it to pieces whilst at the same time spending the entire second hour stuck in a mental loop of “ohfuckohfuckohfuckohfuckohfuckohfuck.” Ari Aster’s debut feature – a fact that I would be incredibly envious about, because there is not a single thing about this movie that even nods in the direction of “first-timer,” were I also not deeply concerned about the way his mind works – is an instant classic of deep-seated terror. A raw examination of grief, parental unfitness, and generational trauma where every frame, every action, every jolt, every line facilitates the exploration of those themes without sacrificing pure seat-clenching terror to do so.
There’s been a lot of backlash and debate regarding the recent rise of “arthouse horror,” specifically the kind furthered by A24 with films like The VVitch and It Comes at Night (films I really liked for the record), and Hereditary is a perfect example that you can marry arthouse horror’s sense of mood and prioritisation of deeply unsettling theme with mainstream horror’s payoff and character work without compromising either. Take the frequent appearances of apparitions (maybe) in many different scenes of the film. Notice how Aster carefully draws the viewers attention to their presence or not without having to call that attention via loudspeakers that blare “SEE DO YOU SEE THE CREEPY GHOST DO YOU NOTICE THE CREEPY SPIRIT IN THE CORNER BUT MAYBE IT’S NOT ACTUALLY A GHOST AND WE GOT YOU GOOD REGARDLESS!” Because Aster knows that audiences in a horror movie can fixate fine enough on their own about the potentiality of something scary being in the corner of a room, likely working themselves up into a far greater frenzy without the accent. Plus, the way that each of these scares ties into the characters’ grief and the themes of the deceased’s deep-rooted effects on their offspring being inescapable on a daily basis.
Toni Colette is next-level incredible in this. I fear her screams of anguish during the first of many pivotal scenes that twists what appears to be a riff on/mashup of The Haunting, The Omen, and Insidious into Hereditary have been irrevocably seared into my soul, and she’s that complexly frightening for the entirety of the movie. But, whilst I also think Colette deserves an uninterrupted conga-line towards all Best Actress statues during next year’s ceaseless Awards Season march (at time of writing), I feel like people are sleeping on Alex Wolff? The evolution of his trauma and bewildered terror at the events of the film is properly distressing to witness thanks to how Wolff plays the character, as a traumatised unfavourite regressing back to his child-self in the misguided and deeply wrong – the way Aster twists every commonly-accepted convention and safe space in stories such as this feels very Japanese but is no less transgressive despite that obvious influence – belief that doing so will help him escape this nightmare. I could write for hours in unstructured ways about this movie, but I’m gonna stop myself now both for time reasons and because I’ll have no material for the film’s entry on the Top 20 come year-end otherwise. Dear God.
When Harry Met Sally… (Tuesday 2nd)
Dir: Rob Reiner
Drag me, I deserve it. About 20 minutes into When Harry Met Sally…, I realised that my face had been stuck in this giant natural grin since pretty much the moment that the two characters got into the car together and that it wasn’t going to disappear unless something extremely drastic happened. This is an occurrence that typically happens when I chance upon a Me Film, a film that seems to have been beamed straight from my brain onto the screen and designed specifically for my personal interests and tastes. It’s a rare thing but when it does happen I grab on tight, never let go, and also kick myself for not having watched it sooner – this same thing happened last month when I finally saw 10 Things I Hate About You for the first time and fell madly in love, particularly since many jokes in that movie were exactly the kinds of jokes I would have penned were I a screenwriter. As previously mentioned, I love rom-coms, almost all of my major friendships in life have been with women and some of them have buckled or struggled due to a desire on my end to want more (maybe it’s complicated and I’m not a very good person), and I live for witty comedies with crackling dialogue that’s almost Seinfeld-ian in nature and feels lived-in. So, yeah, I think it’s safe to say that When Harry Met Sally… ticked all of my boxes.
What elevates the film for me, what caused that grin to effectively never subside across the entire 95 minutes, is how it all feels drawn from a real experience. Even before I did some post-film reading and discovered that it was largely cobbled together from the personal life experiences of Reiner, Billy Crystal, Meg Ryan, and writer Nora Ephron (plus lots of research on the part of Ephron), Harry and Sally’s conversations about Casablanca, gender roles and misconceptions, of them talking in silly voices and performing awkward public Oklahoma karaoke… all of them feel like personal experience, like a relationship two close friends might have with one another, even with all of the Woody Allen-esque navelgazing, rather than the inventions of a screenwriter. Technically, the film gladly waltzes into the same trap that’s claimed many infinitely worse (and often higher-concept) rom-coms from the 2000s where the only real characters are the two leads and everyone and everything else around them is designed to facilitate the leads’ growth and development rather than having an independent life outside of that. But When Harry Met Sally…, for me at least, gets by on the strength of how detailed it makes those lead characters, and the accompanying chemistry between Crystal and Ryan, so much so that it feels less like watching a closed-set dollhouse and more like a tight and focussed narrative specifically about these two and their relationship shorn of all distractions – aside from Carrie Fisher and Bruno Kirby as The Best Friends who provide a vital unshowy bedrock to the entire film.
I love how the entire middle of the movie is just Harry and Sally having conversations in various places yet the film doesn’t feel stuck in a rut or whatever the vague idea of “uncinematic” usually means in these situations. I love the fact that the timeline is often vague and ill-defined because time often just passes like that in life. I love the jokes about food ordering, about ghastly wagon-wheel tables, about Harry’s insufferable habit of reading the last page of a book first, of both Harry and Sally completely forgetting Amanda’s name after college. I even love that they get together at the end because, cut out the little tag where they reveal their marriage, and that reconciliation works just as well as a declaration of platonic love. I love, love, love that Sally’s reciprocation of Harry comes from an “I hate you,” delivered in the way that best friends and lovers – from my personal experience and hearsay, anyway – do. I love When Harry Met Sally… to pieces and it’s also the most Me rom-com ever made.
Callum Petch wants more out of life than this.