What I’ve Been Watching: 26/11/19 – 02/12/19

Airplanes, oil deals, stuntmen, and Turkey Day treats.

Well, it sure has been a while, hasn’t it?  I know that this barely counts as a November piece in my continuing quest to try and commit to getting one of these WIBWs out every single month, and that’s a quest I am about to fail anyway since I’m not putting one of these out for December what with Listmas catch-up and all.  But I’ve got a whole bunch of news and updates that need sharing with y’all, and I don’t like making solo posts entirely dedicated to updates because that feels like placing undue importance on the news stuff, so I finally forced myself to watch and write up enough movies to justify another one of these.  I spent much of November crushingly depressed and lonely.  Now I’m busy, albeit still somewhat depressed and lonely.  Progress!  Here’s the stuff you care about/need to know:

  • I know that in my last London Film Festival post for the year I promised you a write-up of my interview with Rashaad Ernesto Green, the director of Premature. That write-up never happened for two simple reasons.  The first was that I was crushingly depressed and fell behind on writing stuff.  The second is that the interview lasted five minutes, I got three questions out of him, and the substance of the conversation was less than nil so, after listening back, there was no point devoting an entire post to it.
  • We’re #2! is on hiatus until either the last Sunday of January or the first Sunday of February. As mentioned, I fell into a deep depression pit which caused me to fall woefully behind in getting started back up with this series – that’s why it unofficially moved to Sunday those two weeks I did manage to re-activate it, I just didn’t finish the write-ups on time – and the entire point of me doing it is that it’s meant to be a constant weekly article that I stay on top of.  With Listmas about to kick off, work on which would’ve forced this into hiatus anyway, I’ve decided to officially pause it until a few weeks after Listmas wraps up.  Give me time to rest, re-spark the fire a little, and potentially stock up a little backlog so that times when my life becomes busy or misery mean I don’t have to halt the series’ momentum again.  I know my word means nothing given that I am forever promising or announcing projects that never happen or never get finished, but I really do want to see this one through to the end, so it is coming back.
  • I’ve started doing semi-regular work for Soundsphere! They’re an online music and arts-focussed magazine based mainly out of The Warren in Hull – where I still sort-of work, but that’s not relevant right now – and their editor Dom has allowed me to start penning pieces for them.  The catch is that I can’t do archival cross-posts in full to this old place like I can with Set the Tape content, so instead you’ll be getting little extract-based ping-posts here whenever something I write for them goes up.  Click on through and go read!  Currently aiming to do a full-length movie review there at least once every fortnight, if not every week, and I’ve been assigned a bunch of live gig reviews over the next fortnight so look out for those.
  • Speaking of regular writing: in a concerted effort to write less more often under the advice of someone I spoke to at LFF, I’ve finally bitten the bullet and gotten a Letterboxd account. Follow me there @CalliePetch and let’s see how long I can commit to writing up and logging every single film I see!  The theory I have is that I’ll get more into the swing of short-form writing, since no editor I’ve yet worked with has cracked the whip at me enough to learn about brevity, and that plus the routine of logging may in turn lead to more WIBWs coming your way as I simply transfer those write-ups over with minor expansions and clean-ups.  Here’s hoping!
  • Lastly: Top 50 Songs runs the weekend of the 20th, Listmas starts the 27th and runs to the 5th of January (plus maybe a Best Albums list afterwards depending on how I’m doing), and Best of the Decade content will appear in various forms through January and February (mainly in the form of personal essays) whilst my plan is to do a Top 100 Films of the 2010s series from the 11th/12th of March next year. Decade’s not done until it’s done and I need time to sit with 2019’s crop (plus chasing up some very notable gaps in my viewing history) before I can reasonably put together a Best of the Decade list.  Fuck outta here if you made such a list in fucking July, come on!

Right, then.  Here’s what I’ve been watching this week.  It’s a lot, by the way.


21 Bridges (Tuesday 26th November)

Dir: Brian Kirk

Year: 2019

First-time viewing

Honestly, I’ve already forgotten everything about this but it’s basically fine.  I was at least passively engaged the entire way through – which I can almost solely put down to the combined gravitas screen presences of Chadwick Boseman, Stephan James and J.K. Simmons – with competent action scenes attempting to mitigate the definition of a textbook plot and the very tangible fact that this supposed New York movie was really shot in an entirely different state.  What mainly cripples the film is that both its main thematic conceit and its central character arc, attempting to interrogate the closed-circle hyper-protective cowboy cop routine, can’t actually be followed through to their conclusions because for it to do so would mean the movie arguing against its own existence in this generic crowdpleasing form.  Resultantly, you get a whole lot of set-up and symbolism that’s forced to go nowhere which leaves a big empty hole at 21 Bridges‘ centre.  But other than that, like I said, it’s basically fine.  Mildly pleasantly shocked this wasn’t a Netflix movie.


Harriet (Tuesday 26th November)

Dir: Kasi Lemmons

Year: 2019

First-time viewing

I wouldn’t have needed that anecdote about how an earlier effort by producer/screenwriter Gregory Allen Howard to get this movie off the ground saw studio heads trying to cast Julia Roberts as Harriet Tubman in order to realise that the script to this thing has been sat in cold storage since the late 90s.  Harriet simultaneously casts its net too wide and not wide enough, focussing exclusively on her days as a conductor on the Underground Railroad but also telling that story over too compressed a stretch of time where no events get the chance to breathe, no characters get the chance to display any meaningful life or depth, and almost no beats manage to resonate emotionally because we’re effectively on a breakneck rollercoaster ride where every stop is a Major Turning Point.  This is most endemic in the fact that director/co-screenwriter Kasi Lemmons proves completely incapable of wringing any tension out of Harriet’s various runs to the border with and without her fellow freed slaves.  The script is forced to repeatedly tell us that the journey is dangerous when the actions depicted on-screen are by-and-large quite easy.

I’m frustrated by how surface-level and empty the substance of Harriet ends up being because it really does have all the tools to be excellent and there are a few killer individual scenes within the rusted-out biopic template it otherwise rigidly adheres to (such as the river crossing or her rousing speech to the rebel abolitionist movement).  Janelle Monáe brings as much life as she can to a character who gets basically nothing to do, the cinematography is gorgeous, and I found it really interesting that the movie actively embraced the religious faith-based aspects of Tubman’s history rather than tamper them down out of fear of being corny.  At times, particularly with the visions, it’s almost like a real-life superhero movie and the pulp heroification of Tubman here works a lot better than when Nate Parker tried the same thing with Nat Turner in the woeful Birth of a Nation.  Mainly, what brings Harriet over the line is Cynthia Erivo continuing her exceptional movie performance streak with a commanding turn as Tubman.  Whenever the script lets her down on character depth and wooden dialogue, she makes it work and expands upon it with her soulful eyes and the physicality with which she carries herself.


Terminator: Dark Fate (Tuesday 26th November)

Dir: Tim Miller

Year: 2019

First-time viewing

Dark Fate could probably have been a decent enough time if it weren’t a Terminator movie.  Fact is that every Terminator after the original – and, yes, I am including Judgement Day in this assessment – has been heavily based around subverting, cannibalising, or trying to outdo elements of that stone-cold classic to ever diminishing returns.  Shoehorned line references, identical plot beats, evermore unstoppable machines, ever bigger and wilder CGI effects.  All in service of fundamentally just rehashing the first movie to such an extent that everything becomes meaningless and trading on empty nostalgia.  It’s not like almost every other piece of popular or cult media hasn’t also riffed the first Terminator to death over the decades.

To be clear, there are some strong ideas in Dark Fate.  Politically relevant themes of migrant mistreatment and multiculturalism (that the film doesn’t actually do anything with).  Linda Hamilton is acting her absolute ass off of Sarah Connor’s underserved grief-stricken self-destructive arc (she really deserves a late-career resurrection), and both Mackenzie Davis and Natalia Reyes are doing strong work with what garbage dialogue they have.  There are a few early setpieces which carry a pleasing weight and visceral feel that can be attributed to director Tim Miller’s initial prioritising of practical effects over tonnes of cartoonish CG.  But all of these bright spots are soon forced to suffocate under the weight of Terminator LORE and empty rehashing & escalation as the movie succumbs yet again to being about nothing but itself and overblown spectacle.

Here’s one crucial example: whilst I will accept arguments made for the T-1000, I am of the opinion that the original T-100 is the only Terminator model worth a shit because it perfectly balances the terrifying, relentless, seemingly unstoppable charge of a slasher movie monster with a tangible and frequent vulnerability you otherwise don’t get from a Jason or Michael Meyers.  The heroes keep batting it back and causing some level of damage, but it’s always seemingly negligible and every dent takes all of their might, so there’s a two-way tension that’s engrossing and exhilarating.  It’s not invulnerable but it might as well be, so there’s a nugget of hope within the terror of the chase.  By contrast, the Rev-9 in Dark Fate can seemingly survive absolutely anything without a single scratch or break in its stride, which stops being scary and starts being boring extremely quickly.  Why am I supposed to care about anything when the villain is a walking everything-proof shield until the really stupid time at the climax when it’s suddenly not?

Also, and I know he’s not actually responsible for the screenplay despite much exec-producer ballyhoo, but I am extremely sick of James Cameron’s outdated “I took a Women’s Studies lecture one time and that makes me a good feminist” condescending-ass approach to female characters.  Much like with Alita from earlier this year, his conception of women operates at nothing more developed than two extremes: scowling angry bitchy badass drunk on enough testosterone to choke a grizzly bear to death, and helpless naïve boy-obsessed naif who needs to evolve into the former.  The dynamic between Sarah, Grace and Dani is like a group of pre-pubescent boys who’ve just binged a boxset of Sons of Anarchy trying to sort out their pecking order on the school playground.  It’s embarrassingly try-hard and obsolete, much like every Terminator film for the last near-three decades.  Next time, please just funnel the nuggets of a decent feminist action flick into an original property not forced to choke itself to death on the regurgitated entrails of Exhibit A as to why not every brilliant original movie needs to be made into a franchise.


Syriana (Thursday 28th November)

Dir: Stephen Gaghan

Year: 2005

First-time viewing

I’m a real sucker for multi-strand procedural drama-thrillers about global politics, so I of course enjoyed this even though I never quite loved it.  Unlike most other people who’ve seen the film and not quite loved it, I don’t think the problem with Syriana is that it’s “too complicated” or “too confusing.”  On a beat-by-beat level, I understood all of the different narrative strands and kept track of all the character relationships rather easily; the film just requires an above average amount of concentration from the viewer.  What I do find to be the issue, however, is merely that Gaghan as a director is not as capable a balancer, as propulsive a filmmaker, or has quite as stylish an eye as Steven Soderbergh.  When Soderbergh handles these sorts of movies, including Gaghan’s own screenplay for Traffic, there’s a tangible constant forward motion and a carefully considered expanding and contracting of scope at the right points in the narrative which makes the events unfolding on-screen so compelling that he doesn’t need for you to just be patient for the point where all the threads converge – Contagion is a phenomenal example of this.

Still, I was never less than engaged throughout and the eventual point where all of the threads do converge is magnificently bleak.  I really like the often-dingy feel of Robert Elswit’s cinematography; the contrasts between the dim backrooms of the CIA, the stuffy boardrooms of the callous oil companies, and how even the vast desert expanses of the Emir’s kingdom feel hollow and inequal.  And whilst I don’t think it ever managed to find the emotional throughline that all the best examples of these stories can – the closest is Matt Damon’s analyst but there are long stretches of film where he just isn’t a part of the equation – Gaghan does at least instil character beats and fleshed personalities across his wide cast which keeps the film from merely being a polemic or a spectacle in watching four different cars from different directions slowly collide into each other.  Solid work.  No idea what this guy is doing write-directing a Dr. Doolittle reboot.


I Accuse My Parents (Thursday 28th November)

Dir: Sam Newfield

Year: 1944

Rewatch

“Thank God I’m White!”

Yeah, watching this with MST3K definitely enhances things – and it’s without a doubt one of the show’s best episodes, there’s not a single dud riff across the entire thing – but I Accuse My Parents is exactly the kind of bad movie I can’t help but love.  So fundamentally misguided on an ideological and thematic level with morals that aren’t even consistent, bizarre casting and acting choices, frequently hilarious dialogue performed by cast members who don’t even seem to be acting in the same movie, and an air of overblown self-importance which doesn’t once realise how utterly ridiculous it is.  Oh, and it’s constantly finding new ways to be bizarrely dreadful – the misogynistic essay contest, the appalling lipsyncing during the awkwardly-staged musical numbers, Jimmy’s unstoppable propensity to make the absolute most dumbest decision at any every juncture in addition to his compulsive lying, the preacher café-owner – so the movie never ends up as a total chore to sit through.  Even if it’s for the ostensibly “wrong” reasons, I’d rather be entertained than bored.  I Accuse My Parents entertains me.


Werewolf (Thursday 28th November)

Dir: Tony Zarrindast

Year: 1996

First-time viewing

“They’re establishing the hell out of this building, here!”

By contrast, this is just completely unwatchable and not even MST3K could save it.  It reminded me a lot of The Room and, dirty little confession time, I’m honestly not much of a fan of The Room either.  With that film, I get why it’s gotten an ironic cult following because the legendarily weird and bad sequences which have been relentlessly memed to death over the years are indeed transcendentally fascinating.  But in between those scenes (which are front and back-loaded), you have to slog through a seemingly-interminable middle-stretch where the film just runs in endless circles and has no new bad tricks up its sleeve to make the journey remotely engaging.  It’s the same thing with Werewolf.  Yeah, the acting is so wooden that you could stick the performers in the forest and successfully say you’ve replanted a few trees.  Yeah, the actual werewolf attack sequences are straight-faced versions of the stuff Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace used to parody.  Yeah, the completely random petrol station car crash is hysterical.  But there is SO MUCH STATIC MOVIE separating what few highlights of bad movie-dom are to be found here.  So many endless scenes of absolutely nothing happening with no point to any of it, my time and life being so actively wasted that not even a rousing singalong of TUSK could wash the sour taste out.

Although admittedly I was immediately repelled by the (thankfully MST3K censored) “I just found out Count Dracula was a f****t ” line about 25 minutes in, so any potential for ironic enjoyment vacated the building from that point on.


Frozen II (Saturday 30th November)

Dirs: Jennifer Lee, Chris Buck

Year: 2019

First-time viewing

1] I really like it when sequels to films I massively enjoyed decide to remain small and intimate in the sequel even whilst they still expand the world and deceptively increase the scale and stakes, all without merely rehashing the themes, plot and character arcs of the previous entries.  (See the 2017 bounty of T2 Trainspotting, War for the Planet of the Apes, Guardians vol. 2, Blade Runner 2049, and Paddington 2 for perfect examples of this.)  2] I am an absolute sucker for stories about sibling love and anxiety, plus extremely thinly-disguised depression and coming out narratives.  3] I am the fool who wishes Disney had kept making more animated films in the vein of Atlantis: The Lost Empire and Treasure Planet.  4] This movie has approximately 200% more Idina Menzel singing numbers than the first and gives Kristen Bell a big showstopping Broadway number of her own.  5] That water horse is absolutely fucking majestic and I want one of my own.

For all those reasons, plus a few other negligible ones – like the gobsmackingly pretty animation, the excellent musical numbers, the absence of any annoying characters this time, the fact that it stays a musical the whole way through rather than abandoning the format at the two-thirds mark – I deem Frozen II a more than worthy successor to the instantly-iconic original.  Had it the stones to go full Thor: Ragnarok at the ending, then I would’ve declared it better than the first.


Hot Rod (Sunday 1st December)

Dir: Akiva Schaffer

Year: 2007

Rewatch

Of the unofficial Lonely Island Trilogy – made up of this, MacGruber, and Popstar – this is probably the weakest of the three, the rough and ready debut that would later be finessed into absolutely perfect weapons of comedic destruction.  A few deliberately overlong jokes which don’t quite wrap-around to being funny again (the forest fall), trying to cohere and unify their parodic absurdist humour in a movie that wasn’t initially meant for them, plus Isla Fisher honestly being kinda wasted.  That said, this is still funny as fuck and has more gags which leave me in stitches in 90 minutes than many sitcoms do across their entire multi-season runs.  Samberg, Taccone and Schaffer are brilliant satirists of masculinity, the inherent absurdity of puffed-out macho posturing and the skewering thereof is the thematic link across all of their work, and Hot Rod filters that commentary through the framework of 80s sports-adjacent coming-of-age movies in a way that enables the comedy to work on both levels, the specific piss-take of fratty 80s movie aesthetics & conventions and the general timeless critique of macho bluster, without one diluting the other.

Also, anyone else feel like Andy Samberg channelled a lot of 90s Jim Carrey in his performance?  So many of the mannerisms, physical and facial performances, and line reads that he does reminded me of Carrey’s work during that legendary run.  Totally made up for Will Arnett being in this way less than I remembered, though at least he still has one of the funniest bits of any film from the 2000s.


Non-Stop (Monday 2nd December)

Dir: Jaume Collet-Serra

Year: 2014

Rewatch

As I have said before, I love the character that a Silver Pictures production brings.  Films like Die Hard, Commando, The Matrix and even this go the extra mile in providing little interesting beats and specific details to even the most minor of characters that at least gives off the illusion of them having lives outside the action, that they’re not just bodies being shunted through a mindless game.  Jen’s failing heart and compulsive desire to hog the window seat, the voracious young woman who blatantly flirts with Bill whilst she’s being patted down, even Gwen (a role that gives Lupita Nyong’o nothing to work with besides a costume and hairstyle which makes her look like the perfect casting for Grace Jones should she ever get a biopic) mildly chuntering about being forced onto a cover shift.  All of these details add life to the passengers and invest in the stakes.  They’re not much, but they make those 150 bodies feel enough like 150 people to drive the tension.

And what tension.  The first hour-and-ten of Non-Stop is absolutely phenomenal thriller filmmaking.  Collet-Serra keeps a claustrophobic viewpoint throughout, even when the camera’s in motion (which it often is).  The effect is often suffocating and brilliantly paranoid, effectively communicating the difficulty in keeping track of so many panicky passengers/possible suspects even when in a clear and confined space.  This is where Collet-Serra’s direction best gels with Silver Pictures’ trademark character, as the film spends its brilliant first two acts subverting and critiquing the Jack Bauer-esque antihero archetype Neeson had spent the then-past-six years playing in successively blander movies, whilst also doubling as an always-timely deconstruction of the invasive and deliberately obfuscated national and travel security policies enacted by successive American governments post-9/11 – all racial and religious profiling, bullying and belligerent, and detrimentally shunning transparency even when being open would clearly be the best policy.

Then the third act happens and the movie just absolutely craters, substituting surprisingly clever damning critique that oftentimes turns prospective audience prejudices back at them for dumb nonsensical crowdpleasing action and a villain motive which just doesn’t make any ideological sense despite the intensity of the fanaticism in the performer’s delivery.  I’m not always a stickler for twists making sense, so long as the emotional and thematic justifications ring true.  Non-Stop‘s does not and it immediately brings one of the decade’s best thrillers crashing right back down to earth.  Everything up to then is excellent, mind.


Callum Petch was standing at the gates of their hell.

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