What I’ve Been Watching: 13/02/20 – 19/02/20

Cads, costumes, crossbows, and (ear) canals.

TW: depression, suicide references.

First WIBW of the new decade!  I had intended to do one in January as well, but I’ve been actively struggling with writing since finishing up Listmas and that BAFTA rant.  I’ve been watching films, which shamefully isn’t always a guarantee for yours truly, and keeping my Letterboxd updated (go follow), but I’ve just struggled to focus my mind on writing for longer than a few minutes at a time and not hating every single word I type up.  Even when I do finish a piece, I find myself thinking way more often and way harsher than usual “this is dogshit, incoherent, appallingly-structured tripe,” only putting it up cos of the whole sunk-cost fallacy and the fact that I keep promising said pieces to places which rely on me getting it done regardless of personal feeling.  If you’ve seen the “Good Damage” episode of the last BoJack Horseman half-season – which, yes, I have seen and, yes, I thought was astonishing but, no, I am nowhere near ready or coherent enough to write about to any further degree just yet – when Diane is trying and failing to write her memoir essays, it’s basically that minus the traumas and the light-hearted Ivy Tran analogue.

My parents (who are being extra unhelpful in their efforts to be “helpful” as of late) think this may be on account of my not really having a job right now, and I am inclined to sort of agree although I am very existentially concerned about that fact.  My record store job is one that’s predicated entirely on cover-shifts and unfortunately for me I’m not going to be needed regularly going forward since the guy’s university lectures (the reason he needs covering) are all on Mondays this semester, the one day that the shop is shut.  That’s not the part which concerns me, I’m cool with that.  It’s the knowledge that I seemingly need to be working all of the time – either writing every single day without stopping (as with Listmas), or holding down a proper job and writing on every single free day – otherwise I just mentally shut down and can’t properly reboot, even if my body and mind are screaming at me to just stop and take a break as they were in the final dregs of Listmas season.  It feels like I am supposed to either completely burn myself out, or listen to my body and take a breath but be near-incapable of writing for yonks after as a result.  Neither sounds appealing to me or my mental health, so maybe this is a sign I should either go full force with the writing or properly get my shit together and junk writing in entirely.  I am 25, after all.

God, I could live at this gig.

This is stuff I’d like to talk with my specialist therapist about, amongst many other things I’d rather not discuss on here, except that, funny story, my GP bungled getting the specialist the info they wanted (blood samples which I supplied twice as soon as the letters came) so I’ve been struck off the wait list.  A fact I didn’t find out until I went in for an unrelated diabetic review and I saw the then-un-viewed yet week-old letter in my patient history from the nurse carrying out the review, and a fact my GP has still, over a month later, not actually gotten in touch with me to apologise or discuss about.  So, that’s fun.

Still, it’s not been all bad.  I was at The 1975’s show in Leeds on Monday night with one of my best friends and that was outstanding, in spite of Leeds still being a hell city staffed mostly with obnoxious twerps – I kid, city and people Leeds, kinda; you’re basically my “Dinkleberg” at this point so it’s totally cool.  To once again reference those last few BoJack episodes (but again I am not ready to properly go deep yet), that exchange in “The View From Halfway Down” where Herb confesses to having put off his decision to commit suicide because the Knicks were having a good season at the time really resonated with and articulated a lot of stuff for me.  I’m still not ever planning on ending things, don’t worry, but that sensation of living for one seemingly innocuous reason or another I fear applies rather worryingly to my life.  Where, at this point, I feel as if I’m existing gig-to-gig.  On the one hand, that is somewhat hopeful and nice since it fixates on the stuff to look forward to, but on the other I worry that it means I’m not meaningfully addressing that hole at the centre of my life, just distracting it with various ephemeral frivolities I resultantly put too much pressure onto being worth my extremely limited money.

Or maybe I’m just being fatalist there.  I can tell you I certainly wasn’t thinking that when the band pulled out “Menswear” and I actually shrieked – genuinely and impulsively shrieked, I swear to God – before the first synth pad snare had finished out of recognition.  I was instead just having the time of my life watching the best fucking band in the world today (you read me) playing one of my favourite deep cuts on proper UK tour for the first time in four years, and they later pulled out “Milk” and “Lostmyhead” too, so I was pretty satisfied for that night and much of the next day at least.  Sleater-Kinney’s up next, My Chemical Romance in June, and who knows what else either side of MCR.  It’s maybe not the smartest way to live my life, but I’ve not run out of gigs to push me on through the days yet.  And like Herb, if the stuff that does get me out of bed dries up, maybe I’ll try getting into something else instead.  I have been meaning to finally watch Mad Men

Here’s what I’ve been watching this week.


Boomerang [Thursday 13th]

Dir: Reginald Hudlin

Year: 1992

First-time viewing

One of my New Year’s resolutions (the attainable one) was to, in 2020, watch a bunch more classic movies.  I will have been swanning about tiny pockets of the Internet calling myself a “Film Critic” for a full decade in March and whilst I do feel I am relatively knowledgeable on cinematic language and how to read films – which already puts me streets ahead of the two biggest YouTube film critics working today, to both my eternal relief and consternation – my actual first-hand knowledge of film history is honestly rather poor.  As I frequently point out to my film critic friends, I have seen every Step Up movie multiple times but am yet to watch a single Akira Kurosawa film.  It’s not something I’m proud of, to have watched so much genuine immediately-forgotten trash in my efforts to remain on top of all the new release films that I’ve failed to pay proper due to the medium’s history, and I’ve finally decided to rectify that this year.  I scoured my TV guide over Christmas and recorded every single thing on the main stations that was made pre-1970, I’m paying more attention to the rare local “Classic Film” screenings and trying to go whenever possible (this is how I finally saw Laurence of Arabia), and trying to stretch a little outside my comfort zone when picking movies to watch rather than just sticking to stuff I know I’ll like when pressed for time.

My friend Lucy felt similarly about all this when I mentioned my aim to her and she decided that we could sufficiently motivate ourselves with a weekly film club where we each take turns picking the film to cross off our personal watchlists.  And so our first film was… a rom-com from 1992 I’d had sitting around on my laptop for a year and which no-one is going to call sufficiently “old” or “a classic.”  Mock all you want, but at least the “motivation to watch stuff” part is getting fulfilled!

Anyways, Boomerang!  Pretty decent stuff, albeit a rather missed opportunity.  Could’ve stood to be a lot funnier, for one, which is strange when you’ve got the writers of Coming to America behind the typewriter so it’s not like we’re dealing with novices unaccustomed to balancing romantic drama with hilarious comedy.  Definitely would’ve benefitted from a female hand on the script to better communicate the critique of Murphy’s chauvinistic womaniser without demonising his boss in the process.  Meanwhile, that second hour switch is way too breakneck paced, cramming in an entire movie’s worth of narrative all by itself with insufficient set-up beforehand, which kinda kills proper romantic investment despite Eddie Murphy and Halle Berry’s relaxed chemistry.  But Murphy’s lovable rogue charm is surprisingly natural a fit for the rom-com leading man archetype, the cast around him are all great, and I just like the look of the film.  It’s admittedly not too different to the oft-sterile “perfume commercial” look of the worst 2000s rom-coms, but I can’t deny what a difference shooting on film and an infrequent usage of carefully-composed blocking can do.  Overall, solid enough pre-Valentines watch which gets by on charm and my natural inclination to love rom-coms.  Besides, I can’t dislike any film that gives me the image of Grace Jones as a pretentious French supermodel giving painful birth to a bottle of perfume she then kisses like a new-born baby.


Charlie Wilson’s War [Friday 14th]

Dir: Mike Nichols

Year: 2007

First-time viewing

As mentioned before elsewhere many times, my brain is a sucker for largely dry procedural works about groups of people in official-looking rooms wheeling, dealing, scheming, compromising, and various other “-ing”s to solve some grand problem.  Political, investigatory, heists; those sorts of things are catnip to my brain.  So those specific parts of Charlie Wilson I was very much all about, regardless of how many liberties they took with the historical truth, especially when the dialogue frequently provides that circular theatrical Aaron Sorkin style I still jones for.  Mike Nichols does a fine job splitting the difference between approximating Thomas Schlamme’s walk-and-talk work on West Wing with his own late-60s New Hollywood aesthetic, bringing a constant sense of motion for a story that’s largely slow by design until it very suddenly is not whilst also providing some legitimately arresting visuals at points (such as the pull-back on the Afghan refugee camp).  Tom Hanks and Philip Seymour Hoffman are excellent, and Amy Adams makes a winning impression in the usual Sorkin underwritten-Donna Moss role.  And that ending is fantastic, the perfect vital button on the whole thing.

The rest of Charlie Wilson is more of a mixed bag.  Everything not related to the aforementioned politicking is a bust that distracts from and has little to do thematically with the main thread, especially the Julia Roberts “romance.”  Relatedly, Sorkin’s usual casual sexism runs rampant again even with the explicitly-noted fact that all of the characterless eye-candy who staff Wilson’s office are good at their jobs, as this is not helped at all by Nichols’ very leery camera whenever a woman is on screen – why would you cast Emily Blunt in a movie and ask her to do nothing except stroll about for two minutes in her lingerie, without even getting to sniff some quality Sorkin dialogue?  I also personally believe that said fantastic final scene should’ve really been 20 additional minutes of film across multiple other scenes in order to better twist the knife for a lesson most people still don’t get – the one time I wish Sorkin were more characteristically soapbox-y and he either holds back or gets undercut (I know Hanks insisted on the ending being changed to something slightly less accusatorily depressing).  That’s all stuff which stops the film from hitting proper greatness, but that procedural flow of trying to get aid to the Mujahideen is strong enough to ultimately stop those flaws from dragging the film down.  And I now understand that Priests song, “Good Time Charlie,” so I got to enjoy this on multiple levels!


The Design of Hitman [Saturday 15th]

Dir: Noclip

Year: 2019

First-time viewing

I had initially planned to finally cross off Dazed & Confused here, since it was being yanked from Netflix that night, but I’ve had Hitman near-permanently on the brain ever since I finally got Hitman 2 (with all of the DLC and the main Legacy Pack for Hitman 2016) for Xmas.  So, instead, I finally sat down and watched Noclip’s four-part documentary series about developer IO Interactive from the disastrous Hitman: Absolution through to the miraculous existence of Hitman 2.  Noclip make fantastic gaming documentaries, Danny O’Dwyer has blossomed massively as both a journalist and storyteller since leaving Gamespot a few years back, and this Hitman documentary makes for a surprisingly uplifting contrast to that damning and heartbreaking Telltale one from a while back.  A mid-sized and rather niche development studio put through the AAA ringer at every turn learning from their mistakes and hardships – in particular, Absolution’s development lasted seven years with three of those years being done under a crunch that caused the studio heads to re-evaluate how the studio should operate afterwards to ensure crunch doesn’t happen again – and emerging with a reinvigorated franchise beloved by a dedicated fanbase.

Also, as a massive fan of these games and someone whose mind loves learning about the nitty gritty aspects of how deceptively complex systems and productions are put together, I especially loved the episodes which specifically looked into how levels were designed, the complex abundance in interlocking scripting of NPC behaviour, and the smart integration of story and writing into these various playsets.  They’re only about 20 mins a piece, but I could’ve happily watched quadruple that for every single level, it’s so fascinating and accessibly told (without diminishing the evident difficulty of pulling this off).  As mentioned, Noclip make fantastic gaming documentaries; go check them out on YouTube if you haven’t, yet.  Once I finished up with these episodes, I immediately booted Hitman 2 back up to check off a few more challenges and Escalations.  Seriously, I love this franchise and Hitman 2 is already one of my Games of the Generation.  I was watching Blake Lively’s character in The Rhythm Section keep fucking up her assassinations mentally going “and there goes the Silent Assassin rating, and the no detections bonus, and now you’ve missed out on the accident kill bonus, and that’s the no alarms bonus gone, and those non-target kill penalties are really going to ruin your score…”


BuyBust [Sunday 16th]

Dir: Erik Matti

Year: 2018

First-time viewing

Director and co-writer Erik Matti clearly has big things on his mind with the Philippine martial-arts-adjacent action film BuyBust, wanting to make a massive unflinching indictment of the Fillipino government’s extra-legal and flagrantly corrupt war on drugs that leaves the very slums they’re allegedly supposed to protect in ever-hostile disarray.  But his message is largely left as environmental storytelling rather than actively-grappled text, and his big accusatory “we’re not so different you and I” grandstand in the last 30 minutes falls way flat due to the simple fact that his camera heavily-fetishizes and is having way too much fun with the relentless violence which makes up everything beforehand.  So, even when his script is directly speechifying near the ending as to what the message is supposed to be, it ends up super-muddled, even borderline pro-government thanks to how the relentless antagonistic personality-free peasant hordes aren’t all that different from the ones which notoriously made up Resident Evil 5‘s early game.  I’m not saying that it’s impossible to make a point about classist dehumanisation in a movie where approximately 30 random dirt-poor extras get humorously mass-electrocuted whilst punk rock blares out of the soundtrack, just that Matti isn’t walking that particular tightrope very well.

Instead, BuyBust largely works as a solid and rather fun action flick with lots of gnarly violence, some decently-shot action which provides thrilling intimacy thanks to the shakycam, and committed performances from the cast – although it is very evident most of them are not natural martial artists.  Matti has an eye and set design rather reminiscent of mid-2000s Michael Mann, and I think he makes great usage out of the slums as a setting for claustrophobic action particularly with the constant flooding rain.  I really wish the sound design were better, though.  Technically, the fights and action are rough, hard-hitting, often nasty stuff that’s well choreographed and performed.  But there is a noticeable dissonance with how weak punches and body blows feel, how tinny gunshots can sound, and how knife slashes largely lack that uncomfortable wet sound sensation that makes them register.  (Dialogue is also strangely mixed a lot of the time.)  It’s a good enough time, especially with how Matti sets up a lot of the early going as a strong series of high-tension “wait for the fuck-up to drop” sequences, but the seams really show on this thing by the end.


Sonic the Hedgehog [Monday 17th]

Dir: Jeff Fowler

Year: 2020

First-time viewing

A review of this will be going live on Soundsphere next week, but this is absolutely awful and I am bewildered that anybody would try and claim otherwise.  I know that nostalgia comes around for everything regardless of genuine quality, but I actively refuse to allow “awful 2000s CGI heavy pop-culture reference overdosed kids’ movies” to benefit from that rehabbing!  Anyways, despite my usual policy of not logging in WIBW films that I’m planning on writing or have properly written up elsewhere, I’m logging Sonic here just to mention that my plan of doing an elongated reference to that “Sonic Says” segment in the headline was unfortunately scuppered by character limits, so I’ll dump it here instead cos I don’t have many passable jokes nowadays and need to share them whenever I do come up with one.

“Kids, there’s nothing more cool than seeing something you like adapted onto the big screen!  But if someone tries to do so by stuffing that thing you like into the intolerable skinsuit of an Alvin and the Chipmunks movie, that’s NO GOOD!”

…ok, I admit it’s not even “passable.”  This is why I’ve never tried being an Internet Personality.


Blue Velvet [Tuesday 18th]

Dir: David Lynch

Year: 1986

First-time viewing

I have finally seen something made by David Lynch and… I don’t think I get it?  Rather, my “I don’t think I get it” doesn’t feel to me like the “I don’t think I get it” that Lynch is aiming for.  Blue Velvet is kinda thematically incoherent?  Like, I get what it’s meant to be about – the ugliness and misogynistic horror which lay underneath picturesque idealistic small-town America, pointedly existing simultaneously in the then-contemporary 1980s and the post-war suburbanite expansion of the 1950s – I just don’t think Lynch does a very good job of exploring or explaining himself.  The symbolism simultaneously feels too on-the-nose and too abstract to make either a coherent thematic statement or a Rorschach dream logic unsettling nightmare work; the constant zooming in on ear canals made me think of Simpsons parodies of pretentious art films.  The actual narrative lacks tangibility and is too generalised and obvious to justify stretching across two hours when the mood and atmosphere are so half-measured.  Either be a straightforward neo-noir or a bizarre freaky dream-logic psychological horror, and I don’t think that Blue Velvet ever decides which of the two it wants to be.

Along a similar note… am I supposed to find Jeffrey a major creep?  I’m slightly confident that I am given that early exchange with Sandy where they both can’t decide whether he’s a detective or a pervert and the sequence where he hits Dorothy during sex, later explicitly paralleled with Frank Booth’s unrestrained misogyny to show they’re not so different.  But then the last 15 minutes of film happen and I get the impression that we’re not meant to find him an active creep, maybe even straightforwardly heroic given the saccharine way Lynch brings the curtains down?  I don’t know, maybe I just need to think on the film some more.  It’s an ok enough watch, but I’m just not sure what Lynch is trying to say.  I like the visual design, the performances are mostly good, the score’s great, and the film is occasionally unsettling – and equally rather ridiculous and campy in a way which undermines the unsettling moments.  I just never felt fully grabbed and the nature of my confusion doesn’t feel intended.


Emma. [Wednesday 19th]

Dir: Autumn de Wilde

Year: 2020

First-time viewing

No Clueless and two hours is a touch too long, but I largely enjoyed myself.  One of my bigger and more ashamed biases as a critic is that I remain largely unable to get fully into costume dramas when done as Costume Dramas for reasons I am still yet to fully understand – this is something that especially irks me since so many of them over the years have been coded and designed for women which for a time made me worry there was an unconsciously sexist reason for me rejecting them (this is the kind of nonsensical self-critical overthinking my brain engages in on the reg).  I was hoping that certain entries in the genre (and -adjacent) in recent years I surprisingly found myself loving – Whit Stillman’s Love & Friendship, Terrence Davies’ A Quiet Passion, Greta Gerwig’s Little Women – signalled a shift in my tastes and sensibilities where I could connect with such stories on a deeper emotional level rather than just acknowledging most of these are objectively well-done but not for me, yet alas it seems not.  As for specific Emma. related critiques, my main issue is that I still find Mr. Knightley to be a rather negging drag on proceedings.  He and Emma’s sparring is fun in a sitcom arch-nemesis manner, but in romance terms I can’t buy their connection.  The one time I have come close to was in, what else, Clueless so maybe the character just needs a limitless bottle rocket of charisma like Paul Rudd to sufficiently sell things to me.  Spoilers: Johnny Flynn is certainly no Paul Rudd, and is arguably the weak link of the whole film – please God, get him away from playing Bowie and also stop Starman in general.

Still, the surface pleasures Emma. has to share are enjoyable enough.  The film looks astounding, de Wilde’s background in photography pays dividends in creating these striking diorama-esque visual designs which deliberately contrast the artificiality of these gaudy manors and costumes with the naturalist scenic greenery of the Gloucestershire countryside (although it’s actually Christopher Blauvelt handling cinematography duties).  The meticulously composed shots and tightly choreographed movements of the actors also provided me with far more laughs than the dialogue itself; they’re so invested with droll wit and character, such as the first visit to Miss Bates’ which is perfectly awkward.  Most of the cast are great, especially Anya Taylor-Joy as Emma and Mia Goth as Harriet (the one relationship I actually cared about), and the Isobel Waller-Bridge co-composed score is a playful delight.  Tighten up the last act significantly and I might go so far as to call this take on Emma. the best possible version of itself, even though I’m still going to pick Clueless every single time.


Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) [Wednesday 19th]

Dir: Cathy Yan

Year: 2020

Rewatch

Capped off a few pretty good days by successfully dragging some friends of mine into the cinema with me for my rewatch.  I really have gone from my initial “that was great but with some issues that stick a tad in my craw” upon first leaving the theatre to “THIS MOVIE IS MY EVERYTHING AND I WILL CUT YOU IF YOU TRY TO COME AT IT WITH WEAK-ASS CRITIQUES!” but what can I say?  Turns out I have been waiting for this movie for at least the last decade and I want way more of it.  Pandering is totally fine when it’s done to my specific tastes and preferences, as we all know.  The structure works better for me a second time around, certain aspects I initially felt were a little try-hard quirky found greater resonance and subtextual power (mainly to do with the sandwich digression), and I think I may have already found my favourite third act of the entire decade just two months in.  Some of the big swings still whiff a bit – the Gentlemen Prefer Blondes cutaway I now grasp the metaphorical reason for, but the way it is included and then never revisited is still hella awkward and could’ve done with more fleshing out – the soundtrack still irks me, and maybe it could’ve stood to be a little more morally ambiguous, but the swings which hit are uniformly home-runs so I couldn’t give a shit about all that other stuff.  Watching Birds of Prey just makes me so very happy and I’m so glad it exists.

Also, the girl friend I was pushing this on so hard that we both went out of way to rearrange our respective schedules to ensure I could get her in the cinema to see it adored the thing, so I consider this an absolute win.


Callum Petch hears the same old talk, talk, talk.

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