Pictures of Spider-Men, rivers of shit, Jaegers, and lots and lots of drugs.
Last Sunday – or, technically, the Sunday before last, post dates make day-based terminology a pain – I travelled to Sheffield for the day to meet up with a few friends from Uni I hadn’t seen in a while. I always look forward to and enjoy days like those because 1) I miss my friends very dearly since I don’t have any here in Scunthorpe, and 2) such days allow me to get out of here for at least a few hours and be around non-family people that resultantly allow me to relax (as much as I can relax). This meet-up was no different than they usually go (which is to say: great) except that instead of leaving melancholic, due to the long gaps between such meet-ups and the resultant isolation I end up feeling from my own life, I left energised and hopeful.
My friends inspire me. That’s likely a super-obvious and universal feeling shared by most people with close friends, so let me expand. My long history with depression and self-loathing leaves me feeling extremely unworthy of even basic happiness; if anything good happens to me, I will, at some point, treat it with extreme scepticism and find reasons to not feel proud, negate long-term optimism, or some other such. With that information in mind, I frequently fear that my friends don’t actually want to be friends with me. Even after years where it’s proven to not be the case, I worry that I am just that annoying pest who won’t leave them alone and keeps trying to force meet-ups in between moaning about his state of things; somebody that mistook “sharing a course for three years” as “deep friendship bonds for life.” It’s a rather fatalist mindset, I know, but that’s how my depression works its… whatever the opposite of magic is.
The upside to this, however, is that every meet-up I have makes me want to be better. To be better, nebulous a concept it may be, so that I may be worthy of knowing them and perhaps, in turn, less disdainful of myself. Less boring, less dour, less one-note. It also means that I’ve found I am completely incapable of being resentful of whatever successes my friends manage to achieve, because seeing them achieve and be happy makes me briefly believe that maybe I can be too. (Plus, kind of goes without saying, my friends are awesome people and I want nothing more than for them to be happy.) And so it went this past Sunday, when one of my friends (who similarly struggles with depression and self-loathing) revealed that they’d moved out of their parents’ over half a year ago into a flat of their own for far cheaper rent that I thought the whole thing would have been. And the more we talked about it, the more that it all seemed genuinely obtainable to me.
So, this week, I’ve been taking very slow steps towards being able to join her in moving out. Not literally join her, of course, I’m not about to go forcibly crash into her daily life and root myself in a corner, that’s terrible; I mean in the metaphorical sense. I’ve been back in therapy since January, and it’s been a mess that has largely failed to help by itself, but it has made me realise that I cannot get better stuck here: at home, in Scunthorpe, leaving my life on pause because I can’t try things until I’m able to get at least some distance away from my family and this shithole of a town. If I’m going to either figure myself out or become more comfortable with not knowing, to work on my brain and better my personality, to maybe finally manage the depression that I can barely remember a time in my life without by this point, I need to get my own place. It’s still going to take time, it’s likely going to wear my soul down to the bone, and everything to do with the process is going to press my face right up to those voices which shout me down at every opportunity, but I have to do it. If my friend managed it, then that means I might be able to as well. I need to try.
Here’s what I’ve been watching this week.
Spider-Man [Monday 16th]
Dir: Sam Raimi
Yep, finally managed to cross this one off of my list. I take a long while to get around to watching things because of my personality/depression, and Raimi’s original Spider-Man is one that I’ve meaning to finally scratch off for at least four years. And guess what? In spite of numerous people going “err…” at me about it whenever it’s come up in conversation, I really, really liked it! In fact, I’d even go so far as to call large chunks of the middle hour of the film exactly what I want out of my superhero movies: willingly goofy, heart-on-sleeve earnest, well-intentioned, yet dramatically and emotionally complex. After all, goofiness does not automatically negate drama or emotional sincerity by its mere presence. In fact, when executed well, it can enhance a story like Spider-Man’s tenfold – and if you’re needing proof then go rewatch the sequence leading up to Uncle Ben’s death, or the attack at the World Unity Fair, or the scene where we first discover Norman and Green Goblin are one and the same, or… You get the idea. Spider-Man is campy, in a way that more recent superhero films largely stay away from, and it’s still brilliant because of that fact, not despite it.
That may also be because they got Sam Raimi to direct, a man whose entire career is predicated on masterful usage of camp as a legitimate outlet for drama. Even if a lot of the special effects haven’t aged well, Spider-Man as a film still looks great thanks to Raimi’s wholehearted embrace of the visual aesthetics of Golden Age comic books and attempts to translate the speed, artistry, and panel transitions of said comics into the medium of film. Watching them, and especially the purpose and propulsion they provide the busy storytelling, I was actually rather frustrated that even the more visually dynamic MCU entries have largely left this kind of storytelling behind for little good reason. That mid-film montage of Spidey beginning to protect the city, intercut with talking heads of random civilians, is one of my favourite stretches of any superhero movie. The balance between messy drama – the love-triangle, even if parts of it have aged poorly based on deserved changing attitudes towards Nice Guys, honestly worked for me since they are late-stage teenagers who all struggle to communicate with one another – and crowdpleasing comedy and action in this thing are second-to-none.
In fact, I think I most of all appreciate how modest it is. A lot happens in this movie, but because every scene lasts only as long as it needs to, because the narrative is entirely character-driven on all sides, because characters progress through their arcs throughout the whole of the film rather than just the last 20 minutes of it, and because only maybe three of the film’s numerous action scenes go on for longer than two minutes and are big in some way, it never feels rushed. In fact, it feels perfectly paced in every department. Even Homecoming, the most small-scale of all the MCU save the original Iron Man, had to have a giant explosive all-CG finale filled with wanton destruction! Spider-Man just has a shockingly brutal punch-up between Spidey and Goblin that ends in genuinely tragic fashion. (In fact, watching this has finally slid into place exactly why Homecoming largely failed to work for me, but this segment needs wrapping up, so ask me some other day.) So, yeah! Really, really liked the original Spider-Man! Join me again in another four years when I finally knock off Spider-Man 2! (Kidding, kidding, hopefully…)
Inherent Vice [Tuesday 17th]
Dir: Paul Thomas Anderson
I have seen Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, part of Magnolia (I was young and it’s three hours long so I will go back someday), Junun, Phantom Thread, now Inherent Vice, and I have come to this personal conclusion about Paul Thomas Anderson: I think he is destined to be a director I admire the craft and raw skill of but am otherwise left largely indifferent to. Every one of those aforementioned films, bar Phantom Thread, I find lots to like – oft perfect casting, great atmosphere, and excellent visual and (with his recent Johnny Greenwood collabs) audio compositions – but I always find my attention drifting repeatedly during my viewings. I always feel like I’m on the outside of a meticulously crafted house looking in, never finding the deeper connection to his work that others can, the kind that fuels those “Best American Director Alive” debates his name is often tossed around in. Phantom Thread is the exception, in this regard, a film that firmly held my attention throughout and I’m only loving more in retrospect, so maybe there’s still time for my current feelings to be reversed, but I’m fine if not. PTA is clearly a phenomenally gifted director and I’ve yet to see a film of his I don’t like, which is more than I can say for some critically-acclaimed directors whose works baffle me.
As for Inherent Vice specifically, I dug a lot of it, and it helped that I did eventually give up on following the exact specifics of the deliberately gonzo mess of a narrative to just groove on the feeling and thematics of the piece. (No, I have not read a Thomas Pynchon novel before, don’t be surprised.) It’s another one of those films that I definitely think is too long, too aimless, and too self-indulgent for its own good, but that I couldn’t tell you what to cut since those very things are fundamental parts of the identity and point (see also: The Florida Project and American Honey). The writing is often sharp, Anderson’s control of tone is masterful, and the whole film carries this haze of high-ness that’s fun to surrender to. Plus, it’s amusing to see Joaquin Phoenix, one of our most physical actors, throw himself completely into some genuinely hilarious physical comedy. Other than the prior mentioned “outside looking in” thing I’ve had with most PTA works, my only big knock comes from the spectacular miscasting of Katherine Waterston, who is just terrible. We’ll have to get into this another day, but she keeps working with world-class directors of superb talent (and also David Yates) and I have yet to see her turn in a single decent performance. Here, she is given multiple pivotal emotional scenes as Doc’s love-interest-sorta and she just tanks completely. Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon have better chemistry and better scenes, and she’s in the film for five minutes at most!
You Were Never Really Here [Wednesday 18th]
Dir: Lynne Ramsay
So, people laughed during my screening and I can’t help but take offense to that? Apparently the mere sight of Joaquin Phoenix menacingly trance-like strolling towards a giant house wielding a hammer is humorous to some people, ditto a scene where he comforts one of his victims in shared grief via impromptu singing to a song on the radio. None of this is to say that Ramsey doesn’t litter her film with brief snatches of ultra-dark humour, because she does, primarily as a result of the visualisations of Joe’s insular suicidal depression being inherently silly to those not living with those thoughts every day (and even in some cases to those living with said). But it really felt like a lot of people were laughing at the film rather than with the film, and since it is such an unflinchingly stark and intense portrait of suicidal depression, trauma, and accompanying PTSD, those reactions stuck with me in a bad way. Hull Independent Cinema screenings are hit-or-miss affairs – you should have heard the utter confusion that greeted January’s screening of The Florida Project; I genuinely overheard one person state in bafflement that “there wasn’t really much of a plot” – so I’m glad I got to first experience this at London Film Fest last year.
Besides other people being terrible, I appreciated You Were Never Really Here a lot more the second time around. You may recall in my original attempt to review it – key word “attempt;” looking back at my LFF pieces, I feel that I spend too much time describing a movie instead of critically analysing it, which is something I need to work on – that I wasn’t sure if it had anything going on underneath its near-flawless, meticulously-crafted, white-knuckle intensity. That it was all build to no payoff. Fortunately, a second viewing, where I was slightly less taken aback by just how intense the film is, allowed me to better understand the character study Ramsey has crafted here. To recognise the arrested development of Joe, the raging turmoil inside of him, the total despair that has been brought about by remaining a slave to his past traumas and pushing away everybody else. There is no wider point because Joe is the point, and Phoenix’s tremendous turn is bolstered by undoubtedly year-best direction by Ramsey – I will be legit shocked if I see a better directorial job than this before the year is out.
Pacific Rim: Uprising [Thursday 19th]
Dir: Steven S. DeKnight
I liked it more than most, had some fun with it, but, overall, it’s just ok and I really missed the presence of Guillermo del Toro. Pacific Rim was no classic, in fact it may be the weakest entry in his filmography, but it really benefitted from del Toro throwing himself completely into his work, just like he does with all of his movies. Pacific Rim wasn’t just a full of season of a giant robot anime condensed into two hours; it was also a monster movie, an old-fashioned melodrama, a war movie, a film about trauma, part-horror, all mixed up in a blender and filtered through the singular mind and tastes of del Toro, who would also do things like have the Jaegers’ AI voiced by Ellen McLain solely because the man loves Portal. Uprising, meanwhile, is just a full season of a giant robot anime condensed into two hours, and that’s fine, primarily because the only other movies like this that Hollywood makes are the Transformers series (*shudders*), but it leaves the film feeling hollow. Pacific Rim didn’t really invest well enough in the emotional side of things, but it at least picked up the slack in idiosyncrasy, spectacle, and feel. Uprising does not.
Still, there are things I liked. Some of the robot fighting is cool, in spite of some shockingly cheap-looking special effects and flat direction. The villain is genuinely surprising – if you aren’t prior informed that they’re surprising, at which point you’ll put two-and-two together before the film even starts based on what happened in the original and guess it straight away, if you’re anything like me – and their actor really elevates stock material. Jing Tian is here and backing up my belief upon seeing The Great Wall that she is a Movie Star, putting in strong work in a role tailor made to pander to Chinese audiences (which is something I know all of Hollywood is trying but Legendary have been the most blatant about in recent years). Best of all, though, is John Boyega just being allowed to cut loose and charm the pants off of the entire screen with his effortless loveable charisma. His character is missing multiple vital scenes of character work, much like everyone in this film, but he is such a step up from human charisma-vacuum Charlie Hunnam that I could see the original film being improved forty-fold had he been the lead instead. Christ, Boyega has to share a screen with Scott Eastwood and the resulting attempt at a charisma war is like having a velociraptor fight a poodle!
Blockers [Thursday 19th]
Dir: Kay Cannon
In spite of its awful title, there are a lot of things to appreciate and even love about Blockers. A studio comedy with actual constructed jokes, the fact that none of the adult cast are even teased as being love interests for one another, the focus on well-drawn female characters, a progressive-ish attitude towards sex and sexuality, witnessing a born Movie Star announce herself to the world in the form of the show-stealing Geraldine Viswanathan. But what I think I most appreciate about it is how nobody in the film is bad, per se. It’s a surprisingly emotionally complex film, of complicated people making ill-judged decisions out of good intentions, but, unlike in similar-ish films like A Bad Moms Christmas or Daddy’s Home 2, Blockers is not afraid to call them out on their shit, rather than just laugh it off as comedies being comedies. The characters are all offered empathy and are all drawn well enough to deserve that, so we witness them progress over time rather than all at once when the designated Sentimental stretch kicks in.
It’s sweet and loveable without going about excusing bad behaviour in service of that, which I feel I’m doing a bad job describing but is fully apparent upon watching the film. Much like Game Night, I don’t think it’s fantastic – Cannon’s paint-by-numbers direction neuters some scenes, and this is clearly a film being pulled in two separate directions, something which becomes really apparent whenever the parents go visit Gary Cole and Gina Gershon’s kinky sex pad – but I really enjoyed it a hell of a lot more than I thought I would. I was even moved to tears by the resolution of Sam’s plot!
The Shawshank Redemption [Sunday 22nd]
Dir: Frank Darabont
The Greatest Movie Ever Made, according to the anonymous masses at IMDb and sometimes Reddit when they aren’t fellating The Dark Knight some more (because of course The Dark Knight is Reddit’s collective favourite film and I say that as somebody who thinks it’s Nolan’s best film). Other than acknowledging that fact, however, I’m not going to make a deal about it throughout the rest of this entry; partly because it’s all meaningless anyway and partly because I learned my lesson back in 2013 upon first viewing Citizen Kane in Film History and declaring on Twitter that, whilst I respected its importance, I really didn’t care for it. Mainly, though, it’s because, SWERVE, I actually loved The Shawshank Redemption! There are parts that haven’t aged well, namely everything to do with The Sisters – although that’s less Shawshank’s fault, since the film tries so very hard to clearly delineate the difference between homosexuality and the depraved desire for power of prison rapists, and more that decades upon decades of prison stories before and since have made a meal of this whole subject for even the most nuanced of takes (and also Mark Rolston’s performance of Boggs cribs a little too much from those stereotypical demonizations of homosexuals for my liking).
Other than that relatively brief strand of this lengthy, sprawling movie that almost never felt its 144 minute runtime, my only other complaints come from personal preference than anything Shawshank does wrong. For example, I keep thinking the story would still have worked, maybe even better, if Dufresne had committed the murders, but that’s me armchair quarterbacking rather than serious criticism. Darabont’s direction is pacey and determined, correctly choosing to sacrifice a clear understanding of the passage of time in favour of narrative flow. The cast are all great, meeting the film’s exceptionally earnest and oft-sentimental tone head-on with gumption. But my favourite part of the film, just a masterpiece of short-form moviemaking in of itself, is the entire heartbreaking vignette following Brooks once he’s granted his release. In the span of five minutes, the film’s blistering criticisms of public attitudes towards incarceration, running prisons for-profit rather than for rehabilitation, empathy towards aging, and the damage that mistreatment towards felons during their imprisonment can do are neatly encapsulated and devastatingly told, building towards a gut-punching payoff. I guess this sequence is why we continue waiting on tenterhooks for whatever Frank Darabont wants to do next, and it’s a testament to his skills as both a writer and director that the film either side of this magnificent passage is only slightly lesser than it.
Callie Petch was born in ballgowns, French-sewn.